** In process of Stocking ** The tape of the very first Fela Ransome Kuti recording session has languished in a series of dusty cupboards and damp basements for 60 years. It’s a miracle that it has survived in such fine condition. The original Melodisc single, comprising side A of this release, was for long thought lost until a copy of the session acetate turned up and was reissued as part of the superb Soundway compilation Highlife on the Move (2014). However the two tracks on side B of this album have never been issued in any form and are reproduced here in all their glory for the very first time!
The story of how the tape came to exist comes out of the earliest days of London’s indie labels. In the post war period labels like Esquire, Melodisc and 77 Records struggled to record and release the diverse musics of the capital. As John Jack, Cadillac founder, remembered: Back in Town doing odds and ends in Dobell’s I took advantage of the many people I knew running small record labels to suggest that as none could possibly afford their own travelling rep that we could all benefit if I and a clarinettist from my band put all of their catalogues in one bag to haul round Britain; I covered the Greater London and near in areas whilst Pete (Brown) ventured far and wide, Including the very occasional trip to Ireland!.
This would’ve been in 1958, and John’s sales team worked with Emil Shallit, founder/owner of Melodisc Records, who after the war had set up a label to license and record music for the cosmopolitan communities of London. This was a fascinating, and overlooked, time in the capital’s musical history. A time when musicians from the vibrant post-war multicultural communities that lived and worked in the city were coming together to make music. Latin, African and Caribbean musicians played on each other’s sessions. Legendary jazz artists like Shake Keane, Joe Harriott and Harry Beckett played alongside Nigerians, Jamaicans and Trinidadians recording everything from High Life to Calypso for sale to the communities through an irregular distribution system that bypassed the stuffy, conservative structures of tin pan alley and operated out of corner shops and clubs. It was a chaotic scene, and there is little in the way of documentation or session details available to us. But that it was a vibrant and fruitful time there can be no doubt and the Melodisc catalogue provides evidence of this. Into this scene dropped a reserved, twenty-year-old, smartly turned out young Nigerian medical student turned music scholar and trumpet player (at first) – Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, known to the world as Fela.
How the session came about is lost to history. We know that the young Nigerian had dropped his medical training and enrolled at Trinity College of Music. He was on the scene, sitting in at jazz gigs and playing at functions. At some stage in 1959 he formed his group, The Highlife Rakers, with the guitarist J.K. Braimah and pianist Wolo Bucknor, both Nigerians. The rest of the band was probably formed of Caribbean musicians. It would seem likely that this is the band on the recordings made in August ’59 for Melodisc, but there are no records for the session.
Emil gifted John Jack a number of tapes, some of which have seen the light of day over the years (Christie Brothers Stompers SGC/MEL20/1, The Crane River Jazz Band SGC/MEL CD202 and The Joe Harriott Quintet Swings High SGC/MEL CD203), but the Fela tape remained in storage. When JJ died in 2017 he was discussing finally releasing this album, so we have decided to honour his intention and make this invaluable historical artefact available for all to hear.
And what a joy it is! These four tracks bring to life the excitement of that time, when many of the colonial countries were on the brink of independence and the cultural boom of 1960s London was just around the corner. Fela sounds assured and confident already, and the band, featuring saxes, trumpet, piano, guitar, percussion and bass is tight and swings. So sit back, apply the diamond to the wax, and enjoy an authentic slab of joyous multicultural London.