Monday, July 31, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #78 - Fela Kuti - Expensive Shit (1975)

This is the second Fela Kuti album on this list, predating the previously-reviewed Zombie by two years. Here we find Kuti and his Africa '70 engaging in a very similar style of Afrobeat, albeit this time in an extremely concise manner. The album comprises just two tracks and has a running time of under 25 minutes.

While Zombie was an overly, bitterly political record, Expensive Shit is a little more subtle in its attacks on the Nigerian government. The title refers to an incident in which Kuti was framed for drug crime by having marijuana planted on hi. To avoid arrest, he quickly swallowed the offending product, at which point the authorities held him prisoner until the could collect an incriminating stool sample. Yuck.

Thankfully, the music itself is not nearly so nauseating. The title track, stretching 13 minutes, is built around an electric guitar vamp, over which keyboards sprinkle jazzy riffing, while the drums beat out an active and busy rhythm underneath. After a couple of minutes, the obligatory horns come in, blasting out a syncopated melody in unison. The whole thing is made up of slow and subtle elaboration on repeated patterns, a style that informs other genres such as American minimalism and many kinds of electronica as well. Throughout, Kuti's solos as inventive and interesting to listen to, forming a nice counterpoint to the relentless rhythm section behind it all.

Lyrics come in about halfway through the song, but apart from repeated references to the title, they are largely undecipherable, and even then, they are fairly superfluous. The words are shouted amelodically over the instrumental backdrop, which would be no less interesting without them. It's a complain I often have with funk music, where great instrumental work is covered up by subpar vocals.

Speaking of great instrumental work, one has to be impressed with how tight the band as a whole is. This style of music only works if every player is function as a well-oiled part of a unified whole, and the Africa '70 carries it off with aplomb. It's quite reminiscent of James Brown's excellent band, who we'll come to later.

The second and final track, Water No Get Enemy,has a more laid back, almost Bossa Nova feel. The instrumentation is unchanged, with the same emphasis on keyboard and saxophone solos over a rhythm section of drums and guitar, with major melody lines being held down by the horn section. For its 11 minute length, the track is dominated by a more jazzy sound than its predecessor, with solos that would not sound out of place on many American jazz records of the time. The African feel is retained, however, in the horn and drum parts.

Once again, the lyrics are only partially in English, but appear to be about the need for fresh water as it relates to Kuti's political struggle in Nigeria. As a short slice of politically-tinged African jazz-funk,  it's certainly satisfying, and given the repetitious nature of the music, its brevity is probably more a strength than a weakness. 

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