Review Summary: England has occupied 9 out of 10 countries on the planet.
Fela Kuti is credited with the proliferation of the musical style known as Afro-Beat and he had the charisma and ability to be a bandleader, social critic and multi instrumentalist. Fela orchestrated most of his these songs in a similar way. They always feature remarkable up tempo tribal drumming with very spacious funk guitar in the background. Then throw in a trumpet for a little ska sound every so often. Finally the sax, keys and bass then take turns either running the show on their own or repeating and building on the harmony the other has started. Throw in the Pidgin English Fela often sings and you have the signature sound of Afro-Beat.
Gentleman is often viewed as the launching point for Fela’s extremely prolific period in the mid 70s when he might drop 5 to 10 albums in a year. His previous releases were strong musical achievements but in a sense they are all building towards something found here. The catalyst for his emerging success here was Kuti’s need for a new saxaphone player. Instead of replacing the previous one Fela simply learned the instrument himself very rapidly between albums. This record is the first instance of him with that instrument and the increased ability to generate his own visions more fully is one of the defining instances in Fela’s career. He was now in charge of the singing as well as the electric piano and multiple saxophones.
The high point in Fela’s career up to that point is the opening track here. It starts out slowly with Fela laying down basic melodies on his new instrument of choice. Newcomers to Kuti will know a little after the 2 minute mark if this music is for them as the song then really takes off. The drummer comes in with a steady beat a few bars before the rest of the band arrives and the dance party begins.
The song itself is a ridicule of fellow Nigerians who Fela viewed as eroded by the peer pressure of British colonialism. Nigeria had been independent since 1960 but the effects on its citizens were still being felt. He strongly believed the fashions and beliefs of European oppressors should not have been adopted by the natives. Despite the popular quote, “It is better to look good than to feel good” many historical trends have been harmful or deadly. Fashions including corsets, foot binding and lead paint based makeup. Fela’s gripe here is simply with the acceptance of the suit and tie as well as their implications hence the cover of the album and his claim for the necessity of being an “African original”.
The other two tracks are thought of as B sides to the title track. Each is shorter at about 8 minutes and deal with topics not quite as serious. Take the track two lyrics based off of this Ashanti proverb.
It is because of the beauty
That is why a woman
Holds her breasts when she runs
Not because the breast is going to fall
These tracks are both decent but lack the fire of the opener. 3rd track Igbe does have a nice groove, amazing drum work and a less playful tone but like the previous track it also leans towards being too repetitive at times and lacks the full sound offered when played live with the big band.
Kuti’s Gentleman is looked back on as one of his standout releases. He skills grew and he released better records as time passed but as his works were largely autobiographical one would not want to miss this interesting chapter.