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Simone White

At last year’s Damon Albarn-sponsored Honest Jon’s Chop Up, the most perplexing figure was not Albarn behind a keyboard, Tony Allen on the drum riser, Candi Staton belting, or the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble swinging as one. It was White, a pleasant-enough songstress on her debut who cut an uncanny figure in person, her whispered songs enchanting amid an otherwise rowdy and rollicking night of music. Tonight she returns to re-murmur those songs, the stage completely to herself. With Sharon Van Etten.

Sat., Jan. 31, 11:30 p.m., 2009

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Funky Drummers and Orchestral Masterminds

I’m an old-school fool who’ll steal a 45 (that’s a record, son) over a compact disc any night of the week, but when labels push lushly packaged CD compilations encompassing dope, hard-to-find original albums, I can only say, “Um, pretty please?” Such is the case with a long-overdue duo of two-CD sets that illuminate two master musicians who to this day continue to mess up genres and make music.

Years before Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his Afrika 70 juggernaut attained iconic status trailblazing Afrobeat throughout Lagos and the world (raising all sorts of hell in the process), another sax-playing Nigerian bandleader was already forging his own brand of booty-bouncin’ Afropop. True, here in the U.S., Orlando Julius Aremu Olusanya Ekemode is no household name (firstly, you’d need a sizable house), but to crate-diggers worldwide he has long been worth getting all dusty-fingered over. Julius began churning out breakbeat-laden singles in the early ’60s with his 10-piece band, the Modern Aces, and when in 1966 they birthed their first long-player, Super Afro Soul, he demonstrated his uncanny skills at bridging the Atlantic by mashing Latin percussion, high-life guitars, r&b horns, and a nascent funk attack—all particularly showcased on “Ijo Soul,” a song strikingly similar to James Brown’s mega-hit “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Which came first? Sorry, do your own homework.

Residing in Ibadan, Orlando used his orchestral prowess to attract musicians from all over, including one trumpet-wielding Fela Kuti. Fela, freshly returned from London and looking to get his own mojo working, frequently sat in, soaked up Julius’s juice, soon traded trumpet for sax, “borrowed” a few Modern Aces, and formed the Koola Lobitos, the band that would hammer out the sonic blueprint for Afrobeat before Fela’s infamous Afrika 70 officially catapulted it. This reissue seeks to steal a bit of that original mojo back; a second disc, subtitled Orlando’s Afro Ideas 1969-72, adds select tracks from Julius’s three subsequent albums.

Afrobeat, of course, would be nothing without its furiously distinct beat, and this beat would be nothing without its father, longtime Kuti cohort Tony Oladipo Allen. An octopus-like polyrhythmic machine, Allen was to Fela and Afrobeat what Melvin Parker/Jabo Starks/Clyde Stubblefield were to James Brown and funk: These drummers simply deepened and changed the pocket of popular music forever. Unlike JB’s funky drum corps, however, Allen (who had helped Kuti jump-start the aforementioned Koola Lobitos) successfully grabbed the spotlight by securing his own record deal, releasing four solo LPs from 1975 to ’79, the first three (Jealousy, Progress, and No Accommodation for Lagos) utilizing Fela as co-producer and sideman, the last (No Discrimination) self-produced with his own band, the Afro Messengers.

All four records are lovingly presented here. Because they’re mostly instrumental and lack Fela’s agitprop lyrics, Allen’s efforts were often dismissed by detractors as “Afrobeat-lite.” (Oh, you don’t like “Funky Drummer,” either? Okaaay.) But Fela’s obvious aesthetic—like Mr. Brown’s in all JB side projects—permeates each “song.” And the drumming? Well, one can only agree with Kuti’s proclamation that “Tony Allen sounds like five drummers at once,” able to paint the rhythms of juju, highlife, jazz, soul, and funk onto one glorious Afrobeat canvas.

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Music

Afrobeatpusherman

Tony Allen does more with a hi-hat than most drummers do with an entire kit. On January 15 at the Knitting Factory, the first of his Afrobeat 2000 quartet’s four U.S. shows, he guided the group through a plethora of tempos and grooves using what often sounded like deceptively simple rhythms. When a cut like “Afropusherman” toyed with free-form territory in a miasma of reverberating Rhodes, bass, and digital effects (courtesy of blond dred Parisian Doctor L), Allen dropped anchor with nothing but a shake of his snare. A resident of France since 1985, Allen, at 61, has almost single-handedly modernized Afrobeat—the slinky funk-soul he invented with his late, great Nigerian musical partner, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti—on two recent albums, Black Voices (1999) and Psyco on Da Bus (2001), both produced by Doctor L. At the Knit, his band ranged from spiritual-and-ethereal to deep-and-dubby to housey-and-thumpy. (Brooklyn-based Afrobeat disciples Antibalas opened the gig and appeared overjoyed to join the master for a rousing rendition of “Black Voices.”)

Dapper in white hat and dark shades, Allen at times played the drums like a club DJ: He’d pull out the kick to allow harmonic tension to build, then reinsert it along with an enlivened hi-hat and an organ stab to form a brand-new funk. Each time, a crowd whoop was emitted in kind. Other times, his trademark stutter-snaps and inverted rhythms conjured the irresistible irregularity of Timbaland, while traditional chanting by himself and bassist Cesar Anot harkened back to the African motherland. With Doctor L adding ambient sounds and effects on his sampler/sequencer (conducting an infrared sensor like a theremin), the band couldn’t have touched more cultures playing Twister on a world map. “This Afrobeat is not so easy,” Allen said by way of complimenting Antibalas toward show’s end, although he certainly had this crowd fooled. —Eric Demby


Chance Encounter

As a well-read guy old enough to remember postmodernism, Marc Ribot has issues with authenticity; hence his Cubanos Postizos, the Prosthetic Cubans. He has even bigger issues with guitar heroes, and has worked for years to disappoint smitten fans for whom he was the great white hope of Rock Guitar, the standard-bearer of Jimi and Keith. His new Saints is a solo, largely acoustic affair of false starts, buzzing strings, unexpected twists and turns. With plaintive minimalism he thunks out spirituals, standards, and a few Albert Aylers, mangled most lovingly. Beauty, friends, is in the details.

Last Thursday at Makor, Ribot offered an evening of “jazz, soul, and abjection.” He borrows the art world’s concept of the abject not in the NEA-baiting, body-fluids vein but in the homespun, crudely colorful way of, say, Richard Tuttle. Apparently Ribot didn’t like the worshipful hush that surrounded his Saints material in October at Tonic, because at supper-clubby Makor he decided to put on a show with himself as the sideman.

And who better to front than singer and saxophonist James Chance? That notorious lowlife, author of “White Cannibal” and “King Heroin,” made a career of flaunting his rage at not being James Brown. In his element—channeling Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as the late Elvis, doing a Young Frankenstein stomp to “St. James Infirmary”—Chance performs the abject like nobody’s business. (After Chance introduced “Don’t Worry About Me,” my friend, a former psych resident, remarked, “Actually, I do.”) Though they came up in the same No Wave milieu, it was a strange meeting: the intellectual Ribot experimenting with playing his “worst,” and Chance, who doesn’t get around much outside the occasional Contortions reunion, pulling out all the stops to play good. The resulting awkwardness was—what can one say? A funny-embarrassing work of abjection. —David Krasnow


Agents Provocateurs

VH1’s bleeding edge was in effect at Irving Plaza last Wednesday for the arrival of reality-TV heroes Flickerstick, the band of scraggly Dallas artistes (honest!) who braved impending alcohol poisoning, god-awful competition, and their own proclivity toward violence to score a major-label deal thanks to the unintentional sketch-comedy series Bands on the Run.

Fame can be a good thing. The beer is free. The group’s outfits, once broke-vintage, are now fashion-vintage. Girls too. Flickerstick are the type of band that has girls fighting in the crowd. Or more to the point, Flickerstick are the type of band whose fans are the type of girls who would fight at a Flickerstick show. Spunky.

You sense the guys appreciate the culture clash. After all, they’re the ones singing “She’s only 18/It’s such a beautiful dream/All she needs is some chloroform and she’ll be mine” like they’re headlining a power-ballad convention. Their generally pleasant cover of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” replaces silence with cacophony. In general, singer Brandin over-emotes in voice and gesture while the band plays the faceless, optimistic riffs. It’s as if someone pressed pause at a Journey or Foreigner show and let the guys loose 15 years later. Demographically targeted nostalgia, courtesy of VH1.

TV has honed them to a matte finish. They toss their sweat rags, earplugs, and guitar picks to the crowd with alarming regularity (hello, eBay!). During the first encore, singer Brandin—looking more like Johnny Rzeznik every day—materializes at the corner of the balcony, hovering over the crowd, begging them to watch his display of self-loathing. After they finish the nine-minute slow burn “Direct Line to the Telepathic,” blond-fauxhawked drummer Dominic thrashes his setup—hey, it’s on Epic!—and strikes a victory pose. Mr. Sirulnick, they’re ready for their close-up now. —Jon Caramanica

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Afrobeat Generations

Am I the only one who finds the more or less coincident release by MCA of a chunk of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s catalog and elder son Femi’s first major-label album to be un peu gauche? An almost endearingly classic Oedipal anxiety surrounds the marketing of 37-year-old Femi’s Shoki Shoki, his not unpleasant yet watered-down and admittedly condensed continuation of Fela’s brash and utterly radical afrobeat sound. Femi has been recording and touring for more than a decade. But like Julian Lennon, Ziggy Marley, and even old “Bocephus” Williams (not to mention HWIII), Femi has established himself not in opposition to his father, but as his mostly ho-hum successor.

They say only when Dad kicks the bucket does Junior truly become a man; but the trappings of phallic overthrow are apparent throughout Femi’s career. Femi led Fela’s Egypt 80 band in the mid ’80s, while his father was imprisoned on trumped-up currency-smuggling charges (today Femi’s teenage half-brother Seun leads members of that band in a kind of Fela rap act). Femi, however, wanted to do his own thing upon Fela’s release from jail after 18 months, causing a long rift the two eventually mended. Nevertheless, Femi’s inevitable kill-daddy impulses have been neatly sublimated into his recent work.

Shoki Shoki‘s title translates as “stud stud,” and the Eurohit “Beng Beng Beng” is dick-as-gun porn-funk belying Femi’s image as monogamous good boy in contrast, of course, to Fela’s polygamy and promiscuity. (“Twenty-seven wives?” sniffs Femi, who ought to know, in interviews. “Twenty-seven problems.”) And most of Femi’s compositions, though iced by trip-hop production sparkles, stick to an abbreviated version of the template used throughout his father’s 80-plus albums: a rhythmic intro, a horn-driven statement of the composition’s theme, a pidgin English vocal section including call-and-response interplay with the chorus, a sax solo, then an outro.

But where Fela named names, Femi sticks to relatively bland antiauthoritarian generalities in songs like “Sorry Sorry,” wherein he quotes two of his father’s more incendiary and bitterly satiric tunes: “Mr. Follow Follow” and its original A side, “Zombie,” the mocking antimilitary number that some believe was responsible for the attack by 1000 soldiers on Fela’s compound in 1977, a siege that resulted in rapes, beatings, murders, and the eventual death of Fela’s mother. Femi, however, writes songs like “Eregele,” which cautions against the “dangerous play” inherent in ice hockey and kick boxing, and “Scatta Head,” a sort of observational, have-you-ever-noticed-how? pop song warning listeners that long division, mixing alcohols, and (presumably female) breasts can really mess up your head.

Femi, in all fairness, is no mere “chairboy of the board.” His live shows with his band Positive Force are a rousing chip off the old block, and he’s been lucky enough to throw his coming-out party in conjunction with renewed international interest in afrobeat and its cousins. Compilations like the U.K. Harmless label’s AfricaFunk and the French Comet label’s Racubah! and Ouelele reflect and enhance interest in the sort of African jazz-funk being played, for example, by orthodox afrobeat revivalists like New York’s Antibalas. But why now?

In his forthcoming Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon (Temple University Press, June), a virtually indispensable study for anyone interested in either Fela or West African popular music in general, ethnomusicologist Michael Veal concludes that “Fela’s odyssey will likely be fondly remembered as an episode that, while it accurately forecasted the future problems resulting from the corruption of Nigeria’s leadership during the country’s economic heyday, is inextricably linked to the halcyon days of that period”—an era of “bliss, folly, and sorrow,” according to Ghana’s Accra Daily Graphic, with only the latter of those terms still relevant today.

One of the great countercultural figures of modern times, Fela visited America in 1969 and returned to Nigeria with both a trans-African point of view and The Funk. Raised by autocratic parents with liberal ideas, he had a career that flourished under duress. From “Lady,” which castigates knee-jerk antitraditional feminism, to “ODOO (Overtake Don Overtake Overtake),” a raging critique of Africa’s unmandated military governments, not a single note on the Femi-compiled two-CD hits collection The Best Best of Fela Kuti sounds as though it were played in anything other than playfully vehement opposition to the status quo. Most of Fela’s work, in fact, lies firmly in the Yoruban tradition of “abuse songs” criticizing bad social or political behavior.

Fela was not working in a vacuum. You can hear his afrobeat almost verbatim in tracks by African musicians ranging from King Sunny Ade (whose guitarist Bob Ohiri played in Afrika 70) and Sonny Okosuns in Nigeria to Bembeya Jazz National in Guinea. Bootsy Collins picked up on Fela in Lagos during James Brown’s African tour in 1970, while George Clinton quotes “Mr. Follow Follow” in “Nubian Nut.” But nobody—even James Brown, whose “Hot Pants Road” Veal cites as an example of Fela’s influence—played Fela like Fela played Fela. Lifting the Brownian motion (as arranged by “Pee Wee” Ellis) during his visit to America, Fela returned it to Africa, where he replaced the music’s often goofy sexual content with populist politics. He added Coltrane-ish modality to Brown’s one-chord vamps, soul shouts, and chicken-scratch guitar, and gave himself more solo space than West African music traditionally condoned. His wavering sax and piano solos sounded almost sarcastic in tone, as though he were mocking The Man while challenging anyone to criticize his lack of technical expertise.

A teaser for a series of 20 Fela albums MCA will reissue over the next two months on 10 CDs, Best Best tends to rein in the excessive nature of what Fela came to characterize as his “classical African music” (attributed to marijuana’s influence by some), editing down his increasingly spacey 20-or 30-minute compositions to 10 or 15 minutes. And I don’t think you need to be Dr. Freud of Vienna to discern the underlying impulse here.

“A real slave driver” of a bandleader, according to drummer Tony Allen, Fela could be as authoritarian, in his own way, as any African general. Kuti lost one of the world’s great drummers when Allen quit, along with the rest of Fela’s Afrika 70 band, in 1978. Fela continued to record and perform with a reconstituted group he named Egypt 80, but the earlier ensemble remains a legendary example of talent and rigor sacrificed to an ego as large as all Africa. Allen continued to record with conga wizard Henry Kofi and other members of Afrika 70, and his 1979 album No Discrimination is a rousing afrobeat classic.

Black Voices is even better; much better, in fact. Where Femi puts an electropop veneer on Fela’s sound, Allen has made a radically dubwise deconstructive departure from afrobeat’s orchestral complexities. The result is enigmatic and profound: Afro-Jamaican-American chamber music for the cosmic diaspora. One of the world’s great drummers in any genre, Allen is also one of the percussion world’s more beguiling polyrhythmists, with a knack for nearly always sounding like two players at once. On Black Voices he attacks the trap set with the lithe storytelling prowess of Tony Williams on Miles Davis’s Filles de Kilimanjaro. (Allen plays a minimalist Miles card hard throughout the “In a Silent Mix” version of “Asiko.”) Fela may have brought the funk to Africa, but—accompanied by P-Funk bassist Mike “Clip” Payne and guitarist Gary “Mudbone” Cooper—Allen takes it into outer space.

Where Fela and Femi shout, Allen sounds cooler than ice, muttering generic blackisms like “To know thy brother is to know thyself.” The secret word in “Ariya” turns out to be its “shabba-doo-bee-doo-bee-doo-bee-doo” refrain. This is postcolonial lounge dread, an intense and anxious yet laid-back sound with satirical undertones, beginning one step beyond the point where Fela stopped. If Fela’s music and pan-African dreams sprang in angry full force from the corrupt prosperity of ’70s Nigeria, and Femi’s music is a largely forgettable product of the dance-crazy ’90s, Tony Allen trades in the deep, dark future.

Femi Kuti plays Irving Plaza March 23. Tony Allen plays the Knitting Factory April 5.