I needed a strong beast at #777, something worthy and earthy – Fela Kuti & The Africa ’70 Afrodisiac; created like all the greatest things in human history in 1972.
Recorded in Abbey Road Studios, just before Floyd started work on some transient nonsense about the back side of the moon and produced by Jeff Jarratt, Afrodisiac really is some of Fela’s most successful work outside Nigeria. Of course when I say Fela, I mean the band too; like a certain Mr Brown from South Carolina, he was a martinet of a bandleader, able to squeeze something absolutely stellar out of the musicians around him. The Africa ’70 were mighty, featuring the talents of Tony Allen a serious contender for any ‘Greatest Living Drummer’ accolades you might have spare, Tunda Williams on trumpet and Igo Chiko on tenor. It has to be said that the 2nd Conga player, Friday Jumbo, simply has one of the best names in the whole history of the music biz. Easy.
Afrodisiac is a difficult creature to describe. We get four dripping slices of afrobeat served up, with all the sweat and ecstasy that conjures, but Fela’s music was always more than an extended funky workout, there’s real discipline and hustle here too, New York adrenalin. Just listen to the brass that binds the last track, ‘Je’nwi Temi (Don’t Gag Me)’, a demand for free speech where over 13:15 Fela berates The Man**. The brass section is absolutely on the money in the final section, armour-plating the message as the band take it on home, giving a libertarian track a militaristic timbre.
The most popular track on Afrodisiac is ‘Chop and Quench’ (originally called ‘Jeun Ko Ku’ in Yoruba), a major hit in West Africa. Satirising gluttony you can translate the title as ‘Eat and Die’. A fabulously groovy 7:15 minute instrumental cut, it almost defies you not to dance – Fela’s keyboard playing is top-notch, that electric piano sound Doors-ing away, the rhythm guitar work of Peter Animashaun^* is also key. It is a wonderful tight strut without a single spare note in it.
Afrodisiac opener ‘Alu Jon Jonki Jon’ is a well muscled 12-minute funk workout, with everything turned way up in the mix – keys smashing out a chord sequence, competing against the riffing brass. You know it has to settle down eventually, or someone would blow a gasket. It does, as Fela retells a Yoruban folk-tale about a dog that betrays his family and friends. The track is my least favourite here, whilst the playing never drops below stellar it does overstay its’ welcome – an odd charge to make at a Fela Kuti track given their usual lengths of 15-minutes plus, but this one doesn’t have enough going for it.
Side 2 launches us straight into the frantic, frenetic ‘Eko Ile’, skittering horns flank Fela’s urgent lyric about Nigerian pride and the importance of home – Eko, being the pre-colonial name for Lagos. You can feel the importance of the message burning through the music, as the rhythm section turns to pivot on a dime, cutting away to give Fela’s vocals room. The beat goes on, very quietly, very precisely and you wait, knowing that it will all blast back at the end – this is how to do politics!
My copy of Afrodisiac isn’t a 70’s original that I’ve stolen from home, unlike the other Fela Kuti LPs I ‘own’, although I’ve had a digital version of it for a decade. My copy is a lovingly curated 180g (at least!) reissue from Knitting Factory Records who are working their way through all 45 of Fela’s albums^. It also comes with an insert of notes and a great picture of the man himself playing saxophone dressed in his Y-fronts. Bargain.
Okay so I’m not very subjective, I find afrobeat, when played with this much fire and inspiration to be totally life-affirming, which is why, ladies and gentlemen, I commend Afrodisiac to you for now, for ever. It isn’t his best, but that’s still enough to put it way above most people’s.
PS. I did a fake news thing then, because Afrodisiac was recorded in 1972 it wasn’t released until ’73, unlike me. 1973 was a bit of a slow year for Fela, he only released two LPs, as opposed to the 4 released in 1972.
PPS. This review^* is exactly 777 words long. Don’t praise me, it’s just my art. On a whim I cut it down from 945 words.
*check out Zombie for the consequences of his stance.
*^damn! Peter (and his brother Lekan, baritone sax) have the best ever half-man/half-cartoon surnames ever!
^oh, to own all those! It’s the sort of thing I lie awake in bed at night dreaming of. Really, really.
^*including the footnotes.