Fela, a committed rebel who devoted his career to fighting on all fronts – be they political, social or cultural – applied his insurrectionist ideals in his own day-to-day life, using sexual liberation as a powerful semantic weapon. If the society he saw around him was stuck in a racist, colonialist, puritan rut, then Fela vowed to attack it below the belt and hit it where it hurt. One of the legendary sax-player's most openly subversive acts was when he organised a collective wedding with all 27 of his singers (most of whom already shared his bed!) Alas, Fela's subversive promiscuity was to backfire in the end. His personal sexual revolution, carried out without condoms, eventually led to the notorious seducer contracting the fatal virus currently wreaking havoc in Africa.
With official HIV figures for the African continent now estimating that more than 20% of the population are infected, Fela's singer and sax-playing son, Femi Kuti, decided it was time to do his own bit in the struggle – and he enrolled for action in the Red Hot ranks. Over the past twelve years this enterprising NGO has enjoyed considerable success with its music fund-raising activities, releasing a series of exceptional compilation albums that have brought about some truly remarkable encounters (notably the MC Solaar/Ron Carter duet Un ange en danger on the Red Hot & Cool album released in 1994).
The latest compilation in the fund-raising series is entitled Red, Hot & Riot. And the decision to pay a musical tribute to Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the king of Afro-beat, is no fortuitous coincidence. Two years ago Fela's record label took the laudable step of re-releasing the Black President's "full works" on vinyl and CD (a move which was all the more laudable as the majority of Fela's albums had become impossible to get hold of!) The Nigerian sax-star's music has thus come to exert increasing influence over the past two years. Indeed, the late great king of Afro-beat was recently sampled by rappers and has now been revived thanks to Amir Thompson (alias ?uestlove), drummer from Philadelphia-based rap/soul combo The Roots. Called in to work on the Red Hot & Indigo compilation, Amir spent all his time in the studio listening to Fela albums. And he finally convinced Paul Heck, co-producer of the Red Hot series, that the NGO's next compilation should be a musical tribute to the late great sax-star.
This musical project was further nourished a few months later when Amir, who was on a U.S. tour with D’Angelo, bumped into Femi Kuti in Detroit one day. Within weeks of this fateful meeting the Red Hot & Riot project took seed in a studio in New York. The brass section of Fela's classic Water No Get Enemy was soon fuelling the vocals of an all-star cast led by Amir and Femi (who, incidentally, was covering one of his father's classics for the first time). The Dream Team cast also included D’Angelo, 'new soul' diva Macy Gray, former Chic star Nile Rodgers and trumpet virtuoso Roy Hargrove. And the result is quite simply superb - Macy Gray lays her deliciously husky vocals over Fela's legendary Afro beats and the Black President's groove is brought to life with collective passion and conviction
Red Hot & Riot proved to be such an inspiring and motivating project that Heck had little trouble getting an armada of 'black music' stars on board. Indeed, the album features an all-star cast – as fans will discover for themselves on a track like No Agreement where leading Senegalese hip hop crew Positive Black Soul team up with Congolese keyboards from Ray Lema, Baaba Maal, Tony Allen (the original drummer from Fela's group Africa 70), avant-garde tenor sax-player Archie Shepp and black diva RES for an absolutely incandescent fusion. Meanwhile, Cuban group Yerba Buena mix their musical skills with legendary Brazilian Jorge Ben, veteran music star Taj Mahal and Anglo-Nigerian singer Sade, who lays her sultry, troubling vocals over By Your Side (the opening track from Fela's final album Lover’s Rock), remixed by British DJ Cottonbelly. And with contributions from San Francisco rappers Blackalicious, Gift of Gab and Lateef, Fela's songs prove to be as topical and universal as ever.
In short, Red Hot & Riot is a faithful reflection of Fela's tumultuous life – multi-coloured, Utopian, militant, poetic and absolutely bursting with verve and rhythm! If the legendary sax-star had used adequate protection in the course of his sexual revolution, he would still be with us today delighting fans with his hypnotic compositions (which could take up the entire side of one album)! But, sadly, AIDS robbed the world of one of its greatest music stars. Let's only hope Red Hot & Riot sounds the alarm bell in time and prevents hundreds of thousands of others dying needless deaths!
Red Hot & Riot: Tribute To Fela MCA (dist. Universal) 2002
Translation : Julie Street