TO CELEBRATE THE 75th birthday of Nigeria’s militant, Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti, as well as the recent release of new deluxe compilation ‘The Best Of The Black President 2’ and newly repackaged versions of Fela’s entire back catalogue, Knitting Factory Records are releasing this special limited edition 12″ single exclusively for Record Store Day on 20 April 2013.
This vinyl release includes the seminal ‘Sorrow Tears & Blood’, restored to its original, complete running time, following the recent rediscovery of the six-minute instrumental section preceding the entrance of Fela’s vocals. The B-Side is the super rare ‘Perambulator’ which has been unavailable for decades.
To mark the occasion, Afrobeat historian and former editor of the ground breaking Black Music magazine, Chris May, gives us the lowdown on this wikkid recording.
‘Sorrow Tears & Blood’ – an impassioned attack on police and army violence against political dissenters in Africa – was among the first albums Fela released following the Nigerian army’s destruction of his Kalakuta Republic commune on 18 February 1977. Characteristically, Fela came back fighting. One of the LP’s early front sleeve designs (there were two, about which more below) was a photograph showing Fela onstage in the aftermath of the outrage, his left leg in plaster from foot to knee. The police and army invariably leave behind them “sorrow, tears and blood,” Fela sings, and the backing vocalists respond, “dem regular trademark.” The album was dedicated, Fela said, “to the memory of those who were beaten, raped, tortured or injured” during the Kalakuta attack.
Fela’s record company, Decca, refused to release ‘Sorrow Tears & Blood’, fearing government reprisals. Fela responded by setting up Kalakuta Records and making the album the label’s debut release.
All this has led to the common belief that the album’s title track was written after, and concerns itself with, the events of February 1977. It certainly resonates with them. However, according to Fela’s friend and sleeve designer, Ghariokwu Lemi, Fela actually wrote the lyrics in the weeks following the South African apartheid regime’s crushing of the Soweto uprising on 16 June 1976. ‘Sorrow Tears & Blood’ was added to Afrika 70’s set list the following month, and was probably recorded around August/September.
Ghariokwu Lemi was with Fela the night news came in of the Soweto massacre. Writing to me in 2011, Lemi said: “Early on the evening of Wednesday, 16 June 1976, we drove to Ikate, Surulere, in Lagos, to visit Fela’s immediate family: his first wife, Remi, and three children, Yeni, Femi and Sola. They lived away from all the drama at Kalakuta. I had shared a little goro (a weed-infused paste) with Fela earlier, and as we sat in the family living room exchanging banter, I was in a mental struggle to stay focused and keep my concentration. Then, at 9pm on television, came news from South Africa that shocked the world. Defenseless primary school students, protesting against the enforced use of the Afrikaans language, had been shot dead by police in Soweto. We all jumped up from our seats in shock at such beast-like brutality. We discussed this all night long and all week thereafter. A few weeks later, Fela rehearsed a new composition, inspired by a brutality-catalog consisting of his own experiences, clashes between the police and university students, and other confrontations between the army and communities around Nigeria. He wove into this the growing repression by the racist police in apartheid South Africa. All this acted as material for a magnificent new song titled ‘Sorrow Tears & Blood’, STB, on the Afrobeat menu.”
By the time the song was eventually recorded, Lemi had listened to Fela perform it at the Shrine and other venues scores of times. “My mind was set on the approach to take on my cover art. Having been privy to the rationale behind the message, I thought I was home free with my concept, like always. Fela was ghoulish in his description of a typical scenario of a police or military raid and its effect. He was caustic in his admonition of a people who were too afraid to stand up for freedom and justice. Since Fela had composed ‘Sorrow Tears & Blood,’ a lot of water had passed under the bridge. Kalakuta Republic had been sacked by one thousand soldiers in a very horrendous raid in broad daylight. I put a bold, stoical and fearless Fela image on my canvas. My painting showed a crowd running away from an unseen cause; an empty road with a single military boot lost in the melee; a vulture waiting for a meal; soldiers meting out jungle justice; a screaming woman lost to fear.”
Lemi thought he had “nailed this cover for good,” but on presenting it to Fela for approval, “found it was not my lucky day.” Fela hated the sleeve, regarding it as defeatist: he particularly hated the detail showing a group of people running away from the police. The argument led to an estrangement between Fela and Lemi which lasted eight years.
‘Perambulator’ is one of the great “missing” Fela tracks. Until this Record Store Day special, it has been unavailable for almost 30 years. It was released on Nigeria’s Coconut Records in 1984, and then, apart from an independent Japanese release, which may have been a pirate, pretty much lost to history. There was no European or American pressing – in late 1984, Fela began an eighteen month spell in prison on trumped up currency smuggling charges, which made negotiating international releases near impossible. When he came out, Fela’s most urgent recording concern was rescuing Army Arrangement from the dog’s dinner Bill Laswell’s remix for Celluloid had created. ‘Perambulator’ has an outstanding long-form lyric in which Fela ridicules the empty words and promises of politicians, asserts his belief in traditional African medicine, and urges African solutions to African problems. It’s eviscerating and funny with it. A blinder, back in circulation.