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The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions
by Fela Ransome Kuti & Nigeria 70
(Stern’s Africa)

Living in peace: Fela KutiAlthough Fela Kuti was destined to spend only a matter of months in the US in 1969-70, the visit was to assume a profound significance. Kuti, a phenomenally gifted Nigerian trumpeter who had studied music at London’s Trinity College, had – in 1968 – begun to reformulate his jazzy, R&B sounds into an indigenous format he called Afrobeat.

This was, he acknowledged, a reaction to the way much African music at the time was taking its cue from America’s James Brown. Paradoxically it was the American experience – and time spent with friends like Black Panther activist Sandra Isidore – that was to spur Kuti’s reorientation towards Africa and an overt embrace of pacifist politics. Introduced to the writings of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and black radicals who looked back to the ancient civilizations of Africa, Kuti promptly changed the name of his band from Koola Lobitos to Nigeria 70. It was, a few months later, to be changed again to Afrika 70, by which time Kuti’s songs – fierce indictments of corruption and oppression – were already beginning to attract the unwelcome attention of the Nigerian police.

Politics and music – not least the freedom to make music – were to become inseparable elements of Kuti’s career. But here he was only just beginning.

The utter freshness of the ten Sessions tracks belie the urgent conditions under which they were recorded. Having been dumped by their tour promoter, Kuti and his band were days away from an unceremonious deportation. A lawyer managed to get the Nigerians a 60-day visa extension to enable them to record the album. Without a record deal or cash, the session was pulled together with remarkable good will. Ghanaian trumpeter Duke Lumumba joined Kuti on horns while friends led by Isidore called in cash and favours.

In later years Kuti’s music was to be characterized by lengthy, full-blown pieces that would bob and weave their sinuous course over periods of 20 minutes or more. Not so here. Never outstaying their welcome, these jazzy, intricate highlife sounds sweep down like a hot wind.

There’s a wonderful vitality in the tapes that is undimmed by 20 years spent in an archives cupboard. Kuti is economical when it comes to vocals – in either English or Yoruba – and this explains the impact of a song like Viva Nigeria. ‘Let us bind our wounds and live in peace,’ he sings above a mesh of horns and guitars. ‘Tribal war will never be the answer.’

It might not have the acerbic ring of later songs like International Thief or Vagabonds in Power but the authoritative tones are audible for anyone to recognize.







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