When you throw your own birthday party, you get to call the tunes. On July 24th, Kronos Quartet, the acclaimed and exploratory string ensemble, initiated Kronos at 40, their five-day anniversary celebration at Damrosch Park Bandshell in New York's Lincoln Center, with a surprising burst of Afrobeat: "Sorrow Tears and Blood" by the late Nigerian singer, bandleader and loose cannon Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Violinist and Kronos' artistic director David Harrington, violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang conjured the plaintive chug of the original recording, on Fela's 1972 album, Shakara, with contrary minimalism. Plucked and tapped strings suggested a clattering of bones and sticks, while Harrington's long, bowed sighs threaded the call-response vocals of Abena Koomson and Sahr Ngaujah, the latter the Tony-nominated star of the Broadway musical, Fela! The music was an introspective twist on Fela's trademark big-band confrontation and, in its finely tuned risk, classically Kronos.
Drums and Challenge
"Sorrow Tears and Blood" also opened the concert premiere of Red Hot + Fela, the latest album in the Red Hot series of multi-artist benefit anthologies for AIDS awareness and the second volume to tackle Fela's music. (The singer died in 1997 of complications from AIDS; Red Hot + Riot was issued in 2002.) On the new record, which comes out in October on the Knitting Factory label, Kronos perform that song with Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio. Other participating stars include My Morning Jacket, Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, rapper M1 of Dead Prez and Fela's longtime drummer Tony Allen.
The Lincoln Center show featured shifting vocal casts drawn from the record; the Brooklyn art-dance combo Superhuman Happiness was the house band with helping brass from the groups Antibalas and Rubblebucket. Allen, now 73, brought an authentic momentum during his composition "Afro-Disco Beat," triggering shifts in time and pattern with subtle, decisive control under the chanted vocals of M1 and the Congolese rapper Baloji. The West African singer Angelique Kidjo, who is from Benin, took ebullient ownership of Fela's "Lady," also from Shakara, with bright, choral support from Koomson and Rubblebucket singer-saxophonist Kalmia Traver. Ngaujah all but played Fela, in voice and challenge, in the show's closing indictment, "I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)."
The Ghost in the Music
There was new Fela-inspired material, to mixed effect. "Running," sung by Mikey Freedom Hart in a neo-falsetto, was choppy funk closer to early-Seventies Motown. Superhuman Happiness played an original piece that had more of the poised buoyance of Talking Heads' take on Nigerian highlife. More compelling was a hip-hop number led by M1. It had little overt Afrobeat but was lyrically descended from Fela's style of seething mantra. "Never was an African an American," M1 declared repeatedly, calling out the lie in a hyphen. A couple of songs earlier, he made the same point another way: demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.
Fela was, inevitably, a looming, glowering ghost in this show's arrangements and performances. They honored but could only approximate his authoritarian magnetism and his bands' drilled-army mix of super-sized brawn and polyrhythmic precision. The best moments were simply over too soon: "I.T.T.," which goes for 24 minutes on a 1980 Fela LP, ran into the Lincoln Center curfew in less than half that. But there was just time enough for the implausible sight of Kronos Quartet sawing enthusiastically in front of Allen's drum kit, as he drove the entire ensemble through a brief encore. When it's your party, you also get the last word.