Amiri Baraka put it best in his poem "In the Funk World": "If Elvis Presley is King/Who is James Brown, God?" So, by that logic, is Fela Anikulapo Kuti higher than or equal to God? The Nigerian legend, pioneer of an infinitely contagious amalgam of West African highlife and American funk that he called Afrobeat, had the capacity to be James Brown–ier and therefore invites heretical praise. Not to mention that throughout the 1970s, Fela released something like a gazillion records each year — dude was like the Robert Pollard of Funkytown.
As his music reaches a new audience on Broadway — the FELA! musical boasts Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith as producers — Knitting Factory kicks off a year-long reissue campaign with the release of six essential discs. This first wave of reissues comprises nine albums spanning the period 1969-1974, beginning with Koola Lobitos (The '69 L.A. Sessions), the swinging band with which Fela first developed his signature sound, and ending with Gentleman and Confusion, two canonical records with marathon track lengths and fierce political bite. It's hard to pick a favorite — each record is so compelling and clockwork-like that a chronological listen feels like one big fluid motion.
For nearly seven hours, Fela and his band of supreme funkmeisters (big ups to Tony Allen, who drums the way you read about) dish out track after track of gruff horns, impetuous keyboards, call-and-response vocals, and more one-chord polyrhythmic stamina than seems humanly possible. My über-deification perhaps fails to convey how human this music truly is: joyous, damning, pulse-raising, and awfully danceable.