FELA: KING OF THE INVISIBLE ART by Jay Babcock (1999)

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This article was originally published in Mean Magazine (October 1999), which I was editing at the time, with art direction by Camille Rose Garcia. The piece was accompanied by a set of sidebar interviews and an overview of Fela’s catalog by Michael Veal [who was finishing his work on the manuscript that would be published as Fela: The Life And Times Of An African Musical Icon]. The main article text, and sidebars, were later reprinted in full in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 book (thank you Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick).

FELA: King of the Invisible Art
by Jay Babcock

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 77 albums, 27 wives, over 200 court appearances. Harassed, beaten, tortured, jailed. Twice-born father of Afrobeat. Spiritualist. Pan-Africanist. Commune king. Composer, saxophonist, keyboardist, dancer. Would-be candidate for the Nigerian presidency. There will never be another like him. This is the sensational story of Fela, the greatest pop musician of the 20th century, featuring the words of Fela’s friends, fans and the Ebami Eda himself.

“What can I say? I wasn’t Hildegart!”
Fela always knew the power of a name.

If you are African—and especially if you work with music, which shares a link of common invisibility with the spirit world—you must have a spiritually meaningful, beneficial name. Without the correct name, Fela explained, “a child can’t really enter the world of the living.”

He didn’t like the name he was given when he was first born, in 1935: his Nigerian parents had followed a local German missionary’s suggestion. So Fela died and was born a second time, on October 15, 1938; this time his parents called him Fela.

“Bear the name of conquerors?” he asked Carlos Moore, author of Fela: This Bitch of a Life, in 1981. “Or reject this first arrival in the world? The orishas [spirits] they heard me. And they spared me. What can I say? I wasn’t Hildegart! It wasn’t for white man to give me name. So it’s because of a name that I’ve already known death.”

In 1975, at the height of his popularity and power, Fela changed his middle name. “I got rid of ‘Ransome.’ Why was my name ‘Ransome’ in the first place? Me, do I look like Englishman?” Fela’s full name was now Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, which meant in whole, ‘He who emanates greatness, who has control over death and who cannot be killed by man.’

That same year Fela also started to cheekily call himself Black President, eventually releasing an album bearing the same title in the midst of a thwarted campaign. And sometime in 1986, following his release from Nigerian prison after serving 20 months on trumped-up charges, Fela began to call himself the Ebami Eda, which translates roughly as “the weird one,” or more delicately, as “the one touched by divine hand.”

Fela was touched, alright. But he was not only a visionary musician who created a whole new style of music—Afrobeat—and left behind an incomparable body of recorded music. No. Fela also simultaneously spoke truth to power, and then recorded it as a 12-minute dance-funk song, with a title like “Government Chicken Boy” or “Coffin for Head of State.” He endured brutal physical punishment and constant imprisonment. In the end, he died from complications associated with the AIDS virus. His heart was broken: he had sung so much, fought so hard, amassed such popularity, and still, hardly anything changed for the better in his beloved, heart-shaped continent of Africa. So: following is the story of that big generous, humorous, creative, divine heart that Fela had: from its early heartbeats, to Afrobeat, to the beatings it took, to its final, slow heartbreak.

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Nov. 4, London: Ginger Baker's 70th Birthday Jam at Jazz Cafe

Mighty Chris Goss will be joining Steve Winwood, Jonas Hellborg, Eric Clapton, Jon Lord, Charlie Watts, Courtney Pine, Kofi Baker, John McLaughlin and of course Ginger Baker at Ginger’s 70th Birthday Party Jam on November 4 at London’s famous Jazz Cafe.

Chris sez: “We’ll be covering 45 years of musical selections that span the career of one of the centuries most influential musical geniuses. It looks like we may be including a song or two from Masters of Reality’s ‘Sunrise on the Sufferbus’ as well.”

The night before the jam Ginger will be honored at a dinner hosted by Classic Rock Magazine.

Goss adds: “Since Ginger has been living in South Africa, this is a rare, mindblowing occasion to reunite with a dear friend and musical mentor that taught me so much.”

MUSIC IS NEVER WRONG: A visit with Josh Homme & John Paul Jones of Them Crooked Vultures (Oct 2009)

MUSIC IS NEVER WRONG
A visit with Them Crooked Vultures’ Josh Homme and John Paul Jones

Interview by Jay Babcock
Posted: October 15, 2009

Them Crooked Vultures is a new band comprised of guitarist-vocalist Joshua Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss), bassist John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), drummer Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) and guitarist Alain Johannes (Eleven), with Jones and Johannes also playing other instruments. These guys really don’t need an introduction so you won’t be getting one here. What’s interesting is what they’re doing: Vultures have spent much of this year together, writing and recording music in a Los Angeles studio, and are now touring without having officially released a note of the music they’ve recorded. No album, no single, no YouTube video, no leak, no official photos, no nothing: the only way to hear Them Crooked Vultures, really, is to see them live.

In some ways, it’s an echo of the Eric Clapton-Steve Winwood-Ginger Baker supergroup Blind Faith, who did a similar thing in 1969, touring ahead of their album’s release, selling out tours on the strength of their collective pedigree. But unlike Blind Faith, who hedged their bets by including renditions of songs from their old bands, Vultures are performing 80 or so minutes of new Vultures music every night: no Zeppelin covers, no Queens jams, no standards. As Homme says onstage on the night I first see them play, it’s a “social experiment” as much as a musical one, and to the audience’s credit, there was not a single shouted request that I could hear for something other than what the band was playing: Vultures’ blind faith is being rewarded.

Perhaps this is down to a collective solidarity with the idea of the independent musician, or a real interest in simply unfamiliar music by trusted faves—or maybe it’s because most of the songs presented on Monday night were strong on first listen, and if listener’s fatigue inevitably set in at some point due to the continued ear-pummeling, then you could just stand there and behold the wonder of 63-year-old John Paul Jones, shoulders bobbing, at the helm of his instrument, smiling with pleasure at Dave Grohl as yet another propulsive, post-“Immigrant’ Song” (or “Achilles’ Last Stand,” or…) bassline locked in with Grohl’s powerhouse thumping and a distinctively Homme guitar riff. Interestingly, Grohl’s drumkit was not on the riser usually associated with big-time rock bands, which I’m sure disappointed some Foo Fighters fans, but it had the crucial benefit of placing the musicians nearer each other, allowing them to create a more cohesive sound in the midst of so much volume; as John Paul Jones said after the show, “I can feel Dave’s kick-drum that way,” and from his smile, you know that’s as much for his benefit as the audience’s.

Smiles. The amount of smiling between the Vultures onstage, as well as the sheer caliber of playing, reminded me of Shakti, the Indian-Western supergroup led by English master guitarist John McLaughlin and Indian tabla genius Zakir Hussain that fuses classical Indian music with Western jazz. I’m not talking about laughs between songs, or witty stage banter, although with Josh Homme at the microphone you’re always going to get that, but the smiles that occur in the midst of the music: the joy that emerges spontaneously in the midst of collective creativity, usually marking some new discovery or progress, or a new threshold being crossed, or something just feeling fundamentally good. In the last two decades of loud guitar music, this kind of uncontrived on-stage joy has been far too rare—outside of Ween shows, of course, and gee wasn’t that the Deaner himself backstage with the champagne on Monday night? Anyways. Josh, who I’ve interviewed before, and who headlined the second night of ArthurBall in 2006 as half of The 5:15ers (a duo he has with longtime collaborator Chris Goss), invited me to talk with him and John Paul Jones in the band’s dressing room just prior to their set at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory on October 12, 2009. Here’s how the conversation went…

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