Music To Sweep To 13: Fela Kuti

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Music To Sweep To is a (sorta) weekly blog feature about music that is good to listen to while working. You can read previous entries here. If you have any ideas or complaints, you can email them to alexgordon@pghcitypaper.com

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Ginger Baker, tall dude, famed asshole and terrific drummer, went to Africa in the early 1970s. Cream had broken up a few years before, and after short stints playing with Blind Faith and his own group, Air Force, Baker moved to Lagos, Nigeria, opened a music studio and started working with legendary Afrobeat artist Fela Kuti.

You can read all about this story online, or watch all about it in the 1971 documentary Ginger Baker In Africa, which is how I first discovered Kuti, via a great class at Pitt called Music of Africa. (I don’t know if he’s still there, but it was taught by Oye Dosunmu.)

Before delving into Fela Kuti, it’s probably worth acknowledging the irony of celebrating an iconic black African artist via a white British one. (Ironic, though not that uncommon.) I remember Oye illustrating this contradiction by pointing to the fact that Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings were categorized as soul in CD stores (it was 2005, they still existed), but Amy Winehouse’s album Back to Black — also recorded with the Dap Kings — was considered pop. That’s not a dig on Winehouse (RIP both of these phenomenal artists), but it’s just another example of how blackness in pop culture is interpreted as a statement, as other, and whiteness as default, neutral.

(Big up to Oye for teaching me about Jones, Antibalas and Daptone in general).

An unpleasant bulletpoint: Fela was super homophobic. There’s a song on his album with Baker called “Ye Ye De Small” which is a hateful and not-so-subtle reference to being disgusted by homosexuality. He did not keep the viewpoint a secret.

This is a tough issue.

I think everyone has to make up their own mind about their relationship to art made by artists whose opinions they find offensive. Eric Clapton said some super racist shit in the 1970s. Robert Wagner was adored by Hitler and his pals, but his operas are still pretty dope (also he died six years before Hitler was born, so …). Most recently, Dave Chappelle came out with two new specials that, while funny at parts, at times paint him as out of touch, arrogant, and old-school in the worst way.

I don’t think there’s a blanket approach that’ll work for everyone when it comes to separating art from artist, and artist from their views. Probably best to go on an artist-to-artist, issue-by-issue. (Oddly enough, Chappelle discusses this in his second special regarding his ambivalence towards Bill Cosby). So if you’d prefer to skip Fela altogether, that’s your call. We can still be friends.

OK, now that we’ve discussed systemic racism, homophobia and Bill Cosby, let’s talk about music.


Fela Kuti’s genre was Afrobeat. Definitions of that term vary but they all tend to include the words Africa, jazz and funk. He released music over four decades and his sound covered a lot of ground, but it was consistently political, exquisitely performed and funky. He’s got a few albums that are too upbeat for my tastes, particularly his ’69 Sessions, which veers a little too far into major-chorded James Brown-ish territory.

My favorite Fela stuff is dark, minor-chorded, minimal and glacially paced. That’s what you’ll find in this playlist. The shortest song is just under eight minutes. The tracks tend to open with a simple riff or minimal drum beat which guides the entire band for the duration, adding new elements on a strict four-bar schedule until the composition is loaded to the gills.

The do-not-miss tracks here: “No Agreement,” “Fear Not of Man” and “Sorrow Tears and Blood.” The horn line that comes in at 3:30 in “Fear Not” is one of the sickest moments in music history. (No. 2, if you're curious, Freddy Mercury and David Bowie's gibberish at the end of "Under Pressure.")

As far as music for sweeping goes, I can actually vouch for this. I work a part-time job that requires a fair amount of sweeping (as well as mopping, dusting, wiping things down), and this playlist soundtracks those tasks like a blanket on cold feet, or another, better-written analogy. The playlist is repetitive, engaging, balanced and dynamic in its production, and simply just really fun to listen to. I hope you enjoy.

Best if you work in: anything

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By the way, our own Mike Shanley did a great interview with Ginger Baker in 2015. Read it.

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