It can look like a conspiracy, from the outside, to know what those of us in middle America grew up with musically in the 1970s. Ensconced deeply in our Yeses and our Styxes and our REO-es and our Kansases, we often missed out on the larger view of the world, despite the delicious depths of what did come delivered over the airwaves. Case in point: Fela Kuti. The Afro beat. I suspect even if you were a jazzbo soldiering on in the post-bop wonderland delivered in the ever-widening sidelong jams of Miles and Herbie and Pharaoh, there might be quite a gulf between such distinctly American cooking and a Nigerian self-trained sax player and polemicist who wielded the conch of Democracy for Africa. Kuti’s mission, though, was a kind of a trojan horse. It looks an awful lot like a super tight big band stomp, epic riffing over a relentless beat, and musically it is. But pulsing underneath was a heat that Kuti, with an outsized personality and voice that all-too-easily drew fire from Nigeria’s governing elite, stoked with an enthusiasm that would eventually enflame his life in tragedy.
1973’s “Gentleman” is an early classic, the title track of a record where Kuti ironically declares “I’m not a gentleman at all.” He doesn’t want anything to do with what that word means in a place where the gentlemen were in essence slaveholders. It’s an open statement of discontent, of a desire for justice. And it wouldn’t mean half so much as it does if his band didn’t burn the house down with their playing. It’s here that the idea of world music takes shape, borrowing from blues and jazz structures of the African diaspora and feeding back on them — once you hear Kuti’s work it’s hard to imagine Soft Machine’s Third, krautrock bands like Out of Focus and Embryo, contemporary bands like Seven Impale, and even the greater part of British punk and American rap without it. Kuti’s voice was loud, gruff, a rap that cried its flawed humanity atop a fury of horns and guitars and drums. It’s serious shit and a party all at once. Anger and joy and heartache. Even if that conspiracy was true and the staid worldview of 70s America denied me Kuti, I’m hearing it now. And I am still listening.