John Edwards Gunn
I’ve always hated these ‘tribute’ albums where you get various artists covering old songs by one classic act. At first it was shitty indie bands trying to draw attention to themselves. Somehow the idea caught on and nowadays those paying tribute are often more successful and famous than the tributees ever were. In a shop the other day they were playing a Ramones tribute album with songs by U2, Metallica, Kiss and Marilyn Manson. All of them were trying to ‘do’ the Ramones, except Mazza, who was at least going his own thing, even if it was shit. That’s one of the big tribute album dilemmas. Do you imitate your heroes or do their songs your way? Who’s going to buy the albums anyway? Fans of the original? Or are you trying to sell to fans of all the contributors, who want everything ever recorded by their idols, even a crap cover version.
Red Hot + Riot thankfully steers clear of these questions. Thankfully, because the album is out there to raise money to combat AIDS in Africa. It’s a good cause, but so what? I’m here to review the music.
Fela Kuti was a musician who stood up to the police, the army, big business and organised religion. He was arrested more than 200 times, beaten up and thrown in prison, but when he came out he became even more fiery and outspoken. In 1997 he died of AIDS, but now his music is more influential than ever as musicians and producers see afrobeat as a blueprint for an escape route out of the sampled and sequenced certainties of electronic dance music.
On Red Hot + Riot, every track is a team-up between a host of artists and producers. For example, “Water Get No Enemy” features D’Angelo, Femi Kuti, Macy Gray, Roy Hargrove, Nile Rodgers, the Soultronics and Positive Force. This way no one dominates and Fela remains the star. It’s all about the groove.
To be honest, the star names don’t add a great deal. Mostly it’s a string of cameos, but Fela’s music is loose enough to accomodate as many guest stars as you like, including rappers bringing original lyrics.
The album works because Fela Kuti’s jazz funk jams are wide open to interpretation. He was never much of a singer and his songs were more like chants, so if you can come in and sing, like Cheikh Lo, Kelis, Sade and Baaba Maal, then you’ve made a positive contribution because it adds to Fela’s achievement without departing from his style. Fela’s music was all about the funk, so that was always going to be the litmus test of anyone moving in on his territory. Red Hot + Riot succeeds primarily because it is gloriously funky. African musicians, the inheritors of Fela’s spirit, provide the constant undercurrent of unstoppable rhythms to iron out inconsistencies.
Red Hot + Riot is the proof that the soul of Fela Kuti lives on. This is a great tribute to him and a powerful rallying cry against the terrifying scale of the socurge of AIDS in Africa.