The late singer-songwriter Phil Ochs is often quoted as having said that the last real hope America had for a revolution was if Elvis had become Che Guevara. Imagine the King as a radical rockabilly martyr who one day decided to turn Graceland into a compound, surround himself with dozens of wives, declare Memphis an independent state, and release songs needling the police and elected officials. This would be a Western approximation of Nigerian music star Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
As marked a man as Kuti was when he died in 1997, his death was actually a result of AIDS-related illness. Red Hot & Riot, a new tribute album honoring Kuti, was produced by the AIDS-awareness organization Red Hot, and it may be the most comprehensive collaboration between Western and African artists since Fela himself mixed up an expansive batch of funk and jazz styles and called it Afrobeat. The stunning 10-minute "Water No Get Enemy" finds D'Angelo's playful Rhodes piano work mixing with vocals he shares with Macy Gray and Femi Kuti, Fela's son. On "Kalakuta Show," Blackalicious's Gift of Gab shows how well textured hip-hop can work against a Fela riff, and a remix of Sade's hit "By Your Side" might be better renamed "By Yoruba Side."
Gradually, the CD moves from Fela's door-shattering hard funk to a sweeter, sadder sound, one that reflects the essence of Fela's soul as well as the tragedy of 40 million Africans who are HIV-positive, destined to share his fate.
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