Review Summary: Riding the rhythm to Freedom...
It starts low, unassuming, a fast, groovy chord pattern repeating over and over on the guitar. After a few bars a keyboard overlays the guitar with chord stings and bass notes, adding color to the groove. The drums start to pound their way into the beat, just one or two at first, tapping out a syncopated snare rhythm as rolling scales begin come out of the keyboard. As the new elements settle in drum patterns bubble to the surface of the music and then suddenly the horns blast into the foreground and the groove explodes into full bloom, soloing saxophones, trumpets dancing up and down the scales all while the same 3 chord repetition forms the spinal column that all the other limbs, organs and tissues of the unified body that is Fela Ransome Kuti and Africa 70. Because this musical collective, with frontman and spiritual leader Fela acting as both brain and heart, do form a unified body, a singularity of expression that commands you to dance, to be free, to realize that you are the master of your own fate which no government can command if you don’t allow it to. The music is exuberant, celebratory, impossible not to move to, roaring with that single chord progression for 13 minutes that feel like they go by in 3. This is Fela Ransome Kuti, and this is "Expensive Shit".
Second track Water No Get Enemy tones things down a bit from the opener, the groove is mid-paced and the guitar is given a little bit more to do, but the song is no less danceable, with the same elements of the group making their presence known. With the song featuring a greater focus on lyrics, the female backup vocals (all of whom were Fela’s wives) are given more to do, singing the earworm refrain of “Water, he no get enemy”, which make a nice contrast to Fela’s deeper vocals. It doesn’t carry with it the explosive power of the title track and it stands as a slightly less essential statement, but when the other half of the album is “Expensive Shit” it sets a standard that is nearly impossible to live up to.
Incredibly, despite the massive number of musicians comprising the Africa 70 the instrumentals don’t sound overcrowded in the least. Saxophone and keyboard solos ride the rhythm section without becoming obtrusive, a difficult feat when both songs are over 10 minutes in length. When Fela himself sings his voice is treated as another instrument in the mix, albeit a bit more authoritative than the saxophone and keyboard. He sings in a rolling baritone speaking truth to corrupt power, a defiance that would later have painful consequences for Fela . Lyrically, he speaks about government corruption and freedom in oblique references to shit and water, the former as a foul substance that people instinctively avoid, the latter as an uncontrollable element, essential, sustaining and benign unless treated with disrespect. They are allusions the Nigerian government did not fail to notice, having long been antagonistic towards Fela’s brand of antigovernment sentiment. This tension would come to a head as 2 years after the release of Expensive Shit the Nigerian Army would destroy his compound, burn his instruments and recording equipment and murder his mother. Even these acts failed to quell the music and spirit of Fela Kuti.
While Expensive Shit follows the same basic formula that Fela would utilize on most of his albums, (fast opener on side 1 midpaced side 2, all about 20-30 minutes in length) it is the clearest musical expression of the sound and vision that he and his backing band were creating. It may not be as powerful a political statement as later albums Zombie or Sorrow Tears & Blood but it stands as the most musically flawless album of his long career. Herein, the wildest, dirtiest elements of Jazz, Funk and African Rhythm are combined into a powerfully danceable statement of independence from Africa’s greatest musical hero. Expensive Shit is an essential experience for anyone who loves jazz, funk, African music or just music in general.