It’s a bitter irony that Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, Africa’s most famous and politically potent pop musician, became a symbol of the African AIDS crisis when he died of the disease in 1997, after claiming for years that it didn’t exist. It’s a much sweeter irony that the Red Hot Organization, which pioneered the concept of all-star tribute-albums that don’t suck, assembled this lively, independent-minded Fela tribute to fight AIDS in Africa.
Fela’s favorite trick was generating funk tension very slowly–on his records, a single groove could build and evolve for 45 minutes.Red Hot + Riot wisely adapts his approach for shorter attention spans: The tricky rhythms and clipped guitar lines remain intact, but a new instrument or guest star pops up every few seconds. Half the tracks here are posse cuts: “No Agree-ment” ropes in Res, Positive Black Soul, Fela’s former drummer Tony Allen, Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, Zairean soukous bandleader Ray Lema, and saxophonist Archie Shepp, whose ’60s jazz work was a key Fela influence.
The best performances here are the tracks least indebted to Fela’s originals, as when Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab and Lateef ditch everything but the basic riff and chorus from “Kalakuta Show” and chop it down from 14 minutes to three, creating the backdrop for a giddy, high-speed hip-hop showdown.
Occasionally, Riot wanders too far afield–Meshell NdegéOcello and Yerba Buena’s “Gentleman” has a beat reminiscent of Fela’s legendary backing crew Africa 70, but bears little resemblance to the Fela classic of the same name. It’s also unclear what an original Kelis song, a brief doodle by Common, or a vaguely Afro-tinged remix of Sade’s “By Your Side” are doing here. But Fela was a universalist above all else–he sang primarily in English, the language of the colonialism he despised, so he could be understood–and his compositions sound as fresh as ever in the hands of his heirs.