When so much has been written about Fela's music, it may seem unnecessary that I should write more. A good cover is hard to find though, and a good seven warrants a playlist. Oya.
1. ВИА 75 - Афро-Кубинские Ритмы/VIA 75 - Afro-Cuban Rhythms (E Gbe Mi O) (1980)
I've never done an 'awkward moment when you realise' before now, but here's one: The Awkward Moment When You Realise Blankety Blank Theme + Lalo Schifrin = E Gbe Mi O. And I don't mean that as a diss. Georgian Jazz with a Kalakuta kick.
2. Phirpo y sus Caribes - Comencemos (Let's Start)(1972)
On the rare and magical occasions when he isn't telling you to 'fuck off, you cunt' , Ginger Baker will harp on about his recordings with Fela and assume an authoritative stance on all music of West African origin. He'll leave out the bit that goes something like this: most of that stuff doesn't hold a candle to the Tony Allen records.
I'll give him Let's Start. No issue at all with Let's Start and no flies on this this scorching 2-minute version from Venezuelan composer-bandleader, Porfi Jimenez.
3. Art Ensemble of Chicago - Zombie (1987)
The ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ in Fela’s canon. - so drenched in blood that critical appraisal is usually left at the gate – Zombie contains some of Fela’s most accomplished sax playing and one of his best organ solos. The intro, though relatively curt by post-Koola Lobitos Fela standards, is still longer than AOC’s entire ‘Zombie’.
Back to the blood one moment, for of all Fela’s anti-authority onslaughts, Zombie’s cuts deepest. Fela didnt’t exactly do opaque metaphor before this nor did he cow into submission after, but his depiction of Nigerian soldiers as ‘undead’ beings was about as much mockery as General ‘cat o’ nine lives’ Obasanjo could stomach. His response to the Zombie call was to send over a thousand soldiers into Kalakuta Republic, looting and torching the place but not before throwing Fela’s mother off a building and into a fatal coma. So Fela was right then.
AOC trumpeter Lester Bowie visited Lagos a year after the incident and shacked-up in the patched-up Kalakuta for 6 months, recording No Agreement in that time, and only leaving after being tipped off that he was developing a reputation among authorities as ‘the troublemaker from New York’. AOC were a band of individuals who would go out, explore new sounds and concepts then bring them back to the collective and Bowie never did forget Fela. Ten years later AOC would close out their Ancient to the Future album with a dense and furious (It’s arguably the only way to match Fela’s energy and emotional weight in half the running time.) Zombie.
Every man sounds possessed. Saxophonists Mitchell and Jarman, so often scientists of sparseness, be it a rhythmic minimalism or a deliberately scant note range, swarm all over the frenetic tempo F.D.Moye and Malachi Favors lay down. Their figures and inflexions are incredibly singular, so unlike Fela’s or one another’s, which is oddly what makes this to me the complete Fela cover.
4. Wganda Kenya - Shakalaode (Shakara) (1976)
As Fela explained (in pidgin) on the original, Shakara means fronting. He breaks it down into two parts, the man talking smack who won't back it up with his fists and the woman playing hard to get. "Na Shakara." I don't think Shakalaode means anything in Colombia at all, just a funny sound alike!
Fruko's Wganda Kenya aren't nearly as brassy as Fela's bands, their more psych approach to West African rhythms puts them somewhere in between Africa 70, Irakere and Zam-rock bands like Ngozi Family and Witch.
Incidentally, the flip on this record is a similarly tight version of The Fatback Band's Wicky Wacky.
5. Lizandro Meza - Shacalao (1975)
More Colombian Shakara. Now Colombian Shacalao. Might edge out the Wganda Kenya version. Builds in a slightly more interesting way. Backing vocals arrive early and - save for a couple of brief passages - don't leave the building until the lights are out. Percussion is more immediate too and lets be honest, we missed those horns.
6. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Water (2010)
There are that many of these new wave brass bands, it's difficult keeping up with who's who. Most could benefit from losing themselves a little now and again. It's all a bit too civilised.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble consisting of ex-Arkestra and AHE man Phil Cohran's eight sons (Why arent they called Children of the Cohran?), are less culpable of that though, not as funky as Rebirth, but at least as high a level of musicianship and their sound is generally thicker, witness their doubling down on the brass in this recording of "Water (no get enemy)".
7. Houston Person - I No Get Eye For Back (1977)
George Benson has spoken of how he developed greater clarity in his sound from playing with Jack McDuff and having to cut through major seventh after dominant seventh after minor seventh. I think the years Houston Person spent in organ groups had a similar effect on his playing, leading detractors
to claim he was just another R 'n B player, just as they said about Gene Ammons, Stanley Turrentine, King Curtis and Willis Jackson. If you are a saxophonist who - God forbid - has a warm tone, doesn't play modal, does play danceable, bluesy music, then you must be an unambitious musician and third or second tier at best. Dumb.
It also depends on how you define ambition. Person's discography is rangier than most, solidifying a well-earned reputation as one of the most studied musicians of all. Ron Carter says he knows more tunes than any musician he's ever played with. That's Ron 'the most-recorded jazz musician in history' Carter.
Person even knew most of Fela's repertoire, recording I No Get Eye For Back which first appeared on the 1975 album Alagbon Close. It's all done at a more laid-back tempo, playing to Person's strengths. Courts over-slickness at certain points but Griffin's Superstition-like Clavinet keeps it smutty.