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Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2002

HIGH NOTES

NEW RELEASE

"Red Hot" AIDS charity compilations: "Red Hot + Riot"


Tribute albums tend to disappoint because multiartist formats are by nature inconsistent. "Red Hot + Riot," the latest in the decade-old series of "Red Hot" AIDS charity compilations, is a glorious exception. If it's more exciting than any tribute album of recent memory, then it must have something to do with the person being honored. Subtitled "The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti," this 76-minute CD could never hope to recapture the "music" of the Nigerian Afro-beat pioneer (who himself died of AIDS in 1997), since Fela's best work wasn't made in the recording studio. As for his revolutionary "spirit," which translated onstage into long, marijuana-fueled monologues and offstage into clashes with the authorities, only a charlatan would make claims to it.

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So what we get is a genuine tribute, meaning not personal versions of Fela's songs, but rather admiring artists pooling their talents to do justice to the man's genius in new ways. Turntablist Mix Master Mike provides appropriate interludes by taking Fela's recordings and reducing them to their essentials (quite a feat as Fela's cuts averaged about 20 minutes). Then, MCs, R&B crooners and jazzbos, both New World and African, fill out Fela's ideas. The results retain not only the incomparable funkiness of Fela's signature sound, but the conviction of his beliefs.

Talib Kweli and Dead Prez give their own take on Fela's antigovernment rhetoric on "Shuffering & Shmiling," while Brazilian singer Jorge Ben and nu-soulman Bilal take the song higher with scats and swoons. On "Water No Get Enemy," Fela's son, Femi, and his band, Positive Force, back an all-star funkathon featuring Yoruban vocals by D'angelo and Macy Gray, guitar by Nile Rodgers and trumpet by Roy Hargrove (my pick for album MVP). There are also non-Fela songs -- Kelis' "So Be It," and a remix of Sade's "By Your Side" -- that make convincing claims for Fela's influence without making a big deal of it. The album works so well because it is not so much a tribute to the man as it is proof that he lives on in so much of the music we listen to today.



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