Detroit in the 1980s wasn’t a place many people wanted to visit. With racial strife and collapsing industry having critically hemorrhaging it through the middle of the 20th century, the Motor City was a stagnant mess of derelict buildings and crime-ridden neighbourhoods. It was in such a bad way that when the movie RoboCop came out, there was an understood realism to the violent dystopia in the film. Fela Kuti, however, was someone undeterred. In 1986, the Afrobeat pioneer played a show at Detroit’s historic Fox Theatre. Recorded with his band at the time, Egypt ’80, it’s now being released as an album by Knitting Factory Records.
The set captured on Live In Detroit: 1986 is a fantastic encapsulation of Kuti’s many aspects. It is first and foremost an astounding musical feat. Never one for brevity in his music, the entire concert is comprised of 4 sprawling tracks, each a polyrhythmic tapestry showing off each part of the Afrobeat sound. Long free form jazz structure, driving and hypnotic beats, call and response vocals, all overlayed with intense bursts of talented individual musicianship; the sheer energy of the music on the album shows that this no ordinary gig, but a clinic on the style Kuti helped create.
Also on display throughout the album is Fela Kuti the activist. Before every song, he talks vaguely on a topic of social justice that would not seem out of place in either an African dictatorship or impoverished swathes of the United States. The opening musings are particularly interesting, as Kuti speaks about the sudden and negative changes that can befall a person (“You’re going on your way, mind your business, don’t do shit, don’t do nothing. Next thing you know you’re in person. Just. Like. That.”). All in all, this expansive release does a great job of summarizing the figure of Fela Kuti for a public just rediscovering him.
Review by: Andrew Tape