By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
A teaser for a series of 20 Fela albums MCA will reissue over the next two months on 10 CDs, Best Besttends to rein in the excessive nature of what Fela came to characterize as his "classical African music" (attributed to marijuana's influence by some), editing down his increasingly spacey 20-or 30-minute compositions to 10 or 15 minutes. And I don't think you need to be Dr. Freud of Vienna to discern the underlying impulse here.
"A real slave driver" of a bandleader, according to drummer Tony Allen, Fela could be as authoritarian, in his own way, as any African general. Kuti lost one of the world's great drummers when Allen quit, along with the rest of Fela's Afrika 70 band, in 1978. Fela continued to record and perform with a reconstituted group he named Egypt 80, but the earlier ensemble remains a legendary example of talent and rigor sacrificed to an ego as large as all Africa. Allen continued to record with conga wizard Henry Kofi and other members of Afrika 70, and his 1979 album No Discriminationis a rousing afrobeat classic.
Black Voicesis even better; much better, in fact. Where Femi puts an electropop veneer on Fela's sound, Allen has made a radically dubwise deconstructive departure from afrobeat's orchestral complexities. The result is enigmatic and profound: Afro-Jamaican-American chamber music for the cosmic diaspora. One of the world's great drummers in any genre, Allen is also one of the percussion world's more beguiling polyrhythmists, with a knack for nearly always sounding like two players at once. On Black Voiceshe attacks the trap set with the lithe storytelling prowess of Tony Williams on Miles Davis's Filles de Kilimanjaro. (Allen plays a minimalist Miles card hard throughout the "In a Silent Mix" version of "Asiko.") Fela may have brought the funk to Africa, butaccompanied by P-Funk bassist Mike "Clip" Payne and guitarist Gary "Mudbone" CooperAllen takes it into outer space.
Where Fela and Femi shout, Allen sounds cooler than ice, muttering generic blackisms like "To know thy brother is to know thyself." The secret word in "Ariya" turns out to be its "shabba-doo-bee-doo-bee-doo-bee-doo" refrain. This is postcolonial lounge dread, an intense and anxious yet laid-back sound with satirical undertones, beginning one step beyond the point where Fela stopped. If Fela's music and pan-African dreams sprang in angry full force from the corrupt prosperity of '70s Nigeria, and Femi's music is a largely forgettable product of the dance-crazy '90s, Tony Allen trades in the deep, dark future.
Femi Kuti plays Irving Plaza March 23. Tony Allen plays the Knitting Factory April 5.