Femi Kuti Shoki Shoki (MCA/Barclay 314 543 267) Fela...

CD REVIEWS

February 17, 2000|By J.D. Considine | By J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Femi Kuti

Shoki Shoki (MCA/Barclay 314 543 267)

Fela Kuti

The Best of Fela Kuti (MCA/Barclay 314 543 197)

When Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died, in August 1997, it seemed the end of an era for African music.

It wasn't just that Fela was one of the most inventive and popular musicians in Africa, whose percolating "Afrobeat" sound influenced even American acts like Talking Heads and the Red Hot Chili Peppers; he was also a major political figure, an incisive critic whose mocking commentary was a persistent thorn in the side of Nigeria's military rulers. He dominated Nigerian music for more than a quarter-century, and when he died, it seemed impossible that anyone could fill his shoes.

Fortunately, there was.

Femi Kuti, one of Fela's sons, had played in his father's band, Egypt 80, through 1987, at which point he formed his own band, the Positive Force. By the time of his father's death, Femi had already established himself as a major draw in West Africa, and had begun to make inroads into the American market thanks to his 1995 album "Wonder Wonder."

With "Shoki Shoki," Femi Kuti fully assumes his father's mantle, delivering music as supple and provocative as Fela's, yet with an identity all its own. As with Fela's Egypt 80, Femi's band makes much of Afrobeat's jabbing brass, thrumming percussion and interlocking guitar lines. But Femi's band spikes that groove with a wider range of keyboard textures, making the sound richer and jazzier than Egypt 80's raw, muscular pulse.

The songs themselves also have a different feel. Although Femi does as much hectoring and preaching as his father did -- especially on politicized tracks like "What Will Tomorrow Bring" and "Blackman Know Yourself" -- he keeps the vocal line more closely tied to Western pop structures. Femi is also a rather more concise composer, delivering his tunes in seven minutes or less (a considerable economy compared to the half-hour jams his father would record).

In hopes of making Femi's Afrobeat a little more palatable to American ears, the American version of "Shoki Shoki" includes a handful of remixes. Should the hip-hop rethink of "Blackman Know Yourself" by the Roots catch on through radio, it could spark a new wave of interest in Nigerian music.

Along with the release of Femi's album, MCA/Barclay is releasing much of Fela's back catalog -- many of the albums for the first time in America. "The Best of Fela Kuti" is a double-CD introduction that offers judiciously edited versions of some of Fela's most famous recordings. Long-time fans will want to hold out for the original albums, which will begin arriving in stores in late March, but those hoping to understand why Fela's music affected so many people will find this set an education in itself.

Femi Kuti: ***1/2

Fela Kuti: ****

Pop/rock

Tracy Chapman

Telling Stories (Elektra 62478)

After the bluesy "Give Me One Reason" gave her career new momentum, Tracy Chapman is back to her old ways with "Telling Stories," an album of singer/songwriter fare that finds her sounding moody and enervated. It's not as if she's abandoned her pop ambitions, so much that she seems unable to put any energy into these songs. It's a great album if you're worried about disturbing the neighbors, as none of the songs raises anything close to a racket. But after a while, Chapman's low-key approach comes annoyingly close to somnolence. "It's OK" flirts with funk but can't commit, while "Less Than Strangers" uses its pop/rock trappings to disguise its lack of melody. By the time Chapman gets to the folky minimalism of "First Try," you'll wish she'd gone back and tried again. **

Various Artists

Grammy Nominees 2000 (RCA 07863 67945)

Do you believe in giving Cher a fair shake? Then you may wonder why her single "Believe" is the only Record of the Year nominee not included on "Grammy Nominees 2000." Obviously, with only 13 selections, this CD can't cover every category. But it does include all four of the other Record of the Year nominees, from the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" to TLC's "No Scrubs."

It also offers a sampling from each of the five Best New Artist candidates, so you folks at home will finally get to hear what dark horse Susan Tedeschi sounds like. But the only other award the disc touches on is Male Pop Vocal, which -- with nominees ranging from Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5" to Andrea Bocelli's "Sogno" -- may be the Grammys' most diverse category. **1/2

Soundtracks

Ryuichi Sakamoto

Cinemage (Sony Classical 60780)

Although he made his name as a pop musician, Ryuichi Sakamoto has also made quite a name for himself as a film composer, thanks to such scores as "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" and the Oscar-winning "The Last Emperor." And as "Cinemage" suggests, these pieces rank among his most memorable and enduring work. Not quite a best-of, the album includes both old recordings, such as "Forbidden Colours" from "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" (hauntingly sung by David Sylvian), as well as previously unreleased items like a live rendition of the theme from "The Last Emperor." But the most striking selections tend to be from lesser-known works, like the haunting, quietly pulsing "Replica" and the dense, coloristic "El Mar Mediterrani." Taking the songs together, the album is a true star turn. ***1/2

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