In the world of Afrobeat, comparisons to the master, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, are inevitable. Fela cut such a large swath and influenced so many that it’s difficult to listen to another Afrobeat musician’s work without hearing, or in the negative sense, hoping to hear some of Fela’s brilliance. In the case of conga player and singer Pax Nicholas Addo-Nettey’s 1973 album Na Teef Know De Road of Teef, it’s impossible to avoid these comparisons for a variety of reasons. For one, at a youthful age, Pax Nicholas became a member of Fela’s legendary Africa 70 ensemble, so the influence is obvious. In addition, the musicians and singers on this album all came from Africa 70, so the similarities in sound are there. However, most importantly, Fela himself was enraged upon hearing this album and reportedly ordered it never be played again, but exactly what did Fela hear in Na Teef Know De Road of Teef that made him issue such an edict?
From the opening bars of the title track, it’s evident that these musicians are more than capable of creating a deep, hypnotic Afrobeat groove. Almost instantly, the listener is hooked into the ensemble’s trance, although unlike Fela’s albums, Na Teef Know De Road of Teef doesn’t appear to be seething with anger. That being said, these songs are anything but a whimsical walk in the proverbial park. Rather there is a quiet intensity that pulses underneath the heavily percussive rhythms, occasionally bubbling to the surface in the form of a unison sax and trumpet line, a loudly clanking cowbell, or a bone-chilling female voice that plaintively says, “Yes.” Without being so strident and obvious as his mentor, Pax Nicholas has crafted an album that is definitely serious but is also enjoyable on a less aggressive level.
After Fela reportedly issued his gag order for Na Teef Know De Road of Teef, the album was essentially shelved. Pax Nicholas remained with Africa 70 until the Nigerian government’s campaign of violence against Fela and his associates became too much to bear, so he defected and emigrated to Berlin in 1978. The story would have ended there if not for an industrious record collector who found this gem of an album and tracked down Pax Nicholas, who is still performing in Berlin. The work was then brought to the attention of Daptone Records, who issued this re-release. Thirty-six years after its recording, Na Teef Know De Road of Teef still sounds fresh and exciting, and we gain an insight into why Fela felt so threatened by it. Here was an album that could have become incredibly popular, but if that had happened, the entire Afrobeat world could have shifted to less vociferous and subtler works, leaving less of a place for the fiery and explosive Fela. Thus, it’s no surprise that he wanted to keep Na Teef Know De Road of Teef a secret. We should just be thankful that even though it took 36 years, Fela’s quest was ultimately not successful, and Pax Nicholas’ fine album can be enjoyed today.