Upside Down: a Fela Kuti tribute mix by Rich Medina

Fela

Fela

We originally aimed for publish this tribute back in August, to coincide with the 19th anniversary of Fela Kuti’s death. In hindsight though, when eulogising a character a vibrant as Fela, a celebration of life is much more fitting, so the fact that deadline’s couldn’t be met was a blessing in disguise. To mark what would have been his 78th birthday today, we’ve teamed up with a most learned scholar in Fela Kuti. Rich Medina is behind Jump ‘n’ Funk, America’s original Fela Kuti tribute party, which began in 2001 initially focussing completely on Fela, but soon embracing the pan-African sound that his music has touched.

Much like the recent Prince Tribute from Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, this celebration combines words and music. Rather than focussing solely on Fela, Rich offers out a broad view of how influential Fela was. In his own words: “these tunes represent a component of African funk & soul that is always overshadowed by classic afrobeat and highlife.  I wanted to put together a mix of music that are’t standard fare in afro mixtapes. I can only hope the listener thinks I accomplished that goal.” While you take a listen, read some heartfelt words below from Rich, and grab the tracklist at the bottom. 

Rich Medina pays tribute to Fela Kuti

The music of Fela Kuti changed my life in 1992. I’d heard a few songs at random, and I’d heard DJ Randall Grass play his music from time to time on his WPRB radio show through high school, but I had no true working understanding of Fela. Thanks to a new record dealer buddy named Ari Saxe aka DJ Train, all of that changed drastically in 1992 as I began making my way as a working class DJ in Philadelphia, my newly adopted hometown. 

The song ‘Gentleman’ really took me to a particular place, immediately. I had no idea what was coming, but I knew it had to be big, considering the dramatic saxophone notation prior to the snare and matching percussion hits entering the fore. Eight minutes of unbridled syncopation and instrumental solos later, the line “I no be gentleman at all, I no be gentleman at all, I no be gentleman at all no” forever altered my perspective on being a black man in a colonizer’s world. 

I wondered “Is that patois? Some other West Indian dialect I was unfamiliar with?” By the first chorus it was clear that, despite years of studying Africa, and African American studies, I felt as though I had been shortchanged. “I be Africa man, original”…what? Who the fuck IS this guy? And why am I just now being blessed to learn of his work? Thus began a quest for knowledge unparalleled in all my life studies, from home, to the street, to Cornell University studying under Professors James Turner and Locksley Edmondson. 

By the summer of 1994, I owned 26 Fela LPs, and had began injecting the more danceable components of the catalogue like ‘Shakara’ and ‘Expensive Shit’ into my sets religiously, and ruining most of the dance floors I presented them to. You’d think I pulled a gun on people from the booth, the response was so poor. Within a year I learned how to dose those tunes more intelligently, and some of the same people who couldn’t understand it at first began requesting it of me. I’d found my lane with it in full by 1996, having completed the catalog in my collection, and refining my club presentation to the point that I was almost expected to “do something wild” like play an African record at some point in the night. 

Fast forward to summer of 2001. By now, Fela was engrained into my mind as the key to the remainder of my understanding of musical Africa. I was introduced to Trevor Schoonmaker and Debbie Seally by Brett Cook, and my Jump N Funk party was born on August 21st, 2001. For the last 15 years we have proudly stood as America’s original Fela Kuti tribute party, initially focused completely on Fela, and eventually embracing the Pan African sound in full, with shows across The USA, Europe, and Japan, and peppered with live performances and forums with the likes of Ghariokwu Lemi, Wunmi, Dele Sosimi, Franck Biyong and Antibalas to name a choice few. 

In 2016, I was blessed with the opportunity to put out a compilation of pan-African music on BBE entitled Jump N Funk Volume 1, a comprehensive gathering of sounds from the man himself, to the people he has influenced in a contemporary sense. A milestone in one hand, and a new beginning of displaying my love for Fela Anikulapo Kuti in the other. Today, I look forward to the next chapter in my embracing of Fela via my relationship with his son Seun, and my fellow afrobeat lovers worldwide. 

I never knew it would come down to this. But now that it has, I can’t express enough how proud and appreciative I am to have found him when I did. I can only hope to continue to represent his perspectives and sound with proper respect and care in order to make my own mark on the world. At this point, I sincerely don’t know what I would do without having followed my instincts and contributing to increasing the world’s acknowledgement of one of the most prolific and enigmatic musical pioneers to ever live. The honor is far too much to put into words here alone. Long like Fela Anikulapo Kuti. 

Rich Medina presents Jump ‘n’ Funk Vol. 1, out on BBE and available from their website.

Tracklist

Buns Sounds – Zinabu
Ernesto Djedje – Zadie Bobo
Dackin Dackino – Yuda
The Ogyatanaa Show Band – You Monopolise Me
Booker Band – You Can Go
Rex Wiliiams – You Are My Heart
Either Orchestra – Yezemed Yebada
Rex Lawson & His Rivers Men – Yellow Sisi
Mulatu Astatque – Yegelle Tezeta
Jimmy Hiacynthe – Yatchiminou
The Uluru Dance Band – Yahyia Mu
Antione Dougbé Et L’ Orchestre – Ya Mi Ton Gibo
Kapa Dech – Xihlaula Mane
Salam – Xalam
Gay Flamingoes Stel Band – Black Man’s Cry
Switch No. 1 – Who (Ngubani)
Manu Dibango – Weya
Franck Biyong – We Shall Overcome
Beyond – Waterhole Blues
Manu Dibango – Wakafrika
Fred Fisher Atolobor – W.T.F.S.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti – Upside Down

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