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Essential Afrika 70 recordings, produced by Fela Kuti.
Babatunde 'Tunde' Williams was born in Nigeria, in 1943. Like Fela, his family was from Abeokuta, but his father was employed by the United Africa Company in the middle belt city of Makurdi, where Tunde was born in 1943. He attended primary school at Gboko Elementary School in the nearby town of Gboko, and later attended Katsina-Ala Middle School in the northern town of Katsina. Unbeknownst to most people, Tunde’s first instrument was percussion, and his earliest professional experience was as a conga, bongo, and traps player for various highlife bands in the early 1960s. By 1965 he was playing with the highlife band of Olu McFoy, and he later joined Atomic Eight, a highlife and copyright band from Aba in eastern Nigeria. It was in Atomic Eight that he befriended the bandleader Raymond Baba, a multi-instrumentalist who was proficient on both brass and woodwinds. Inspired by Baba’s example, Tunde switched from percussion to trumpet shortly thereafter, with Baba as his first teacher. He also cites Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis as formative influences on the instrument.
Tunde joined Fela’s Koola Lobitos as a trumpeter in late 1967, and remained with Fela through 1978, when he and several other bandmembers left the group acrimoniously following the Berlin Jazz Festival in September of that year. In Afrika 70, he was the most consistent soloist, and his trumpet improvisations graced virtually of the band’s 1970s recordings. The tracks for Mr. Big Mouth had been recorded in 1975, but by the time they were released in 1977, Fela was engaged in a bitter battle with the original label, Decca Records. As a result, many of Afrika 70’s Decca releases from 1977-8 fell through the proverbial cracks, and Mr. Big Mouth was unfortunately one of them. Although it is a great album, it was given little promotion and as a result, is known only to the most committed Afrobeat aficionados, even in Nigeria.
The music on Mr. Big Mouth is similar in feel and mood to other Afrika 70 releases from this time on Decca’s Afrodisia imprint such as Fela’s No Agreement, Stalemate, and Fear Not for Man, and Tony Allen’s No Accomodation for Lagos. The title track is typical of Afrika 70’s uptempo grooves and like much of Fela’s music the lyrics are socially-critical in tone, although unlike Fela’s songs, Tunde’s lyrics are not directed at the government. Rather, he says the title track was a commentary on “…some of the indigenous contractors at that time. The government would give these contractors money to complete a job, and instead they would take the money and surround themselves with women, fancy clothes, and flashy cars, and go around the town bragging like big shots. The jobs never got done, and many of them ended up going to jail for defrauding the government. That’s what I was singing about.” Tunde’s mid-tempo instrumental “The Beginning” (so named because it was his first piece of music to be recorded) is certainly one of the most infectious tracks to come out of Fela’s organization. The laid-back Afrobeat groove is dark and suspenseful, and one can easily hear why the song was often played during Afrika 70’s warm-up sets, as it perfectly sets the tone for a late, smoky night at the Afrika Shrine.
Anyone who saw Fela in performance will remember baritone saxophonist Lekan 'Baba Ani' Animashaun, who was always situated stage left, with his trademark cap on his head and his baritone sax in hand. He was a core member of Koola Lobitos, Nigeria 70, Afrika 70, and Egypt 80.
Baba Ani was born in Lagos in August, 1936, and his primary education was split between All Saints School in Oshogbo (in Oshun State), and Ansaruddin Primary School in Alakoro, Lagos Island. His secondary education was at National High School, in the Ebutte-Meta area of Lagos.
He cites jazz baritonists Gerry Mulligan and Pepper Adams as inspirations, and credits bandleader Chris Ajillo as his first saxophone teacher. Animashaun and Ajilo met when Baba Ani joined the dance orchestra of the Nigerian Broadcasting Company (NBC), playing various ballroom dance styles including 'cha-chas, pachangas, and waltzes'. He also played with Ajilo’s own band, Chris Ajilo And His Cubanos, playing highlife and Afro-Cuban music. In 1965, Baba Ani met Fela Ransome-Kuti, who was also on the staff of NBC and who broadcasted a weekly jazz programme. Animashaun joined Koola Lobitos the same year, and remained with Fela until the latter’s death in 1997. Today, he continues to lead the Egypt 80 band, now fronted by Fela’s youngest son Seun.
Baba Ani’s two songs here were tinkered with over a period of years, but the basic tracks date from the last days of the regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo, around 1979. This was a tough time for the Afrika 70 organization, which was still recovering from the military attack (allegedly ordered by Obasanjo) that was launched on Fela’s Kalakuta Republic in February 1977, as well as the departure of Tony Allen and most of the Afrika 70 band following the Berlin Festival. By mid-1979, Fela had finally opened his new Afrika Shrine in Ikeja (an outlying suburb of Lagos). Animashaun was appointed bandleader of the new band, which was also named Afrika 70 until 1981 when Fela rechristened it Egypt 80. The opening of the new Afrika Shrine ended over two years of harassment and performances forcibly aborted by the government and soldiers of the Nigerian Army. Nevertheless, Fela’s battles with the Nigerian authorities continued, and were particularly severe during the early 1980s. As a result, Baba Ani’s songs remained unreleased for years. Work on the tracks resumed in Paris in 1986 (in a marathon recording session which followed Fela’s release from an 18-month prison term), but they were again shelved until 1995, when they were finally released on Fela’s Kalakuta Records as Kalakuta 003. Even then, Animashaun laments that the release wasn’t given particularly vigorous promotion by the label’s staff. As a result, Low Profile remained primarily familiar to the faithful attendants of the Afrika Shrine, while Serere (Do Right) gained a bit more exposure, used as Egypt 80’s set opener at home and on the band’s international tours of the 1980s and 1990s.
The two songs were social criticisms of a sort, filtered through the unique prism of Fela’s Afrobeat experience. The title of Serere (Do Right) is self-explanatory; the lyrics ask the listener to act constructively in society, regardless of professional or social status. The title Low Profile (Not for the Blacks) takes as its inspiration comments made in late 1976 by then-General Olusegun Obasanjo. In response to a surge in armed robberies at the height of the Nigerian oil boom, General Obasanjo urged Nigerians to avoid ostentatious displays of wealth and to adopt a “low profile,” in order to discourage the thieves who preyed upon the Nigerian nouveau-riche. Animashaun disagreed with this sentiment, recalling “I was trying to say that a “low profile” is not for black people. Black people are supposed to be living like kings and queens. Why should our rulers be telling us to live a low profile, while they themselves are living a high profile in [the upscale areas of] Ikoyi and Victoria Island?”
There is still a fair amount of Fela-related Afrobeat music yet-to-be-reissued. Taken together, however, Mr. Big Mouth and Low Profile contribute two of the most important pieces of the puzzle.
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