One of the joys of the Greatest Hits format is its ability to telescope time, to essay the evolution of an artist within an hour or so. At their best, such discs can finesse convoluted history into an easily digested narrative.
The Best of the Black President 2 kind of fails at this aim, at over 150 minutes long. But it’s still an unreservedly recommended purchase for the Fela Kuti neophyte.
Fela’s back catalogue doesn’t lend itself to such compilation, for a number of reasons.
For one, few jams in Kuti’s worthy catalogue last less than 10 minutes – most are much longer – so even though this set boasts two very full CDs (plus an excellent DVD of Fela’s 1984 Glastonbury Festival performance, if you plump for the deluxe edition, which you should), it only numbers 12 tracks.
For another, once he settled into the martial funk of his trademark Afrobeat sound, Kuti was less interested in evolution, and more interested in eking all possible inspiration from his unmistakeable sound.
But that isn’t to say these tracks, plucked from throughout his career, are in any way samey.
This revolutionary sprawl stretches from the kinetic and restless carnival-riot of Black Man’s Cry – from his 1971 live collaboration with Cream’s Ginger Baker, and about as ecstatically adrenalising a 12 minutes as this writer could possibly stand – through to the meditative slow burn of He Miss Road.
The latter is a restless shuffle brought to life by Fela’s playful organ playing and Africa ‘70’s luminous horns. Elsewhere, the searing Everything Scatter is a bristling 10 minutes of chicken-scratch guitar, choral chants, fiery sax and steroidal rhythm that captures funk at its most progressive.
While this release might struggle to encompass so vast and profound a career within its discs, its judiciously chosen tracks deliver a faultless introduction to Fela’s work.
His vivid life story – involving riots and revolutions, murders and multiple wives, fodder for the massively successful stage musical – often threatens to overshadow his music.
But collected here is sulphurous and fiercely funky magic that could hold its own against all comers, and is likely to provoke obsession within all who hear its righteous call.