[Today: Big band leaders...]
When I was a kid, Lawrence Welk was one of the banes of my existence. My Grandma Robinson absolutely loved the man, and every Saturday night like clockwork, she would fire up his television show and we’d be treated to an hour of bubbles, batons, and music for old people. Back then I didn’t know polka from Polk Salad Annie – I just knew I didn’t like the music very much, so I took every opportunity to throw out cutting remarks about the “wild dance party” we were watching, while longing for an extended cable package that included better programming. Then my grandparents moved, our routine changed, and Lawrence Welk was out of our lives for good. Hooray!
Welk went from being a standard part of my week to something less than an afterthought. From the early 80s until the mid-90s, the only time he came to mind was when I joked with my brother about polka – and even those occasions were few and very far between. Then my beloved grandmother passed away, and almost overnight my feelings about this music took an about face. Suddenly it was a living link to a sweet, departed relative, and my opinion of the man and his music immediately softened. It was no longer gag-inducing elevator music – with one funeral, Lawrence Welk morphed from a bad joke into a good memory. Now when I drop the needle on his schmaltzy big band polka music, I always feel my grandmother nearby.
On the surface, Fela Kuti is the polar opposite of Lawrence Welk: Kuti was from Nigeria, Welk from North Dakota. Kuti was a polygamist with 27 wives, while Welk was married to the same woman for 61 years. Kuti made politically-oriented music that openly challenged a repressive government, while Welk made smooth and easy, family-oriented music. Kuti’s band jammed with furious energy and wore wild costumes, while Welk’s band was upright and sedate, in their matching powder blue tuxedos. I could go on and on, but you get the point – these two definitely hang out in different sections of your local record shop.
But in ways that really matter, Kuti and Welk were more similar than you might expect. Both led massive brass-based big bands that popularized an ethnic strain of dance music, both enjoyed a following that other artists would kill for, and both toked incredible amounts of marijuana (just kidding on that last one). Both men became symbols beyond their music – Kuti as a political warrior, Welk as a throwback to simpler times. Both created a musical atmosphere that seemed to exist in its own world. Welk: “If I live to be 90, and I’m planning to, I’ll always love performing for a live audience.” Kuti: “So what is this motherfucking world about? I believe there is a plan… I will do my part – then I’ll just go, man. Just go!”
Lawrence Welk didn’t quite make 90 – he passed away on May 17th, 1992 at the age of 89. Fela Anikulapo Kuti died on August 2nd, 1997 at age 58, having done much more than his part in the struggle. I expect these two are off somewhere jamming right now, having a hell of a dance party with my late great grandma…
Listen: Bubbles In The Wine [Lawrence Welk]
Listen: Zombie [Fela Kuti]