Fela Kuti – “Unknown Soldier” (1979)
Make the time for this track, I promise you won’t regret it. “The personal is political/the political is personal” doesn’t even come close to getting it for Fela Kuti. This track has everything that’s great about Fela’s music and Afrobeat–all participants serving the groove in the best JB’s-like way, some playing a repeating, individually tiny sound figure repeatedly for the duration of this 30-minute track in order to create something much larger than the individual, something hypnotic and transcendent.
But this is one instance where I’d insist on paying attention to the lyrics, too: the story Fela tells here is astonishing, and the way he tells it keeps my hair standing on end for the duration. I can think of few moments in music more wrenching, heart-breaking, and astonishing than Fela’s description of the murder of his mother peaking at the pure sound of loss at 22:55-23:05. But the whole thing is the most effective contrast of humanity versus the dehumanising effect of military-minded “order” I’ve ever known, in any medium. This is one of the high achievements of popular music.