Fela Ransome Kuti ‘And his Koola Lobitos’ 3CD (Knitting Factory) 5/5

fela-ransome-kutiAmong the ongoing series of classic Fela Kuti re-issues, this one stands out as a real discovery and begins with Fela’s immersion in the jazz and R & B scene of late 1950s London nightlife. Covering the early years where other previous anthologies had focused on the early to late 1960s period (‘Lagos Baby 1963-1969’), this new compilation instead focuses attention on the pre-Afro beat era from the early 1960s onwards. However, in reality the embryonic stages towards the Afro beat sound are chronicled within and neatly delineated into three separate and contrasting CDs. The incredibly hard to find original 7″ and 10″ sides on the first and third CDs makes this a genuine hive of new information on the development and evolution of the Fela sound. Certainly in comparison to the later 1970s sound that Fela pioneered, the overall sound here is pared down and consequently the jazzier side to his repertoire is emphasized. The first CD showcases the early singles from 1963/4 and may come as a surprise to those familiar with the fifteen and twenty-minute plus sides of the mid-late 1970s and include the Fela Ransome Kuti Jazz Quartet that would morph into Koola Lobitos in 1964. Of particular interest is that in both formations, drummer Tony Allen was present and therefore playing a pivotal role from the outset. Of this period, the numbers ‘I know your feeling’ and the Afro-Cuban hues of ‘Amaechi’s blues’ stand out as archetypal examples of the young Fela sound in the making.

A second CD concentrates on the first album Fela recorded and this must surely be one of the rarest full length recordings Fela ever made. Whereas the singles are necessarily limited in time, Fela began to stretch out a little more here, though still relatively concise at around the five-minute mark on average. Highlights here include the perennial favourite ‘Lagos baby’, ‘Olulofe’ and a nod to the pan-West African groove that was equally popular in Ghana and Nigeria, ‘It’s highlife’ time’. The third CD concentrates attention on live recordings, largely club dates.

Commentators have denigrated the noise reduction made by Knitting factory and it is true to say that the sound quality varies somewhat among the singles and live material and is not on a par with the classic Afro-Beat period sides that were in general recorded in professional studios. Two observations are in order. This three CD set focuses on a period when the modern Nigerian music industry was in its infancy and thus it is to be expected that the sound quality will not be optimal. Secondly, the music itself has been sourced from original singles where master tapes may no longer exist. For some the rustic nature of the sound is an attraction in its own right, but you cannot reasonably expect the same standard as for the 1970s recordings, and it is unfair to criticise the label for putting out the music in the first place when they have gone to the trouble of annotating it in such detail, and the inner sleeve notes are fully comprehensive.

Topped off by a luxury gatefold sleeve with graphics of Fela on the cover in a fetching black, red and white and with stunning black and white photos of the young Fela, this fills in an important gap in the musician’s career and as such is essential listening.

Tim Stenhouse