Album Review: Fela Ransome Kuti and His Koola Lobitos – Highlife Jazz and Afro-Soul (1963-1969) [Knitting Factory Records, 8th April 2016]

To sum up these three albums in a few words, would be to say that Highlife, Jazz and Afro-Soul is a journey to discover the origins of afrobeat and the Fela Kuti myth. In fact, there was a time when the Black President was ‘simply’ a music student at the Royal Trinity College of London, where he formed his first band, Koola Lobitos, and began to build and fine-tune his unique style. The compilation starts during those years, at the beginning of the 1960s, also corresponding with the first independent music steps taken by Fela.

Prompted by the important research done by Professor Toshiya Endo and Micheal E. Veal, the project was initially only released in Japan back in 2005, however, thanks to Knitting Factory Records we can enjoy these works worldwide today. This 3-CD set plus 12-page booklet is a seminal work for all the Nigerian and West African sound enthusiasts, and is a significant testament to the genre for music lovers everywhere. It portrays the lesser known aspects of the ‘pioneer of afrobeat’, delving into his early recordings, which were almost exclusively oriented towards highlife, afro-jazz and afro-soul or proto-afrobeat. In addition, the collection reveals the first developments in Fela Kuti’s style. One comparison would be between the first tracks on the first album and last chapters of the third; distanced by almost five years they act as a mirror to the evolution of the artist’s songwriting and musicianship.

The three albums depict Fela Kuti’s artistry from a different and original perspective. During the six-year period considered, his sound was more unpredictable, free-range and experimental than the one which spread his popularity globally. It was a musical work-in-progress, characterised by free-wheeling trumpet solos (as in ‘Great Kids’ and ‘Amaechi’s Blues’), funky bass lines (‘Waka Waka’), Latin and Cuban rhythms (‘Oloruka), unstoppable upbeat grooves (‘Yese’) and some refined jazz feelings (‘It’s Highlife Time’).

Highlife, Jazz and Afro-Soul is not just the artistic genesis of Fela Kuti, but also the dawning of afrobeat.