From Systems Engineering to Fela

When I started school at the Naval Academy, I planned to be a systems engineer, because I envisioned that would involve playing with robots, and robots are cool. But after three semesters of doing little more than writing lab reports, I decided that I needed to have a major that would occasionally allow me to actually write complete sentences and reports that didn’t include numbers. So I shifted to one of what were refered to as “the bull majors” . . . Political Science, “poli sci, GPA high,” as the conventional wisdom went.

Of course, that conventional wisdom proved wrong, and my grades actually decreased a bit after the switch, in large part because of the fuzzy subjectivity of grading term papers, compared to the clean and elegant objectivity of grading math and science papers. In those areas, you either got it right (A) or not (F). And I got most things right. But in Political Science, it was a bit more . . . . ehhhh . . . “this paper sorta feels like a B, I guess.”

We had to pick a region or country or theme to specialize in within the major. Without thinking much, I originally opted for US-Soviet relations (since this was still during the height of the cold war) . . . but the first time I waited until the last night to work on a paper, and I went to the library to check out books (since this was before the internet) and found every US-Soviet related book already out, I realized I needed something less popular. As I drifted through the library, I noted that the section on African politics and history was virtually untouched: long rows of books packed tight, dust on top of a lot of them. This was not a popular field, so I chose it, knowing I could safely start my term papers the night before they were due. (Of course, I also had to take classes on other parts of the world, but even there, I always went for the unusual locales . . . in a Latin American politics class, I honed in on Paraguay for a semester while most of my classmates studied Mexico or Brazil or Argentina . . . in a class about global communism, I picked Mongolia instead of East Germany or the USSR or Cuba . . . I probably still know more about Paraguay and Mongolia than 99% of the people in this country, I would imagine, which isn’t saying a whole lot . . .)(. . . the semester I was studying Mongolia resulted in the infamous “Books About Mongolia” tape, from which I cribbed the title of one of last year’s poems).

Anyway, it was a bad reason for choosing an academic track, but as it turned out, it was an absolutely fascinating field of study, about a part of the world that most folks here never much think about, except during the occasional humanitarian crisis that reaches such absurd proportions (Rwanda and Darfur come to mind) that the U.S. media deems it worth a sidebar on the front page every now and then.

As I learned about the politics and governments, both current and historical, I also began seeking out recordings to properly soundtrack my studies, and after hours spent in tiny import record shops in Washington, DC’s Adams-Morgan neighborhood (which had a high Ethiopian immigrant population at the time), I accumulated quite a nice collection of traditional music and pop from throughout the African continent, in the days when it was for the most part authentic and largely untouched by American recording and mixing standards (i.e. before Paul Simon’s Graceland, Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD tour and Sting’s and David Byrne’s lesser cultural appropriations led to the rise of the odious “World Music” genre, filled with watered down ethnic melodies made pablum for American consumption).

The first thing I discovered was that there is no such thing as “African Music” as a genre. The best you can do to lump it all together is to call it “music from the African continent,” since the breadth and depth of the music is extraordinarily wide and diverse. The stuff I liked the most tended to come from Central and West Africa. Some of my favorites included King Sunny Ade (Nigeria), Manu Dibango (Cameroon), Foday Musa Suso (Gambia), Kanda Bongo Man (Zaire), Babatunde Olatunji (Nigeria), Toure Kunda (Senegal) and Papa Wemba (Zaire).

Another exquisite album that I listened to regularly was a field recording of two young boys from Malawi (age 12 and 14, if I recall correctly) playing traditional marimba-like instruments. I don’t know the boys’ names, and I don’t know what their instruments were called, but I know that the result (all scratchy and noisy from the crudeness of the field recording) was positively King Crimson-esque (Discipline era, mainly) in its hypnotizing circular rhythms and melodic patterns.

Almost all of that stuff was on vinyl, so I don’t listen to it much anymore . . . except for one as-yet-unmentioned artist who has a huge and readily accessible CD catalog: Nigeria’s late Fela Kuti. When I get in the mood to listen to Fela, it usually takes me weeks to move on to something else, because his music is so engaging, so heady, so powerful and so damn listenable. My favorite Fela CD is one that combines tracks from a couple of vinyl releases, including “Original Sufferhead,” “I.T.T.,” “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” and “Colonial Mentality.” I would be hard pressed to pick four better examples of Fela’s body of work, so having them all on one disc is quite the treat.

I was listening to that disc this morning while driving in through the latest snowstorm (which is what inspired this long, disjointed ramble) and was even more than usually smitten with the track “Colonial Mentality,” which has the most insanely catchy and insistent horn chart I think I’ve ever heard: there must be at least a dozen saxes (alto, tenor, baritone . . . no stinking soprano ones to be heard) and trumpets and who knows what else going at it together atop a groove to die for, with organs and guitars and antiphonic vocals chants filling in around Fela’s cool baritone delivery of his usual insightful political observations. Simply breathtaking, with a melody that should have been an international hit many times over, except for the fact that its part of a 12-minute or so song.

Worth investigating. As are any of the other artists mentioned above. Not to be a pop culture snob or anything, but if you can find records they originally released before 1984 or so (when Graceland sent every major record lable scurrying for African music they could sanitize), you’ll probably have a more eye- and ear-opening listening experience. I think I’m gonna have to do some shopping myself to see if can’t replace some of my old vinyl with CD versions.

(Later That Same Night):

I’m listening to Fela again, this time a CD that contains “Army Arrangement,” “Cross Examination” and “Government Chicken Boy.” It’s another great collection. The one I was talking about earlier today has no liner notes on it, but this one does, and the band on “Army Arrangement” is every bit as big as it sounds:

Three baritone saxophones

One tenor saxophone

One alto saxophone

One soprano saxophone (oh dear)

One flugelhorn

Two trumpets

Four guitars

One bass guitar

Five keyboards

Five percussionists/drummers

There are no vocal credits given, but Fela was extensively polygamous, and often had many of his wives onstage with him, so I’m guessing there are at least another dozen people singing on this disc behind him. The arrangements are superb. Such an amazing talent.

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