Words:  Dominic Valvona

Monolith Cocktail: ‘Highlife-Jazz And Afro-Soul (1963 – 1969)’

Fela Ransome-Kuti And His Koola Lobitos   ‘Highlife-Jazz And Afro-Soul (1963 – 1969)’  Released by Knitting Factory Records,  8th April  2016

Before the endearing honorary bestowed title of the “Black President”; before the great Afrobeat leap forward; before the strutting saxophonist showman of Nigerian lore; there was the, as yet, less sure and experimental Fela Kuti of the 1960s. Unless you are familiar or an ardent fan of the great trailblazer’s, often, confusing and complicated back catalogue than you may not know that Fela originally studied music at the Trinity School of Music in London, and that his principle instrument was the trumpet. Not so much a surprise however, Fela’s first furors into the Ghanaian originated Highlife style under the Fela Kuti & His Highlife Rakers banner, was heavy on the jazz. An amalgamation in itself of influences, from the native elements of Akan music and traditional African rhythms played on western instruments to the Colonial sounds of ballroom, military marching bands and a host of Caribbean and Cuban flavors, Highlife was also suffused with a strong jazz kick, especially on the tooting, heralding and blasting horns.

Hot stepping and sure footing through Savoy label like jazz and Stax/Volt revue soul, Fela and his first ever professional band Koola Lobitos were the missing link on the eventual road to the Afrobeat phenomenon. An evolving Fela, only a few shuffles short of cultivating his signature, already shows a raw energy on this compilation’s studio and live recordings.


Despite the abundance of Fela material (most of it released by New York’s Knitting Factory Label), documentaries and even a theatre production, this latest collection still offers revelations aplenty; collecting together as it does a mix of previously scattered, ridiculously expensive and even, in some cases, recordings believed lost. Originally released exclusively in Japan in 2005, Highlife-Jazz And Afro-Soul is finally getting the worldwide release it deserves on 8th April 2016. A “labour of love”, stemming from Toshiya Endo’s African Music Home Page website, launched in the late 90s, the Fela Kuti and His Koola Lobitos recordings were collected from around the world from the collections of various fans. By day a professor of Chemistry at Ngoya University, Endo’s passion and hobby of cataloguing West African music attracted the author of the Fela: The Life & Times Of An African Musical Icon bio Michael E. Veal. Together they produced this arduous compilation from, mostly, original vinyl copies: the master tapes had been lost long ago.

Monolith Cocktail - Fela Kuti

Housed in an unfussy but beautifully monochrome illustrated 3xCD gatefold design, with an enlightening and assiduous essay by Veal, this compilation is broken down into three sections: Single Collection, 1st Album and Afrobeat Live And Others. The first of these selections documents the various incarnations of Fela’s band on 7” vinyl, beginning with a host of releases for the RK label. Sauntering between dense horns, a barrel piano and Afro-dancehall band swing, the lax Caribbean carnival meets Sun Ra spirit of these early records is often cluttered but magic. The ‘Bonfo’ jamboree, dizzying ‘Onifere No.2’, lullaby Calypso hazy ‘Oloruka’ and ‘sweetly swaddled trumpet rich ‘Awo’ all sound like steps on the road to Afrobeat. Despite the condition and quality (subjected to a time-consuming noise reduction process) of some of these recordings, they all sound bloody great considering how much was going on and how many instruments were playing on each record, not forgetting Fela’s vocals too. This was of course before he found his feet as an arranger, and partially down to the 45 rpm format, which condensed and produced an often clashing and competitive mix. Later recordings would allow the music to breathe, with the horn section allowed to develop.

Released shortly after Fela’s return to Nigeria, when he worked during the day as a staff producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company, ‘Amaechi’s Blues’ was closer, as the title would suggest, to the blues. Recorded with Don Amaechi on guitar, Sid Moss on piano, Emmanual Ngomalio on bass and John Bull on drums under the Fela Ransome-Kuti Quintet moniker, the 12-bar standard can’t help but liltingly sway to a jazzy rhythm and melody, redolent of Art Blakey, and show off some of Fela’s trumpet playing prowess – an instrument it’s rumored he eventually gave up because of the effect it had on the lips, which apparently interfered with kissing!

This singles oeuvre also features a quartet of tracks credited to VC7, a name used by Koola Lobitos when they recorded without Fela. Bassist Ojo Okeji would take on vocal duties, whilst (information is unclear on this), it’s believed Fela would help with arrangements and production – a role similar to the one he took on later albums recorded by Tony Allen and Tunde Williams with Afrika 70. Now in full soul-jazz fever mode with these records, there’s a scintillating mix of Freddie Hubbard roaming free in San Francisco, on ‘Orise’, and Booker T, on the belter ‘Eke’, yet there’s no mistaking the infectious African ease of movement and flow, despite this Stax-charged US influence.


Disc two offers the full Koola Lobitos debut LP, recorded for EMI in 1965. More or less re-released and made available at other times, there will be many tracks that have already become Fela standards and classics, including the ‘It’s Highlife Time’ anthem. Not quite the political beast (that would come later, at the dawn of the next decade), Fela plays out some tried and tested love tropes on the laidback paean ‘Lagos Baby’. But at this point in his career, Fela’s band was more renowned for their dynamic instrumentation and performances than sophisticated lyrical dexterity and protestations. Still absorbing a multitude of sounds, Fela wafts towards the jazzy-blues of New Orleans on ‘Omuti’ (which even contains what sounds like some sort of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ riff) and ‘Ololufe’, and shows signs of that confident Afrobeat swagger on the tropical grooving ‘Lai Se’ and funky bass riffing ‘Obinrin’.


The third and last disc is perhaps the most lively and raw. With more soul captured adoptions, the heavy Southern groove ‘My Baby Don’t Love Me’ and ‘Home Cooking’ 7” (referred to as, “humorous attempts to copy soul music trends” by Veal in his accompanying notes), and interesting but less dynamic Highlife tracks from the back catalogue, it’s the Live at the Afro-Spot club performance that will be of the most interest to fans. Introduced by master of the ceremonies himself, Fela welcomes one and all to the legendary nightclub, beginning with a rambunctious Highlife-jazz version of ‘Everyday I Got My Blues’. Bustling and sweltering with a sexy swing, the opener starts out with a slow but energetic groove before speeding up and hurtling forward into a soul finger strut. It goes on like this for six tracks, lapping up the constant humming and buzz of the audience, as the high octane, furiously hot gig brings to life the Koola Lobitas standards ‘Waka Waka’, ‘Ako’. The full gamut of Fela’s influences are played out in their most raw form, from the raucously egged on ‘Lai Se’ to the repetitive woodblock percussive and noisy clanging ‘Moti Gborokan’; combining Highlife with swing, jazz, soul and whatever else caught the bandleader’s fancy.

There can be no doubt that the Koola Lobitas were one impressive group. They would, as history shows, eventually become the first Afrobeat incarnation proper, renamed at the end of the decade as the Nigeria 70. The collection fades out before that transition in 1969, the year Fela and Koola spent ten months on the road in the US, eking out a hand-to-mouth existence hustling gigs on the West Coast. The US epiphany would not only see the group recording The 69 Los Angles Sessions (the group somehow miraculously managed to scrape the funds together), but this trip is believed to have set Fela off on his famous road to political consciousness. How or when he met Sandra Izsadore, the American black rights activist is uncertain. But what we do know is that on returning to Nigeria Fela not only blossomed musically but politically too, giving his now firmly established Afrobeat style a new social and activist zeal. Fela would later credit Izsadore with kickstarting his political education by introducing him to the writings of the (late) Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton.

Represented by some of the most rare, raw and almost, lost live and studio recordings, all these revelations and more will inject a fresh investigation into Fela’s early years.

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