1/  Buy Africa                                 (Kuti)                        5.23
        Baloji + L'orchestre De La Katuba feat. Kuku
  2/  Lady                                       (Kuti)                        5.17
        tUnE-yArDs, ?uestlove, Angelique Kidjo + Akua Naru
  3/  Yellow Fever                               (Kuti)                        4.06
        Spoek Mathambo + Zaki Ibrahim
  4/  No Buredi (No Bread)                       (Kuti)                        5.29
        Nneka, Sinkane, Amayo + Superhuman Happiness
  5/  Who No Know Go Know                        (Kuti)                        6.03
        Just a Band + Childish Gambino
  6/  Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am                (Kuti)                        14.13
        My Morning Jacket w/ Merrill Garbus + Brittany Howard
  7/  Sorrow Tears + Blood                       (Kuti)                        8.34
        Kronos Quartet, Kyp Malone, Tune Adebimpe + Stuart Bogie
  8/  ITT (International Thief Thief)            (Kuti)                        6.03
        Superhuman Happiness w/ Sahr Ngaujah, Abena Koomson + Rubblebucket
  9/  Afrodisco Beat 2013                        (Allen,M1,Baloji)             4.27
        Tony Allen, M1 + Baloji
  10/ Gentleman                                  (Kuti)                        5.43
        Just a Band, Bajah + Chance the Rapper
  11/ Highlife Time                              (Kuti)                        3.39
        Gender Infinity
  12/ Zombie                                     (Kuti)                        4.56
        Spoek Mathambo, Cerebral Vortex + Frown
  13/ Go Slow                                    (Kuti)                        4.27

          Track 9 engineered by Daniel Alzamora Dickin and J. Bless
          Track 9 mixed by Kentyah Fraser & Jerry Stucker
          Track 9 produced by Kentyah Fraser
          Album produced by Anthony Demby + Paul Heck
          Assistant Producer: Ricardo Sutherland
          Executive Producer: John Carlin
          Mastered by Joe Lambert
(9) Tony Allen: drums; M1: vocals; Baloji: vocals; Juma Sultan: percussion; Kentyah Fraser: percussion; Bill Laswell: bass; Daniel Alzamora: guitar.

          2013 - Kintting Factory Records (USA), KFR1131-1 (2x12")
          2013 - Knitting Factory Records (USA), KFR1131-2 (CD)


Fela Kuti's songs are as close to uncoverable as great popular music gets. They don't leave much room for interpretation: Fela's regal, commanding presence was a lot of what he was selling, and to mess with the watchworks of Africa 70 or Egypt 80's arrangements is to risk breaking them. Fela's patois often sounds totally wrong in a voice that doesn't come by it naturally, too—and it doesn't help that a lot of his best songs were well over 10 minutes long.

Nonetheless, the Red Hot Organization has put together a second tribute album to Fela, who would have turned 75 next week had he not died of AIDS-related complications in 1997. As with the first (2002's Red Hot + Riot), the project's M.O. is to assemble a bunch of American and African musicians in new combinations and see what they come up with; as with that album, it's mostly yielded wild pitches. Red Hot + Fela largely presents itself as a blur of lesser, briefer imitations of Fela's Afrobeat grooves, liberally sprinkled with pro forma rapping and vocalists singing lyrics that have lost the political fire they once had.

Aside from Fela's longtime drummer and bandleader Tony Allen, who turns up for an update of his own 1977 track "Afro-Disco Beat", the African musicians here (including Spoek Mathambo, Congolese rapper Baloji, Beninoise singer Angélique Kidjo, and the Kenyan group Just a Band) come from outside the Nigerian Afrobeat tradition. That's not a bad idea, even if it's a little "Africa-is-a-country": Fela was a pan-Africanist in his way, too. But few of them have much to add to these songs. Just a Band's coffeeshop-friendly "Who No Know Go Know" and "Gentleman" (which respectively feature deeply unnecessary verses from Childish Gambino and Chance the Rapper) are particular offenders, scrubbing the excitement out of what were once squawking Africa 70 blowouts.

The same problem applies to some of the lesser-known American contributors. The Austin group Gender Infinity's synth-pop version of "Highlife Time", which Fela recorded with his early band Koola Lobitos before his political (and musical) awakening, is a funny idea if you're an Afrobeat nerd, but bloodless in practice. And the L.A. R&B trio King's "Go Slow" selectively plucks a few lines from a scathingly funny song about Lagos traffic jams to turn it into a sex jam.

Red Hot + Fela occasionally lives up to its possibilities, fortunately. Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs has talked about finding Fela's anti-feminist "Lady" frustrating, so the hard-kicking arrangement she and Questlove put together jumps in and wrestles with it, turning the lyrics over to a chorus of women, with the lead vocal taken by the mighty Angélique Kidjo. (Garbus also appears, along with Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard, on My Morning Jacket's rambling 14-minute "Trouble Sleep", possibly the only Fela cover that's ever run longer than the original.)

Another American artist who appears repeatedly here is saxophonist Stuart Bogie of the Brooklyn Afrobeat group Antibalas, with whom he played in the pit band for the Fela musical on Broadway. Bogie's also worked with TV on the Radio in the past, and that band's Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe join him for a solemn, airy take on "Sorrow, Tears and Blood", with its groove pared down to little more than whistling and a pizzicato string riff played by Kronos Quartet.

Bogie's group Superhuman Happiness contributes two other tracks: an overwrought new wave-funk version of "No Buredi", and a take on "I.T.T." that features Sahr Ngaujah, who played the title role in Fela! The latter song comes from the days when Kuti and band were, to paraphrase Public Enemy, Nigeria's CNN; its lyrics are an attack on particular politicians and businesspeople of the late 70s, and there's something jarring about hearing Ngaujah singing them in his best Fela impression over a tight, modern arrangement with loud guitar riffs. It's not that Ngaujah and Bogie somehow don't get Fela—few people understand his music better. But what the Afrobeat pioneer added to the pool that contemporary musicians can draw on was his style and sound far more than his songs.

6.1 out of 10

Douglas Wolk (review courtesy of the Pitchfork website)


Red, Hot + Fela is not the first time that the Red Hot Organization assembled a Fela Kuti tribute album. Red Hot + Riot was released a little over ten years ago. And it only makes sense that a musician/activist like Kuti would be a posthumous posterboy for the Red Hot Organization. A celebrity in his homeland of Nigeria, he fought to give a voice to the oppressed in a continent where oppression was all too rampant, only to die of the very disease that Red Hot has been fighting against for over twenty years. Red Hot + Riot was a reverent homage to the Afrobeat pioneer. Some liberties were taken, but hip-hop probably doesn’t count as a big, dangerous liberty when dropped in a sea of Afrobeat. Red, Hot + Fela carries Fela's music further, finding some very unlikely contributors along the way. Tony Allen, Baloji, Akua Naru are shoe-ins for a project like this. And the involvement of Questlove, or ?uestlove if you prefer, is not a far fetched idea. But what if I told you that one track on Red, Hot + Fela had My Morning Jacket collaborating with Merrill Garbus from tUnE-yArDs and Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes? And that another track finds the Kronos Quartet teaming up with Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio? The album has variety for sure, but its varied roster is not its undoing. Red, Hot + Fela hangs together very well when you stop and think of the number of artists involved. If the sounds aren't consistent with one another, then they at least feel like they are.

The songs that cross over into club culture make for a fine mashup with Afrobeat. Spoek Mathambo and Zaki Ibrahim do this for "Yellow Fever", but Nneka, Sinkane, Amayo, and Superhuman Happiness take "No Buredi (No Bread)" even further into electronic territory. The beat is quick, dark, and urban but never furious. For "Sorrow, Tears + Blood", the Kronos Quartet provides its own loop with a pizzicato that could pass for African banjo. Kyp Malone, Tunde Adebimpe, Stuart Bogie fill in the fatalistic message, what invariably happens when an uprising from the downtrodden occurs. "Gentleman" and "Who No Know Go Know", both covered by Just A Band along with Baja, Chance the Rapper, and Childish Gambino, are about the closest that Red, Hot + Fela comes to a pure form of hip-hop. And even then, the smooth horns are more akin to the '90s fusion experiments like Buckshot LeFonque or the Jazzmatazz series. The added verses of "Gentleman" give a darker shading that the original didn't necessarily lack; "You hate me just because I'm limpin'/I'm limpin' just because I saved you".

Oddly enough, the track that pits My Morning Jacket with Merrill Garbus and Brittany Howard is one of the instances where Red, Hot + Fela swings back around closer to a traditional Afrobeat sound. If you are looking for any musical curveballs within the album, you won't find them in their rendition of "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am". The electronic elements added to Fela Kuti staples like "Lady" and "Zombie" are probably more likely to raise eyebrows and/or shake rumps than "Trouble Sleep...". Another point of interest is how I've never fully realized just how distinct Tony Allen's drumming was. Never the flashiest man to sit behind a kit, he nonetheless has the ability to broadcast his musical personality far and wide just by lightly tapping his snare.

Red, Hot + Fela is a tribute album. And tribute albums always enjoy mercurial reactions from listeners. What some may perceive as a misstep may strike others as a curious diversion. So if anything, this album will give you something to sift through should you care to peel back any layers. If you are happy with passive listening and want to pass some cash along to AIDS research, you are also well-served. The album probably won't transform you, but parts of it can transfix you. One track had me going, but I won't say which one.

7 out of 10

John Garratt (review courtesy of the Pop Matters website)