Smile Politely

Subterranean Homesick Grooves

When we think of political songs, we think folk music. And when we think of folk music, we think of hippies. You know, cascading locks of hair, peace, love, Phish, flowers; usually a mental image of Bob Dylan strummin’ away with his fake-poor clothes. For the longest time, I had always associated political songs with folk music and the whole scene behind it. And for that same reason, had always avoided it. It just felt that too much was put into image, with no actual substance in songs.

All that changed one afternoon. I remember it vividly, just like yesterday. The sun was out; the leaves were rustling along to the soothing wind. Kids ran amok, crunching on fallen leaves as birds collectively chirped a singsong chorus. Flowers blossomed and the scent was of magnificent pines. The long and short of it is, a friend referred me to Fela Kuti.

“Dude, he has 27 wives.”

I was instantly curious. What kind of music would this Fela dude make? Probably virile and potent, I thought to myself. You gotta to have a lot of energy to stay married to that many women. Or maybe worn out: who would have time to compose after being married to 27 ladies? Either way my interest was piqued, my mind was engaged.

I was happy with the new find. The plan was to rush home and play the album, Zombie, in its entirety (and if the songs were all well, be a music snob and brag about it to friends). But unfortunately, playing it for the first time was a fairly disappointing experience. It thought the build-up took too long. I could have sworn that all four songs sounded alike. I felt that the music was too repetitive.

But for some reason it grows on you. After stumbling upon it a few more times, certain parts didn’t seem too stretched out anymore. Little nuances were starting to appear. Now when I listen to it, I’m amazed by how many subtle complexities are within the music. And the more I think about it, the more I grasp that political songs can indeed be groovy. Considering that it was originally released in 1977, I’m amazed by how distinct it still sounds. Once you feel the groove, you’re locked in.

All four songs in Zombie follow a similar structure. Each song starts with a simple melody line to follow while the rhythm inconspicuously creeps in. Soon, the melody changes but throughout we are left with the pulsing rhythm. Once we become acquainted and comfy with the groove, Kuti comes in with the lyrics, all sung in Pidgin English (fusion of Nigerian and English words), and all of which have a very strong political undertone. In the song would usually be a call-and-response section between Kuti and his wives, mostly back-up dancers and singers. And the groove continues until he brings back the main melody and the song comes full circle.

The songs range from 12 -14 minutes long as Kuti takes special care to make each groove absolutely hypnotic. In the title track “Zombie”, he mocks the Nigerian police and army and compares them to: “Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think”. He warns of herd mentality to the ruling Nigerian government: “My brothers, make you follow no book-o, look am and go your way.” Although his lyrics seem simple and repetitive, the impact is long lasting. The message is menacing, clear and powerful.

So is the music that accompanies it. The bass, muted guitar and drums provide a loop of rhythm while frantic horns berate listeners. As the rhythm section keeps the song tight and steady, congas and funky piano chunks tug and pull. At times it’s also jazzy and big band sounding as best exemplified in “Observation Is No Crime.” Overall, the melodies are adequately pleasing and always propel the song forward. Not too much that it overloads our ears, but not too sparse that we get bored with it.

It takes a while to get into the groove of Kuti’s distinct music. This isn’t quite the jazz you’ve heard before. It’s funky but it’s not quite funk. The drums and call-and-response bring images of traditional African music, but yet, not purely so. It’s a mix of Kuti’s anger at the Nigerian politics of the time, his proud African heritage, and his composing genius. In the end, you find out that nowhere else does music sound like this. One wherein the instruments sneer as the back-up singers provide childlike sing-a-longs, one where melodies flow seamlessly in and out of pulsing rhythm. It’s about time more people hear this album. If not, at least know about the man who had 27 wives.

Here’s Fela Kuti performing “Teacher Don’t Teach Me No Nonsense” live:

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