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The Boston Phoenix Pleasure Principles

The best best of Fela Kuti

By Douglas Wolk

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  A friend of mine bought Mission of Burma's vs. and Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade 12 years or so ago, and she still hasn't listened to them. It's not that she's not interested in hearing them -- exactly the opposite. She wants to save them for some day when she's ready, because she knows how much she'll love them, how overwhelming and great they'll be, and she also knows that nothing like them is going to be coming around again. So someday, in the far future, when she's ready to have another entirely fresh taste of her youth, they'll still be waiting for her, and she can take the shrinkwrap off and hear Zen Arcade for the first time at age 52 or whatever.

This seemed like a perverse idea to me, on the ground that it's always possible that you'll walk out your door and get hit by a truck, and then you'll never get to hear Zen Arcade. But the pungent little paradox of being a collector is the mild disappointment that sets in when you complete the set. I've heard everything that came out on James Brown's early-'70s funk label, People Records; when I tracked down that final single, I was happy -- I did it! Now I can hear them all! -- but also bummed that I would never again find and hear a People record for the first time.

Enter The Best Best of Fela Kuti (MCA), which was released domestically a few weeks ago: a two-disc, 13-track retrospective from the Nigerian singer and bandleader who created Afrobeat. (That's not a lot of songs, but they average more than 12 minutes apiece -- and most of them are edited down from their full-length versions.) Fela took a lot of his cues from Brown's hard, gradual funk and the way Brown's band could hit a rhythmically tricky vamp, extend it, mutate it by increments, overlay a horn riff, and have something that worked as a song. But Fela really extended his vamps: after the early '70s, his albums had either one song on each side or one very long song split into two parts. His recordings burn with the indignant fire of the best agitprop. (Any songwriter whose lyrics piss off a government enough that hundreds of soldiers attack his house and burn it down -- which happened in 1977, mostly because of "Zombie" -- is probably doing something right.) And they groove like nothing else: they make me want to move, to dance, to do anything as long as my whole body is involved.

The Best Best hit me like a truck. I had to hear more Fela, and quickly, so I went to http://www.dustygroove.com and ordered King of Afrobeat: The Anthology (Barclay Universal), a French three-CD set that came out late last year: 16 tracks, only three of which overlap with Best Best, concentrating on potent grooves rather than big hits. That was followed in short order by Box Set 1 (Barclay), which had six Fela LPs in their gorgeous, sensory-overload original sleeves, including my favorite Fela song: "Upside Down," a fabulous riff with guest singer Sandra Akanke Isidore, the activist who'd kick-started his political thought. I devoured them, one after another: the effervescent rage of "I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)," the supercharged mutant highlife of "J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop)." There's another LP box, and as soon as I got through the first one, I was ready to order it.

And then it occurred to me: Fela was incredibly prolific -- he released a dozen albums in 1977 alone -- but he recorded only a finite amount of stuff. There's never going to be any more, and I've been tearing through what there is almost gluttonously. Not that it'll be easy to find a lot of them (can't wait to track down "Mr Grammatology-Lisationalism Is the Boss"), but I wondered whether I shouldn't concentrate on digesting the ones I have before I even try.

Maybe the best route to take, I thought, is discipline and moderation (as perverse a way as it is to deal with the work of an artist who indulged his senses in every possible way, whose stage outfit was usually underpants and a great big joint) -- as dating manuals used to call it, "the principle of prolongation of pleasure" (for Fela, who married 27 women in a single ceremony). It might, in fact, be wise to adopt the mentality of stiff-upper-lip British colonialists (the mentality that Fela spent his career attacking): dispatched to exotic faraway places (such as the cities where Fela spent his life), they'd get a single shipment of newspapers every six months and read one a day, starting with the first and ignoring the rest until their time came. Maybe I should amass Fela records as I find them but listen to a new one only every few months or every year, so I'll be able to enjoy the anticipation of more for a good long time.

Does that make sense?

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