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Celebrating Fela Kuti's 'The '69 Los Angeles Sessions' reissue [Updated]

March 25, 2010 |  2:06 pm

Those lucky enough to catch the musical "FELA!" on Broadway know that a transformative scene takes place in Los Angeles in 1969. It's here that the Nigerian bandleader and singer Fela Ransome Kuti, known for the creation of what he dubbed Afrobeat music, becomes politicized after being educated in the ways of the American black power movement. After meeting activist Sandra Smith in L.A., Kuti started focusing his energy not only on his music but also his message, and the combination, filtered through his vision, was incredibly potent.

Last month, Knitting Factory Records released the first batch in a series of Fela reissues that will eventually encompass all 45 of his albums. Among that initial run is the document of Fela's time here, called "The '69 Los Angeles Sessions."

A little backstory about Kuti's months in Los Angeles, according to writer Jay Babcock's definitive 1999 feature on Fela, "Fela: King of the Invisible Art." The band arrived in New York, and without work permits they took to the road looking for shows to play. Writes Babcock: "The band ended up driving all the way across the country in search of gigs, finally bottoming out in Los Angeles in August, 1969 without a permanent residence." Babcock continues:

"The band got a regular gig playing at Citadel de Haiti, a struggling nightclub run by Bernie Hamilton (who would later feature in the 'Starsky & Hutch' TV series) in a red brick building at 6666 Sunset Blvd.

“We played there for about five months, six nights in a week,” remembers [Kuti's drummer] Tony Allen. “Bernie gave us a house and we played in his club. It was grooving, you know.”

“Anyone that was anybody -- Jim Brown, Melvin Van Peebles, H.B. Barnham, Esther Phillips -- came to see Fela,” says Sandra. “It was all word of mouth.”

It's this moment that is captured in "The '69 Los Angeles Sessions." You can hear the James Brown funk in the mix, the nod to the long-form groove of, say, "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud." But blended with the meandering but determined rhythms of Nigerian "highlife" music, Fela's sound takes on its own personality, one that suggests American funk without mimicking it. "My American tour in 1969 was a turning point in my way of thinking and approach to life," said Fela, as quoted in the album's liner notes. "America is a great country. It made me jealous that we don't have today that kind of greatness in our country. It was also in America that I was exposed for the first time to a lot of black history -- that background knowledge about Africa which I did not have before."

The liner notes go on to explain the foundations of the heavy bass that's at the bottom of 'The '69 Los Angeles Sessions.' Writes Mabinuori Kayode Idowu in the liner notes: "During rehearsals in Los Angeles, after smoking a joint (marijuana) for the first time, [Kuti] said he heard this heavy bass line working in his head ..." The result was "My Lady Frustration," a massive groove that kicks off the session.

An initial complaint with "The '69 Los Angeles Sessions" was that the disc is paired with six songs put to tape between 1964-68 by Koola Lobitos, Fela's early Nigerian band. The songs kick off the disc, and upon first listen the juxtaposition between the early songs and those from 1969 is jarring. You wonder, why mix them onto one disc? But as an illustration on the vast distance that Fela had traveled, both literally and figuratively, from early highlife to Afrobeat, the combination is revealing. He discovered bass, and a kind of fusion that reinvented his sound. From there, there was no looking back.

The second batch of reissues come out on May 4 on Knitting Factory, followed on June 8 by the original Broadway recording from "FELA!,"  which was recorded old-school style in New York on a single day in February on a massive sound stage.

[Updated at March 26, 10:06 a.m.: Knitting Factory Records has informed us that the release date for the second round of reissues has been pushed back a week to May 11. The 14 titles on 7 compact discs slated to arrive on that date include Kuti's work from the mid-1970s.]

-- Randall Roberts