Release Date: Oct 8, 2013
Record label: Knitting Factory Records
Genre(s): Electronic, Rap, R&B, Funk, Garage, Club/Dance, International, Dubstep, African Traditions, Experimental Dub, Afro-Pop, Afro-beat
The redoubtable Red Hot Aids charity has already released a tribute to fallen Nigerian legend Fela Kuti, 2002's Red Hot + Riot. This sequel, timed for what would have been Fela's 75th birthday, veers further from the master's Afrobeat template, principally via young African acts such as South African house producer Spoek Mathambo (on Zombie) and Kenyan hip-hop troupe Just a Band (on Gentleman). The results are erratic – 15 minutes of US rockers My Morning Jacket lost in Trouble Sleep is a yawn – but the Kronos Quartet pull off a reflective, chamber version of Sorrow Tears and Blood, and Fela's acute social commentary resonates throughout.
This is the second volume that the AIDS- and HIV-combatting Red Hot Organization has dedicated to the music of Fela Kuti, the late Nigerian creator of Afrobeat, fearless militant political and liberation activist, and cultural icon. The first, Red Hot + Riot, appeared in 2002 and juxtaposed Fela's music with hip-hop, neo-soul, and African folk styles. This 13-track set, compiled by Anthony Demby and Paul Heck, employs the root sounds of Afrobeat more explicitly.
Fela Kuti’s pioneering, joyous Afrobeat rhythms shook the world before his death following complications brought on by Aids in 1997. The Red Hot organisation, who raise money to fight HIV, paid tribute to the Nigerian musician with the 2002 compilation ‘Red Hot + Riot’, but they’ve decided it is time for a fresh wave of musicians to tackle another volume. Red Hot have assembled a stellar line-up for this release, including Chance The Rapper, Childish Gambino and South Africa’s Spoek Mathambo, who bring their trademark charm to ‘Gentleman’, ‘Who No Know Go No’ and ‘Yellow Fever’ respectively.
Red, Hot + Fela is not the first time that the Red Hot Organization assembled a Fela Kuti tribute album. Red Hot + Riot was released a little over ten years ago. And it only makes sense that a musician/activist like Kuti would be a posthumous posterboy for the Red Hot Organization. A celebrity in his homeland of Nigeria, he fought to give a voice to the oppressed in a continent where oppression was all too rampant, only to die of the very disease that Red Hot has been fighting against for over twenty years.
Working as an unofficial sequel to 2002's Red Hot + Riot, the 17th submission in the Red Hot Organization's series of benefit albums once again finds a couple dozen artists revisiting the songs of Afrobeat king Fela Kuti. Following in the steps of its predecessor, merging hip-hop, indie rock and world music (sometimes within the same song), Red Hot + Fela features an impressive line-up, including ?uestlove, My Morning Jacket, Tony Allen, tUnE-yArDs, Zaki Ibrahim and members of TV on the Radio. As is the case with Kuti's original material, there's no concrete formula to what makes these numbers so compelling, as Just a Band, Bajah and Chance the Rapper's cover of "Gentleman" is a loose reworking, while "Buy Africa" by Baloji & Orchestre de la Katuba captures Kuti's venomous delivery wholesale.
Fela Kuti's songs are as close to uncoverable as great popular music gets. They don't leave much room for interpretation: Fela's regal, commanding presence was a lot of what he was selling, and to mess with the watchworks of Africa 70 or Egypt 80's arrangements is to risk breaking them. Fela's patois often sounds totally wrong in a voice that doesn't come by it naturally, too—and it doesn't help that a lot of his best songs were well over 10 minutes long.
This disc pays tribute to Fela Kuti, the Nigerian titan of Afrobeat, through a collection of covers by a consortium of indie, rap and African artists (not that the categories are mutually exclusive) who clearly revere his legacy. The fact that is raises money for AIDS – Fela died of AIDS-related disease in 1997 – makes it all the worthier. Yet despite the abundance of good intention, Red Hot & Fela is only intermittently compelling.