Album Review: Red Hot & Fela

Various Artists

Red Hot & Fela

Knitting Factory Records

Release Date: October 8, 2013

Since Fela Kuti’s AIDS-related death at 58 in 1998, Kuti’s reputation, stature and influence has grown exponentially from a musician’s musician with a sort of cultish devotion to that of a worldwide icon – the sort of icon with a message and life that manages to be increasingly relevant and timely in light of consumerism, globalization, increasing corporate influence and corruption impacting both developed and developing countries. With Fela!,the recent Tony Award-winning musical based on his life, and the re-issuing of much of Kuti’s incredibly large catalog, (which starts in the late 50s and goes up until 97), his voice directly speaks to the disenfranchised and the oppressed everywhere, and in ways that I bet that even Kuti himself never would have realized. In any case, what makes Fela Kuti’s death so untimely and so tragic is the sense that he would have had been as much of a rabble-rouser as he would have been throughout his life – perhaps even more so.

  Red Hot & Fela is the latest compilation created by Red Hot, an AIDS awareness organization that partners up with musicians of all stripes for cross-genre collaborations on compilations based on the work of a particular artist – and in this case, Red Hot gathered the likes of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, tUnE yArDs, Spoek Mathambo, My Morning Jacket, Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, Kronos Quartet, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adembimpe and Kyp Malone, members of Superhuman Happiness and others for a compilation of Fela’s compositions, as well as material largely inspired by Fela’s work and life; however, it isn’t the first Fela Kuti tribute they’ve released – they released Red Hot & Riot back in 2002 to little fanfare despite an impressive list of aritsts including D’Angelo, Macy Gray, Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, Common, Meshell Ndegeocello, and others. Whereas Red Hot & Riot was an all-encompassing look into Kuti’s work, Red Hot & Fela takes much a closer look into Kuti’s most fiery, political and socially conscious work. And what makes the compilation unique is that each pairing of artists wind up crafting their own interpretations to Fela’s work and message. Album opener “Buy Africa” featuring Baloji & L’Orchestre de la Katuba and Kuku brings Fela’s sound to the streets with a hip-hop inspired sound. Spoek Mathambo and Zaki Ibrahim team up for a shimmering, club ready rendition of “Yellow Fever.” Nneka, Sinkane and Superhuman Happiness team up for a club-banging version of “No Burundi” complete with staccato bursts of guitar and saxophone fed through delay pedals and other effects, shimmering and sinuous synths and vocals through vocoder and other effects. Both “Yellow Fever” and “No Burundi” continue to make the connection between social message and funk while bringing the Afrofuturist movement to greater attention here in the West.  My Morning Jacket, tUnE yArDs, and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard team up for a Dark Side of the Moon-inspired rendition of “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am” with harmonies floating through a dreamy mix.  TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, Tunde Adembimpe, Kronos Quartet and Superhuman Happiness’ Stuart Bogie teamed up for a hauntingly eerie and delicate version of “Sorrow, Tears and Blood.”  Sahr Nagujah, the star of Fela! along with Superhuman Happiness, Abena Koomson and Rubblebucket team up for an explosive, fiery and ridiculously funky version of “I.T.T.,” a composition that may well be Kuti’s most fiery condemnation of Nigeria’s political and business establishment. “Afrodisco Beat 2013” features Tony Allen, M1 of Dead Prez and Baloji on a track that adeply meshes hip-hop with Afrobeat, suggesting that politically conscious hip-hop and Afrobeat had more in common than people recognize. Kenya’s Just a Band, along with Bajah and Chance the Rapper team up for a smooth, hip-hop influenced but funky version of “Gentleman.”

   Throughout the album you’ll hear samples of Fela Kuti singing or talking during an interview and it creates this sense of Fela’s ghost looming large over the proceedings – and how can it not? Kuti himself was a larger than life, dynamic presence whose message mirrors the political and social concerns of contemporary artists across the world. And each of these artists manage to bring Fela and his message to a wider audience, making connections between Fela’s work and the music that has come after him. Based on the current political and social conditions in countless countries across the globe, it seems that we need Fela more than ever.