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Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Jimmy Cliff.

For the fans who packed the Ritz in New York City on June 29, it was a dream double bin: Jimmy Cliff and Fela Anikula Kuti. Cliff, up first, fronted his Oneness Band, a loose and lanky group with a whipsaw guitarist and a fistful of wicked grooves. Though he showcased tunes from his new (and uneven) album, Images (Cliff Sounds and Films; available through Vision Records, 13385 West Dixie Highway, North Miami, FL 33161), he also reached back for hits that warmed the crowd and illustrated reggae history.

Like virtually all the Rasta musicians who started out thirty years ago, Cliff began by copying US. r&b sounds. During the craze of the early 1960s he became one of the first Jamaicans to have an album released in Britain. In 1971when Bob Marley was still almost completely unknown outside Jamaica-Cliff, already internationally famous from touring, starred in The Harder They Come. Based on the adventures of real-life cop killer Vincent Martin, who finally died in an Old West-style gun battle with Jamaican police, the movie cast Cliff as a rude-boy reggae singer who, unable to break into the music biz, turns to the ganja trade and kills a cop. Rapidly becoming a worldwide cult favorite, its political allegory put Cliff-and reggae-on the international map.

Even though he, like virtually all other reggae singers, was eclipsed by Marley, Cliff has cut a number of classic tunes in the past twenty-five years: "Sitting Here in Limbo," "Struggling Man:' "You Can Get It if You Really Want:' "Many Rivers to Cross' " "Wonderful World, Beautiful People:' His voice, high and thin and quavery compared with those of peers like Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Toots Hibbert, soars and stretches with an appealing waif-like quality over his characteristically busy arrangements. Onstage at the Ritz, he had an easy rapport with the crowd on hardline political tunes like "Pressure" (which urges continuing economic sanctions against South Africa) as well as on gentler ballads like "Rebel in Me."

There is nothing gentle in Fela Anikulapo' Kuti. Serious and focused, Fela is a peculiar late-twentieth-century mix of shaman, politician, ombudsman, activist and musical genius. His concerts are lengthy, irresistible groove-alongs-outside of the Meters and certain of James Brown's backing bands, Fela's Egypt 80 (formerly Afrika 70) probably packs the world's most terrifying collection of beats and the blariest foghorn sax section since the bands that produced New Orleans classics like "Sea Cruise." His songs, which usually ride slogan like lyrics over a densely woven web of cross-rhythms, have titles like "Beasts of No Nation" (which deals with the way various governments abet South African repression) and "Just Like That" (a sneeringly witty list of Nigeria's current shortcomings).

Fela calls his music Afro-beat," and its stacked syncopations are as clearly African as his idol (and inspiration) James Brown's mid- and late-1960s funk; after seeing Sierra Leonean Geraldo Pino, a James Brown imitator, in 1966, Fela abandoned Nigerian high life for US. soul-based sounds. (Pino, born Gerald Pine, changed his name when he began playing rumba-influenced pop in the early 1960s. A few years later, his band, the Heartbeats, started to imitate the soul music they'd heard in Liberia, and successfully toured it through Ghana and Nigeria, sowing the seeds for the Afropop of the next two generations.) Fela himself spent 1969 in the United States, where he learned more about soul music and discovered the writings of Malcolm X. " I wanted to be Malcolm X:' he told Carlos Moore, author of Fela Fela.

Fela's politics can sometimes mess up the flow of his performances: When the spirit moves him, he has been known to deliver long-winded lectures on the International Monetary Fund's manipulation of African currencies, on pan-Africanism, and so on. He's a bit like Sun Ra, except that Fela actually knows what he's talking about. He's both done his homework and spent time under arrest (for alleged currency smuggling) by the Nigerian government, which considers him a political threat. (He still wants to be president.)

His recent releases, Beasts of No Nation and Overtake Done Overtake Overtake (both Shanachie), illustrate Fela's musical ways. Starting from a rolling mid-tempo, his twenty-odd-piece band layers shifting, cross-talking accents that build to a release-there's no verse-chorus bridge structure in Fela's Afro-beat. While several of his wives shimmy and sing, he slices through the weave with his charismatic croak. On the dance floor, the music's sheer percolating relentlessness-half an hour or so per tune-sucks you in. Everybody moves.
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Title Annotation:Ritz, New York City
Author:Santoro, Gene
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Concert Review
Date:Aug 13, 1990
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