By JENNIFER KELLY
This disc pays tribute to Fela Kuti, the Nigerian titan of Afrobeat, through a collection of covers by a consortium of indie, rap and African artists (not that the categories are mutually exclusive) who clearly revere his legacy. The fact that is raises money for AIDS – Fela died of AIDS-related disease in 1997 – makes it all the worthier. Yet despite the abundance of good intention, Red Hot & Fela is only intermittently compelling. Listen to any of these cuts against the originals, and they sound chilled, glossed, smoothed and, especially, much abbreviated.
Take “Zombie,” Fela’s ferociously disciplined, staccato syncopated tour de force, which, in the original bristles with sustained, well-considered assault. There’s no ease at all in Kuti’s orchestration, no sustained notes, nothing but jittery, twitchy outrage. Now consider Red Hot & Fela’s version, swathed in glowing keyboards, embellished with slithery female voices, less a lit fuse, more a slow ooze. I have no problem, really, with adding rhymes, though I think that Spoek Mathambo, in this case, just makes explicit what had been implied before, the suppressed rage against oppressive political leaders.
Other tracks go even further in dialing down the urgency, for instance Prince-proteges King in their loose interpretation of “Go Slow.” Fela’s “Go Slow” is a polyrhythmic abstraction of urban life, the blare of various saxes standing in for traffic noise, the swaggering rhythm like overloaded cargo swaying around the curves. KING’s is a slow-jammed sex groove, nearly rhythmless, lasting less than a quarter as long as the original, but curiously too long anyway.
There are some good tracks here. Tony Allen, Fela’s long-time drummer, gets the heat and the tension right in “Afrodisco 2013.” The bass and the drums on this track are unstoppable. Good, too, is Baloji, the Belgian-Congolese artist, who also makes an appearance on “Buy Africa.” And it’s not just the tracks that hew to tradition that work. The best one, by far, is simmering, sorrowful “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am” which is performed by well-known Afrobeat stars, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Merrill Garbus (Tune-yards) and Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes), along with a smattering of Antibalas hands. It’s sweetened, just a little, by soft, mournful vocals, but mostly just rides its melancholy groove, beautifully, simply and for as much time as it takes.
It is, obviously, a tribute to Fela’s lasting power and influence that so many different artists want to play his music, and not at all surprising that he was better at it than most of them. Still, no one wants to hear Fela’s fiery grooves diluted, slicked over, chilled out and made more commercially palatable. If you’re going to play Fela, do it right or don’t do it at all.
DOWNLOAD: “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am” “Afrodisco 2013”