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Red Hot & Riot, the spirit of Fela

A Tribute to Fela against Aids.


Paris 

29/11/2002 - 

Red Hot, a charity renowned for its music fund-raising work in the fight against AIDS, has just released its 14th compilation album. Red Hot & Riot: Tribute to Fela features contributions from a host of recording artists from different countries and backgrounds who got together to pay homage to Nigeria's legendary king of Afro-beat.



On 2 August 1997 Fela Anikulapo Kuti – whom fans worldwide dubbed "The Black President" – died at his home in Lagos. The official reason given for Fela's death was heart failure, but everyone knew that the legendary sax-player and father of Afro-Beat had finally succumbed to the complications caused by AIDS.

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).


An impressive number of the world's leading music stars have thrown their weight behind Red Hot's fight against AIDS. And one look at the credit lists on any one of the Red Hot compilations will confirm that! The NGO has released 14 fund-raising albums to date, starting with Red, Hot & Blue, a compilation of covers of Cole Porter classics released in 1990. Subsequent follow-ups included Red, Hot & Cool (1994), Red Hot & Bothered (an excellent indie rock compilation), Red, Hot & Rio, an album of covers of Brazilian classics (1996), Red Hot & Indigo (covers of Duke Ellington songs) and Red, Hot & Rhapsody, covers of Gershwin favourites (released in 1998).

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


The Red Hot & Riot project involved two and a half years of international to-ing and fro-ing on Paul Heck's behalf, as the producer hooked up with various artists around the world for pre-arranged recording sessions – and sometimes entirely chance encounters. Many of the pairings on the compilation bring together the most unlikely musical bedfellows such as Mandingo guitarist Djelimady Tounkara and Chicago rapper, Common, who team up on a poetically hard-hitting version of Years Of Tears And Sorrow. Meanwhile, on Shakara/Lady, Manu Dibango pairs his deep, bass vocals (and Makossa-style sax) with those of Cheikh Lô, who grew up singing along to this particular Fela classic. With wild, unbridled rhythms and revolutionary lyrics, Shakara/Lady makes a fervent plea for women's rights in an ultra-macho African society. And given the poignant subject matter, what more fitting choice of backing vocalists could there be than French female duo Les Nubians?

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 

Gérard  Bar-David

Translation : Julie  Street