The late Fela Kuti has been mythologized for his politics, his life story (in Broadway style) and his integral role in popularizing Nigerian music worldwide, but his estate offers up something different on May 8: a new album. Fela Kuti Live in Detroit 1986 offers a chance to see a snapshot, not the sweep, of his life.
Kuti’s music isn’t hard to find if you look around even a little bit. After he died in 1997, dozens of Kuti’s discs were issued throughout Europe and North America, with many titles available for the first time. There were so many titles that in most cases two albums were jammed into one CD. It was a ridiculous bounty of music, but tended to blunt the impact of the very best amid a whole lot of very good.
Of these many titles, Kuti’s ’70s recordings with his Afrika 70 band stood out, due in no small part to pop culture’s lionization of young soul rebels. Even Broadway’s Fela! wraps up his story in 1978.
The ’80s, in contrast, are seen as a lesser period. The new album’s release might help change that.
Kuti courted by American labels, with little success
Kuti was undergoing something of a renewal in 1986. He had been released from jail, where he’d been imprisoned during 1984-85 for trumped-up currency smuggling charges and was embarking on his first tour in North America. Though some of his music was available in the U.S., mostly on the Paris/New York Celluloid label, American labels had courted him with little success. Kuti did not fancy curtailing 30-minute songs or tricking out his musical ideas with electronics to suit record company strictures (he was not happy to learn Celluloid’s in-house producer, Bill Laswell, had overdubbed a 1984 recording with exactly the kind of elements Kuti had rejected).
However, Kuti had many fans in the U.S.A. thanks to musicians who had played with him (such as Lester Bowie and Roy Ayers) and the notoriety of the “Free Fela” campaign, which may have helped expedite his release from jail.
On tour with something to prove, Kuti played New York’s Apollo Theatre and Detroit’s historic Fox Theatre, which was another key venue on the one-time Chitlin’ Circuit, and the live starting point for many Motown stars.
Live in Detroit a snapshot of Kuti’s tumultuous career
There are just four tracks to Live in Detroit; only one clocks in shy of 30 minutes. This disc is billed as the first new release of unissued Kuti music since the late ’90s. It sounds like a good bootleg, which is how this concert circulated for many years. The cassette-like compression of the sound makes the massive Egypt 80 band sound extra powerful if a little loose in spots. Songs proceed at a simmer rather than a boil and admittedly don’t compare to the Tony Allen-powered workouts of the ’70s.
But there’s a majesty and sense of occasion that seems to resonate with the American audience. Plus the version of “Teacher Don’t Teach Me No Nonsense” hits harder than the version that would be recorded for release the following year.
Kuti would return to North America frequently and be well received by audiences, but he was just too caustic a personality to devote energy to becoming a conventional recording star. According to Michael Veal’s Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, labels kept after Kuti, and he spurned a multimillion dollar deal with Motown just a few years before his death in the mid-’90s.
In death, his estate has been far more willing to play the music industry game. With the release of this record new converts to Afrobeat can consider a moment in Kuti’s life, rather than the many complexities of his legacy.
Q&A: Cheikh Lô talks politics and his North American tour
Still Black, Still Proud, a musical tribute to James Brown
Music Freedom Day: What price freedom?
Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 get New Orleans Jazz Fest crowds shaking to Afrobeat rhythms