Tag Archives: music

The disappearance of adult music

When I was growing up in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, there was a clear demarcation between youth music and adult music. On the radio dial, the stations which marketed themselves toward the younger demographic played pop, rock, disco, R & B, soul and heavy metal. Alternatively, the stations which had an older, more mature audience played mainly classical and jazz. Most major cities in the U.S.A. had stations which were devoted exclusively to these genres as recently as a couple of decades ago. Those stations are now extinct, or nearly extinct. Teenage pop music, rap, and hip hop have taken over those coveted bandwidths on the radio waves. The adult audience has been unceremoniously evicted from radio.

This dire situation is compounded by the fact that restaurants, coffeeshops and cafes have followed the lead of the radio stations. Only in the most high-end and five-star restaurants can one now listen to classical or traditional music. I live in a large Southeast Asian metropolis, and I go out to eat and drink frequently. I can say unequivocally that teen pop music, along with cover music, has completely taken over the ambience in eating and drinking establishments. It doesn’t matter which neighborhood, which cafe or which restaurant I’m in. It doesn’t matter if it’s a chain or independent establishment. It matters neither whether it is Eastern or Western food or if it caters to tourists or locals, rich or poor.  The music is always the same; shite pop music marketed to teens.

In shopping malls, gourmet markets, clothing stores, and convenience stores, it’s the same. Every time I open a door to walk inside ANY business, my ears are assaulted with the hideous, putrid garbage commonly known as ‘modern pop.’ Most of the time, the music is played at a loud volume. It is far beyond ‘background music.’ In other words, there is no escape. 

What’s particularly interesting about this phenomenon is how utterly unaware people are of it. Whenever I question random people about the music, they reply with answers such as: “Oh, I didn’t notice it,” or “It doesn’t bother me,” or “It’s ok.” When pressed further, they are unable to identify either the genre or the artist currently being  piped over the speakers. Apparently, it’s just some noise with a melody, but they don’t have a strong opinion about it either way.

At the moment, I’m sitting inside an extremely popular and hip coffeeshop chain during lunch hour. Approximately 25 percent of the clientele is over the age of 50 and half of the customers are at least 30 years of age. Yet none of them seem aware, let alone bothered by, the loud pop music wafting from the overhead speakers.

Here in Asia, Western music has completely  uprooted traditional music. However, despite the fact that Western music is now ubiquitous and that a large percentage of the youth is studying English, the locals  still can’t understand the lyrics of the songs. The convergence of the popularity of Western pop with the inability of the population to understand the lyrics creates bizarre and sometimes hilarious scenes. For example, the elderly who practice traditional Western dances such as the waltz in the park listen to a song where the singer croons about dumping his girlfriend whom he now despises. The oblivious couples think that they are listening to a ‘romantic’ song. The managers of fashionable clothing stores marketed to tourists play hip- hop songs from playlists downloaded from the internet. Last week, I was in such a store. This is what I heard from the speakers: “Hey motherfucker, whatcha gonna do? Fuck that shit, you can go fuck yourself, bitch….” And on and on. I pulled the young kid who was working on the floor aside and politely told him that perhaps this wasn’t the most appropriate music to be playing and nodded toward the families and kids nearby. He thought for a moment and said, “Yes, ok,” and wandered over to change the music.

What about the  European parents who were in the store at that time? Did they not mind the music? Did they find that music appropriate for their children? They too seemed oblivious. We find ourselves in a predicament now where all of us, regardless of our age or preferences, listen to kids’ music. The adults in the world have abdicated the radio airwaves and the wider soundscape in the public sphere without a fight or even a whimper of protest.

I have found only one man, in Britain, who at least is trying to do something. I can only pray that he can find some support. Here in Asia, the battle is lost. All I can do now is fight a defensive battle and pick and choose the places I frequent with extreme caution if I wish to protect my brain from being scrambled with what passes these days for ‘music.’


The absolute horror of cover music.

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was familiar with cover bands. These were what we called ‘garage bands,’ a group of guys who enjoyed occasionally getting together to perform gigs at parties or special events for friends. The band members were proficient enough on their instruments to learn popular songs and play them well, but they weren’t songwriters. Some cover/garage bands were better than others. The best ones spent a lot of time rehearsing and could play a cover song with real gusto and flair. My brothers had cover bands play at their weddings,  and they put on great shows.

There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with a band playing and singing the music of other bands. If people don’t have the opportunity or the money to see their favorite band perform live, then seeing a cover band play those songs at a show can be a satisfying alternative.  I have had many enjoyable evenings listening and dancing to cover bands.

However, in the last couple of decades, an entire industry has been created to record and market cover music. This industry has nothing to do with weekend garage bands. Like all big industries, it is all about money- big money. The epicenter of the cover music industry is in Asia, where people are absolutely infatuated  over cover music. How and why this came to be I have no idea. Cover music is now so ingrained in the culture of Asia that it’s almost become part of the scenery.

I know this because I often visit restaurants, coffee shops, lounges, and bars,  and cover music is played in the majority of these establishments. Managers arrive in the morning, press ‘play’ on the computer screen where there is a ten-hour long playlist of cover songs and then forget about the music for the rest of the day.

Cover music, specifically the recored playlists which are widely played in eating and drinking venues, is an abomination, for many reasons. People, particularly Asians, need to wake up to this fact and demand to hear real music again.

First, the songs which are covered are all from English-speaking bands, usually from the United States and England. Most of the people in Asia listening to this music have not the slightest idea what the songs are about. The lyrics are unintelligible to them. Even locals who have a moderate grasp of English can’t understand the vast majority of songs which are played on the sound systems at their jobs. Even worse, they don’t even try to understand the words. The music, being played all day, every day, just becomes background noise, something that is not worth paying attention to.

Second, the young Asian crowds listening to the songs are wholly unfamiliar with the original songs. They know they’re listening to cover songs, but haven’t a clue who wrote the song in the first place. And they couldn’t care less. They don’t know that the original song was sung nothing like the cover version and had a completely different feeling to it.

Third , the bands whose songs are being covered, recorded, and marketed are not given their rightful  share of royalties. The musicians who wrote the songs don’t have the time, money, or energy to travel around the world with lawyers and try to rein in the huge and ever-growing cover music industry. Intellectual property rights, contracts, and royalties are not the concern of customers who sit and listen to cover music for hours on end in coffee shops in Seoul, Tokyo, and Saigon.

Next, the songs are all covered and sung by young women who change the tempo and feeling of the songs. You see, in Asia, they love what is called ‘relaxing’ music. Music in Asia is seen as  something which should calm the nerves after being out in traffic all afternoon. This is the main reason why Kenny G is a god-like figure throughout Asia. So, in the cover music factory, probably located somewhere in the suburbs of Tokyo or Seoul, the female singers take the songs and sing them in a mellow and ‘soft jazz’ kind of style. Now, that might work for some songs, but the cover music managers have their singers do this for all songs. I’ve been in Asia long enough now to realize that probably every Billboard Top 100 song from 1965 to the present day has been covered, recorded, and sold.  I used to think that they just preferred to cover the ‘soft rock’ hits from the 70s and 80s, like the Carpenters and Terry Jacks, but now I’ve heard nearly every genre covered.

For example, I recently heard the famous hit from The Police, ‘Every Breath You Take,’ being played as a cover song in a Japanese restaurant which I frequent. That song was always creepy; after all, it’s about a stalker. Sting sang it with just the right amount of menace in his voice to make it work. However, in the Asian cover version, the female crooner turns the song inside out and tries to make it into a mellow  love song! “Hey, I’ll be watching you, la-la-la.”

Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot of Bob Marley’s songs on cover playlists. The gourmet market where I shop has been playing this list frequently in the last month. It is bizarre to hear some young Asian female singing “I remember when we used to sit….in the government yard in Trenchtown.” (From Marley’s famous song ‘No Woman No Cry.’) That woman singing the song probably couldn’t even find Jamaica on a map. It was always bad enough to hear cover songs from the Carpenters, but now they’re covering Reggae and Grunge music!

Herein lies the rub: these companies pumping out cover versions of famous songs can copy the melody and the lyrics, but they can never duplicate or replicate the feeling or the soul of the song. They know this, and they don’t even try. They slow the beat down on every song and just tell the girl to sing it like it’s a lounge song. It simply doesn’t matter if the original feeling of the song is obliterated in the process. The cover music  industry managers do this to every song. Hell, I recently heard ‘Come as You Are’ the famous song from Nirvana played on a cover playlist. It’s not a very good song; it’s completely nonsensical  and the only reason it had success was Cobain’s hoarse and edgy voice and the thumping bass line.

I’ve asked various people over the last few years, both customers and restaurant managers, why they were playing and listening to cover music. After all, since the original versions of the songs are available, for free on the internet, why not just play the originals? Why listen to a 20-year-old Korean girl sing ‘No Woman No Cry’ when you can just play the entire ‘Exodus’ album from YouTube and hear Bob Marley sing it? I’ve never gotten a clear answer. The customers don’t pay any attention to what’s playing, and the managers always say something like, “Well, we like cover music. Her voice is so good. It’s so relaxing. The customers like it.” Or, “My boss likes this kind of music.”

It appears that cover music has taken over Asia. Not only are the original songs being lost, but the indigenous music of Asia has receded so far into the background that it, too, risks going extinct. I protest as much as I can, but I’m just one person. Unless people demand an end to this nonsense, this is what we will be living with in our future: Soul-less, corporate junk music which will continue to lobotomize the public into a permanent zombie state.






Why you should never use the ‘shuffle’ function on iTunes

The introduction of iTunes in 2001 created a huge shift in how people bought, organized, and played their music. There’s no way to overstate how profound these changes were for the music-buying public. Before iTunes, music consumers had to buy an entire album, either on vinyl, or later, on compact disc. With this new technology, people could purchase individual songs from the comfort of their living room, and organize those songs into unique playlists.

I have purchased many songs and albums from iTunes over the past ten years and I love its ease of use. I created playlists of my favorite dance music, romantic music, and study music. It was fun and, at times, exhilarating, to play dj and create playlists which I could share with friends or simply enjoy in my car and living room.

One of the functions of iTunes and other similar media players is ‘shuffle,’ or what I like to call ‘random play.’ I have never used this particular function and I never plan to. In fact, I despise random play and I include it in my list of the worst inventions of the past century.

In the days when we used to purchase albums, it was understood by the general listening public  that some thought and effort went into the arrangement of the songs . The band members, along with the producer, sat down and decided the order of songs. Furthermore, they needed to figure out  which songs would go on side ‘A’ and which on side ‘B.’  If they did their job well, the album would form a cohesive whole, a unity. While the individual songs could, and did, stand on their own merit, the whole was even greater than the sum of the parts.

In this sense, radio was the enemy of the artist, as it had no need for albums. It wanted only songs and specifically, hit songs. Hence, radio became something of a double-edge sword for musicians and bands. On the one hand, it gave them necessary exposure which translated into more sales and thus more money. On the other hand, radio chose only the songs it deemed worthy of air-play, using its own skewed commercial criteria. The one or two songs extracted from most albums for heavy airplay were probably not the best songs on many albums, and most likely were not the favorites of the musicians either. In the best case scenario, listeners who enjoyed the songs being played on the radio went out to buy the album. Once they owned it, they could play it at leisure and experience the entire album, as it was meant to be experienced.

Although iTunes is wonderful in many ways, it also has a dark side, as does every technology. By enabling us to pick and choose songs to buy, divorced from the album and the context of that album, we are missing out on something important. To take the songs in our music library and then to play them in a random order, chosen by a computer, well…that’s going too far.

I remember well the first time I realized that I had a problem with random play. I was in the car of a new friend who was in her 20s. She was driving and her music was playing on the stereo; she had a USB plugged in. I asked her a few questions about the artists, the songs, and the albums. She couldn’t answer any of my questions. She just giggled stupidly and said, “I just turn on random play. I don’t know anything about the albums or anything.”

Nowadays, when I go out to a coffee shop or restaurant, I can always tell when the owner has his ‘random’ setting on. The sequence of songs makes little to no sense.

Yesterday I ate breakfast at a cute little cafe that I like to visit. I should say that I like to go there for the food, not for the atmosphere. The owner is a French hipster who imagines himself to have great taste in music. He instructs his staff to play his computer playlist, on random play, of course. So, I was treated to a hip-hop song, followed by some French pop, followed by American pop, followed by an 80s pop song, followed by some rap music…..and on and on. While the owner imagines that he’s serenading his customers with his exquisite taste in music, in reality we are being subjected to a jarring and discordant mess. This is standard at many of the places which I visit and otherwise like.

The dictionary defines random thusly: ‘proceeding, made, or occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern. ‘ Why would anyone want to have their sequence of songs occurring without any reason or pattern? Why would anyone want to have a computer program choose what song is played next? These are questions I will probably never have answered satisfactorily.  In the meantime, all I can do is ask the manager to turn the music off.


DJs and their silly, pretentious egos

Pretentiousness is a vice that receives relatively little attention in the press and in popular literature.  Perhaps because it is seen as a relatively harmless foible, and causes no direct harm, academics and intellectuals mostly bypass it to focus more on greed, wrath, and lust. The dictionary defines pretentious as ‘ characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, especially when exaggerated or undeserved.’

One of the few writers who  tackled the subject and wrote about it eloquently was the late mystic and philosopher Alan Watts. In the classic, Does It Matter? , Watts deftly demonstrated how the European/American  aristocracy, along with the military and political establishment, wallowed in self-importance and pretentiousness, highlighted by their absurd uniforms. The epitome of this particular form of pomposity is the military general with his epaulettes, ribbons, medals, shiny boots, and so on.

But pretentiousness is not limited to politicians, millionaires, generals, and movie stars. If only that were true! One of the biggest groups suffering from the disease of pretentiousness is disc jockeys.

Recently I came across a promo ad for an ‘internationally renowned’ DJ who is scheduled to ‘perform’ next month in Ho Chi Minh City. The prominently placed ad was found in a glossy ‘zine marketed to wealthy expats here. The zine is called ‘Word’ and as you may have noticed from some of my previous posts, it is not a rag I am fond of or have any respect for.

First of all, isn’t it interesting that almost every promo for a DJ advertises him or her as being ‘internationally renowned’?  Is there some official sanctioning agency for DJs which confers this title and honor ? I don’t think so. And even if there were, would anyone take it seriously or mention it without laughing? No. The whole thing is a charade. Any DJ can put ‘internationally renowned’ after his name, make up cards and flyers, and nobody will call him on it.

A couple of years ago, ‘Word’ magazine did an entire spread on a DJ who was doing a gig here. The tone of the article was akin to the coverage given to visiting royalty. The sycophantic writer gushed about how this dweeb was the greatest DJ in the WORLD!! and how fortunate we were that he had decided to visit this backwater. The DJ had the classic rich Eurotrash look, with the open shirt, gold chains, swept-back hair,  and bored expression. The writer advised us to ‘get our tickets quickly’ as they were sure to sell out…

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against DJs, per se. A good DJ can liven up a party and get people dancing so they have a useful role. I just don’t like what the job (please don’t call it a profession) has evolved into over the past twenty years. I’m old enough to remember what DJs used to be. In the 1980s when I first started going to nightclubs, DJs were just above janitors on the status pole. They were far below bartenders and even a few notches below the waiters. The disc jockey was the guy up in the dark booth, spinning  records and earning, if he was lucky, minimum wage. He was usually anonymous and had little hope of getting laid. How times have changed.

The change-over into the modern day celebrity DJ occurred in the early- to mid-90s, along with the rise of rave culture. Initially, I was very enthusiastic about the rave scene. The focus was shifting away from watching the guy in spandex on the stage and toward dancing and communal experience. The scene began almost exclusively as an underground phenomenon, with parties happening in  abandoned warehouses, secluded beaches, basements, and basically any venue that could be temporarily taken over for the night. However, during the meteoric rise of the rave phenomenon, something unfortunate happened: the partygoers transferred their adulation of the band to their adulation of the DJ. Instead of remaining in the background, where he should be, the DJ vaulted himself to front and center, and even onto the stage itself, spotlights and all. The formerly anonymous nobody suddenly became a rock star.

I remember when it happened. In the mid 90s, I started noticing flyers and ads with ‘DJ so-and-so’ in flashy colorful graphics. “There’s gonna be a party and DJ pretentious is spinning. Awesome!”

I blinked and said, “Huh? Since when did DJs become rock stars?”  That was twenty years ago and the DJ is still holding onto his undeserved status as ‘artist.’ In fact, he is not an artist, a musician, or an innovator. He is simply a poseur and an opportunist. Magazine reviewers, club owners and festival organizers all play their assigned roles in this elaborate game, meant to fool gullible hipsters and kids into giving up their money to see the DJ ‘perform.’ I actually saw an advertisement not long ago that said a DJ would be PERFORMING LIVE.  I guffawed when I saw that. A band can ‘perform live.’ A DJ cannot. The guy is playing with his computer, not performing live. What a surreal world we live in.


You don’t need much to get into the world of disc jockeying. Certainly, you don’t need talent, music or otherwise. What you need is attitude, lots of tattoos, an ability to frequently make (satanic) hand gestures, a baseball cap, and the vocal chords to frequently shout, “How’s everybody feeling tonight? Are you ready to party?”

Fifteen years ago, I went to a concert in San Francisco at the Fillmore. I arrived early enough to see the opening act, which was…a DJ. Some joker walked onto the stage, set up his computer on a small table, lit a cigarette, and started doing his schtick. The thing about DJs is that 99 percent of what they do is look busy. You gotta have those headphones on and fiddle with the switches and make it look like you’re doing something incredibly intricate and complicated, something almost..magical.  A few people in the audience started to sway a bit back and forth and a few more made a half-hearted effort to dance. The rest of the audience appeared confused and not knowing what else to do, watched the guy on stage staring at his computer and smoking a Marlboro. I stood in disbelief, wondering how the Fillmore, the band, and the promoter couldn’t manage to get a real band to open the performance.

When I watch Henry Rollins’ spoken word performances, I sometimes think, ‘Wow, he’s really sounding like an embittered, middle-aged man.” But hey, sometimes I sound like an embittered, middle-aged man too, so it’s ok. Plus, Henry and I grew up in the same neighborhood, and I like his take on a number of subjects, including DJs. He has nothing but contempt for them, especially the pretentious European variety, and I love it when he fixes his gaze at an imaginary DJ and says, “Hey dude, you’re a record- player, player. Get over yourself. You’re not a musician. You simply borrowed someone else’s music (and sweat), sampled it on your macintosh and then got up on stage.” Those aren’t his exact words, but it’s close enough. Right on, Henry.




Kate Bush is back!

Kate Bush is performing  live for the first time in 35 years! Most of her fans had given up hope that Bush would ever perform live again and were overjoyed when news came down that the eclectic and brilliant artist was going to perform in London.  Bush’s  first and only tour to date had been the 1979 tour to promote her debut album, “The Kick Inside.”

The first of 22 shows at London’s Eventim Apollo took place on Tuesday night and the reviews have been sparkling. Tickets for the series of shows, 77,000 in all, went on sale online last March  and sold out  in only 15 minutes. According to news stories on CNN and other major media outlets, people are flying to London from Japan, the USA, and other far-flung countries to attend one of the performances.


I don’t remember the exact time I first heard Wuthering Heights, her debut single, but I do recall thinking that she was totally unlike anyone, or anything, I had heard before. I was still in my early teens when the young chanteuse exploded on the scene in Britain and I was mostly listening to Led Zeppelin and AC/DC at the time. She never received the kind of adoration and acclaim, as well as the airplay, in the States than she did in Britain because, some say, her songs were “a poor fit for American radio formats.” Or maybe we Americans just had bad taste in music.


After some limited success with “The Kick Inside” and her 1982 album “The Dreaming”, Bush finally scored  mainstream, albeit limited success in the States with her 1985 release “Hounds of Love.” My brother sent me a copy of the album and I played it incessantly for many moths afterward. It was one of those records that I would take to my all my friends house’s and insist on playing for them. “Dude, I’ve got to turn you on to this musician named Kate Bush. Have you heard of her?”

Bush’s melding of lush, operatic arrangements with poetic and literary references was totally unique. Her deeply personal songs sung with a soaring soprano and sometimes quirky humor were a revelation to young listeners such as myself who had become  jaded with the fluffy pop bands  who were dominating the charts in the early and mid 80s. Did I  mention that she was beautiful and a talented and trained dancer?



“Hounds of Love” became, and still is, one of my favorite albums ever. More than a decade after its release, I was traveling around the  Eastern U.S., and trying to pack as little as possible. Therefore, all of my music was in storage. I recall doing kitchen clean up duty in community that I was visiting. I gazed upon the large stacks of dirty dishes awaiting me and , contemplating the long hour of work ahead, asked if there were some decent music lying around to work to. My coworker for the evening nodded his head behind us and replied, “check on that shelf there.” The first cd I pulled down was “Hounds of Love” and  I nearly fell over with delight. It had been many years since I had last played it and the memories came pouring back as we set to work on the dishes, which now seemed to be not a big deal at all.



Fast forward nine years after that unexpectedly fun night in the community, and on a fine September evening I found myself at the Burning Man festival in Nevada with a group of friends. Wanting to stretch my legs and go out for a walk in the desert, my friend and I  eventually came upon an intriguing site: an Absinthe bar. We had only recently discovered the sublime nature of the Green Fairie, and we ducked into the boudoir/lounge bar; I quickly ordered up the most exotic Absinthe blend on the menu. Looking around and thinking that life couldn’t get much better, the next moment my ears perked up as the bartender, who was also the dj, slipped “Hounds of Love” into the stereo. I leapt up from the cushions and turned to my friend, “Oh my god, he’s playing Kate Bush. Hounds of Love. The greatest album ever!” My friend, who was in her early 20s, had never heard of Bush.

“OK, old man…is she another woman from the 80s?  I know you still love all that old 80s music. Haha.” No matter. I could take the ruthless jibes from the young woman. I had absinthe and Kate Bush. A veritable marriage made in heaven.

I won’t be able to see Kate Bush this month in London. I am not one of the lucky 77,000. I have neither the money, nor the connections to obtain tickets. But like so many of her fans around the world, I will be there in spirit and bask in the reflected glow of the lucky concert-goers.

Kate Bush discography:

The Kick Inside 1978

Lionheart 1978

Never For Ever 1980

The Dreaming 1982

Hounds of Love 1985

The Sensual World 1989

The Red Shoes 1993

Aerial 2005

Director’s Cut 2011

50 Words for Snow 2011





Fela Kuti. His music lives on

In 1987 I was a young college student living in Austin, Texas. One afternoon I picked up the local alternative weekly, the Austin Chronicle, and took it home to read. Inside , there was a long article  about an African musician, composer, instrumentalist, and activist  named Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938-1997). The writer was  obviously a big fan of African music and was quite knowledgeable about this man known simply as ‘Fela.’ As I recall, comparatively little of the article was about  his music. Most of it concerned Fela’s iconic status in Africa, his ongoing battles with the  military junta in Nigeria,  his imprisonment, and his promotion of Pan-Africanism.

fela-kuti-afrobeat-live-parisThe occasion of the article was Fela’s upcoming show in Austin. The author pleaded with readers to come out and support Fela and not to miss this rare opportunity to see him play in the United States. I knew absolutely nothing about African music but was so intrigued by the article and the author’s  admiration for Fela that I scraped together the money to go to the show.

It would be hard to overstate how unprepared I was for what I was about to witness. For three hours, I stood mostly uncomprehending, and wondered just what I had stumbled into. Somewhere between 15 and 20 musicians and dancers crowded the stage, with a large horn section including multiple saxophones. Fela himself alternated between singing, playing the organ and playing the tenor saxophone.  He sang in pidgin English and occasionally in Yoruba. He played syncopated rhythms on the organ which sounded wild and strange to my ears.

kutiWhen I arrived home after the show, my roommates asked how the show was. I replied, “I’m not sure. I think it was good. It was certainly interesting. I didn’t understand most of it. It had great rhythm but I didn’t know how to dance to it.”

I put Fela into the back of my mind and didn’t come across his music very often for the next 10 years. I almost forgot about him. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I started to collect and listen to his recordings, mostly his seminal work from the 1970s. One of my friends who was a musician and a big fan burned eight or nine of Fela’s best cds for me. Once I started to play them regularly on my stereo and really listen to the music, Fela became something of an obsession. His musical style, which is called ‘Afrobeat’ is a synthesis of Funk, Jazz, Highlife, and West African chants and rhythms. The combination of the ‘endless groove’ , hypnotic beats, soaring trumpet and saxophone solos and socially and politically conscious lyrics produced an intoxicating effect. No matter how bad of a mood I am in, after I play a half hour of Fela, I feel better.

expensive shitI’m still discovering new tracks from his large discography, available online. Most of the ‘greatest hits’ collections include classics such as Zombie, No Agreement, Sorrow,Tears and Blood, Colonial Mentality, Expensive Shit, Shuffering and Shmiling, Gentleman, and Lady. However, there are many other other less well-known and obscure tracks that are worth exploring at leisure.

Over one million people attended Fela’s funeral in Lagos in 1997. His death was mourned by Africans particularly, but also by musical fans and admirers all over the world. His legacy lives on through his recordings and his children, many of whom are fine musicians in their own right, such as his son Femi Kuti. In recent years, a musical based on his life has been a smash hit on and off Broadway. New Afrobeat bands are springing up all the time, paying homage to the master. ‘Albino’, based in San Francisco, is one of my favorites.

saxman2It’s rare to hear Fela on the radio or in clubs outside Africa, but surprises do happen. A couple of years ago, I was walking up a steep cobblestoned street in the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. I had read about a hipster club that was worth checking out. As I approached the door, I heard the unmistakable strains of Zombie coming through the door. I leapt for joy and bolted through the door and shouted at the bartender, “Turn it up! Yes!”

A few months ago, here in Ho Chi Minh City Viet Nam, I went into a club and the dj, a real afrobeat aficionado, was playing Fela non-stop for hours. What a treat.

open and closeMost of Fela’s songs are lengthy by modern standards, and last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes or more. Needless to say, that format did not lend itself to airplay on rock and R and B stations. As a consequence, his listening audience in America and Europe never reached the numbers of other musicians who composed music in a more digestible format. Commercial radio never warmed to Fela. If you were lucky, perhaps you were exposed to him on an alternative or independent station in a large city, or maybe on college radio.

Today, I play Fela for my students and I tell them, “Sit down and listen to this man!” After three or four minutes, they beg me to turn it off.

Yellow Fever“That’s horrible. Please turn it off. Can you play some K-Pop, please?” I chuckle and recall my first experience with Fela Kuti. This is music you need to come at gradually, warming up first with some exposure to Highlife music and jazz. Otherwise, it’s like walking outside from a dark room at noon and looking directly at the sun. Too much, too soon.