To be quite honest, this particular column is not so much about an album as it is about a song. A song that’s one of those rare tracks that transcends being an ultimately forgettable cut on an album. It’s one of those songs that requires your undivided attention for its entirety and leaves you in a whirlwind state of slipping in and out of lucidity as you lose yourself to its downright infectious groove. And when it ends, you have no choice but to put down your headphones and recuperate since you know that music in general just won’t live up to your expectations for the near future.
But first, some background. Fela Kuti, the legendary Nigerian “Afrobeat” musician (a term which he himself coined), wasn’t originally planning on being one. He arrived in London in the late 1950s to study medicine, but instead decided to end up studying music, enamored with the burgeoning jazz scene in the city. He soon traveled back to Nigeria to fully devote himself to music and (to abridge things quite a bit) developed a long, legendary career making music just as daring and inventive politically and socially as it was musically. From Zombie to Best of The Black President, his music was revered throughout Africa and eventually the world, combining upbeat, jazzy instrumentals with scathing social commentary.
Gentleman is, in comparison, not one of his most canonized albums, but its titular track is Fela Kuti at his bold, catchy and doesn’t-give-a-fuck best. The first 30 seconds set the track’s groove, with an electric piano that solos shortly but eventually acts as an announcement of Kuti’s tenor saxophone. As the percussion drops out, Kuti performs the first of several solos until introducing the track’s main melodic theme around two minutes in. Soon, the percussion reappears with a funky electric guitar backing as Kuti spends the next six minutes launching into a meandering, delightful solo.
Kuti himself arrives at around the eight-minute mark singing, “I no be gentleman at all” in his uniquely powerful, soaring voice. He punctuates his repetitions of this line with energetic vocalizations that make him seem like he’s running out of breath before he launches into an even more powerful chant. He confidently asserts: “I be Africa man, original.”
In typical Fela Kuti style, he sings in a distinct pidgin dialect as he criticizes the hypocrisy of those of his countrymen who he feels have been too Anglicized. He sings, “Africa hot, I like am so / I know what to wear, but my friends don’t know” as he then describes the impractical uniform some of his countrymen dress in as an indirect form of acquiescence to their colonial masters while forgetting their own roots.
Throughout its 14-minute span, “Gentleman” never ceases to be wildly entertaining. Like a lot of Fela Kuti’s music, it is imbued with a sense of utter freedom, individuality and relentless energy. Although the two other tracks on the short album are worthy cuts themselves, the title track is a Fela Kuti magnum opus and a great introduction to a truly vibrant genre.