Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician who not only popularized the Afrobeat genre with his innovative and funky arrangements, but also succeeded in seriously annoying the Nigerian government with his anti-establishment, pro-freedom lyrics. Anyone who uses music to stand up to tyranny at personal cost is okay by me, and although I was unfamiliar with Fela Kuti's work prior to starting this list, I'm glad to have the opportunity to appreciate it.
The original album is short, consisting of two tracks that together clock in at less than half an hour. And although CD reissues add two bonus tracks of live material, the impact of the original packs quite a punch on its own.
The title track, Zombie, is built on a funk guitar pattern that stays the same throughout the song's 15 minutes. On top of that, a blaring staccato horn arrangement plays a repeated descending riff that is surprisingly catchy. It's a fast paced, aggressive piece, which makes sense when you consider that the whole thing is a critique of the Nigerian military, analogizing their members to zombies, unthinking monsters who do what they are told, even when it means committing atrocities.
The second track, Mister Follow Follow, is more laid back. Lyrically, it treads the same themes as its predecessor. The titular Mister Follow Follow is the mindless drone who goes along with authority without questioning the consequences. Musically, though, it's quite different. Whereas Zombie is firmly rooted in funk, Mister Follow Follow is more jazz-based, with instrumental solos taking turns over a stable rhythmic backdrop.
Of particular note is an extended saxophone solo, presumably played by Kuti himself. It's an extremely creative and engaging part, everywhere hitting notes you wouldn't expect, but always in ways that sounds great. It proves that the band leader is not only revolutionary and iconoclastic, but extremely gifted technically as well. While Mister Follow Follow is not as immediately catchy or as confrontational as the title track, I prefer it for its subtlety and the way it showcases individual band members.
Speaking of the band, The Africa '70 is worth a shout out for how tightly they hold together. This kind of music is so heavily focussed on a great rhythm section, it doesn't work unless you have the players to carry it off. Combined with general competence, the folding in of African drum patterns to otherwise Western musical idioms makes for a very engaging listen.
Protest music comes in all forms, from the "Three Chords and the Truth" style of American folk music, to Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff's political reggae. It always works best, however, when the music can stand on its own, as the music on Zombie certainly does.