Seun Kuti: 'I'm crazy. My father was, too'
Seun Kuti, son of the great Fela, is bringing his own fiery brand of big-band passion to Britain. He talks to Tim Cumming
Friday 23 May 2008
When Seun Kuti, the youngest son of the Nigerian legend of Afrobeat and political protest Fela Kuti, comes to Britain next week for a night at the Barbican, he'll be leading on to the stage his father's Egypt 80 band, veterans of a quarter-century of Afrobeat nights. That's quite a legacy to live up to, and it'll be Seun's first major concert here, sharing the bill with a veteran African powerhouse, the Sierra Leonean guitarist and singer Geraldo Pino.
Pino, a big influence on Fela Kuti in the Sixties and Seventies, is one of the great pioneers of Afro funk. He'll be reforming his original band, the Heartbeats, for the night. Lovers of retro African dance must be salivating at this rare return. Newcomers should check out the Soundways best-of Pino release, Heavy Heavy Heavy.
Together, the two artists launch the Barbican's Groove Nations festival of international soul and funk, which includes Solomon Burke, artists from the Ethiopiques series and the rai legend Khaled with the great pianist Maurice El Médioni. Pee Wee Ellis will join Cheikh Lo, Tony Allen and Vieux Farka Touré for the James Brown tribute night, Still Black, Still Proud.
Seun, 25, has been the bandleader of his father's orchestra for the past decade. It's as if he has decided to engage directly with what could be an overpowering legacy by exploring it from its centre, at the same time emerging from his father's shadow through the vitality of his performance.
"Our then band leader, Baba Ani, once told me as a really young child that he who has come to be watched cannot watch," Kuti recalls. "That has stayed with me all my life." Catch him in action and, like Damien Marley or Farka Touré, it's obvious he's not only his father's son, but an artist hitting his stride in his own right.
Nigerian music today is heavy on hip-hop, sound systems and rap. The era of big dance-bands is all but over, so the rude health of Egypt 80 is striking. The name came from Fela Kuti in 1983, a year after Seun was born, to reflect his belief in the Pharaonic origins of African civilisation.
Fela's 70-year-old lead sax player, Baba Ani, has retired to keyboards and musical direction, overseeing the weaving guitars, with the force of the brass sparring with the massed rhythm section behind them. The big sax is now wielded by the flamboyant Adedimeji Fagbemi, aka Showboy, with Ajayi Adebiya on skins, playing in the hard funk tradition of Al Foster, Miles Davis's great drummer.
Richly seasoned, their sound contains the essence of the big bands of the 20th century – Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, James Brown, Sun Ra, Count Basie, George Clinton. Its power and dynamic range, and inexhaustible energy and invention, span epic stretches of pulsing music, frenetic dance, exhortation and pure joy. It remains a revolutionary band, playing Fela's music mixed with Seun's own tunes and pumping out a powerful dissident political ideology.
They have what all great bands need – longevity. Twelve of the 16-strong orchestra are veterans of his father's reign at his Kalakuti compound and Shrine nightclub, where they played every night for years. The Shrine closed in 1999, two years after Fela's death. Seun was 15 when he buried his father. His half-brother Femi, 20 years older, had already carved out a distinctive musical path of his own, and over the past decade, Kuti has done the same as a live performer, leaving behind his musical studies in Liverpool to front Egypt 80 after Fela's death. In fact, his first onstage appearance with Egypt 80 had been when he was eight, at the Apollo in Harlem, New York. And he often did an opening set at the Shrine.
Until recently, the orchestra has drawn its repertoire from his father's songs – the likes of "Suffering and Smiling", "Colonial Mentality", and "COP (Country of Pain)". But Kuti comes to the UK armed with a debut album, Many Things, an explosive brew of Afrobeat for the 21st century. "I want to make Afrobeat for my generation. Instead of 'get up and fight', it's going to be 'get up and think'," he says.
You can tell from the song titles that it's not only lessons in funk he soaked up with his father on stage, but his political defiance and outspokenness on corruption. "The situation is much worse than at my father's time. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. My album speaks to the people about our relationship with our rulers in Africa. People take a lot of things for granted, so this album is urging everyone to get involved and not think it's someone else's responsibility."
It's one of those twists of fate that Nigeria's current president, Olusegun Obasanjo, was also head of state in the Seventies and was namechecked in several coruscating Fela Kuti songs from the period. It was Obasanjo, too, who ordered the siege of Fela's compound-cum-republic in 1977. More than 1,000 soldiers, the "zombies" of Fela's famous, hugely popular song, surrounded the Kalakuti compound and razed it to the ground. Fela's mother was thrown from an upstairs window and died of her injuries. Fela was severely beaten, his studio and tapes destroyed. Twist that twist of fate again, and you find that Fela and Obasanjo grew up in the same town.
Three decades on, Obasanjo may again hold the reins of power, but the Republic of Kalakuti still exists. The compound Fela moved to after the events of 1977 is still home and base to Seun and various members of the Keta family, as well Egypt 80. Femi's New Afrika Shrine nightclub, around the corner, is where Seun recommends any visitor to Lagos to go for a good night out. Not that the two are especially close – they've yet to perform together, though they've shared the same bill. "I play at the Shrine every month," Seun says. "But performing together? Why not, if the opportunity arises. Maybe some day."
His own songs on the album have been thoroughly road-tested in extensive international touring. At the Roll Back Malaria gig in Dakar with Tony Allen and Manu Dibango in 2005, he introduced "Mosquito", a song about malaria and the role corruption plays in its death-toll in Africa. "Youssou N'Dour invited me to perform. I was moved by the subject because I realised people in Africa die more from malaria than from Aids. And it can be avoided. If we had clean water and proper drainage, there would be no malaria. So corruption is a cause."
Other tracks such as "African Problem" are "an appeal to African youth – life is so hard here that all young people are concerned about is surviving I tell them to look further and get interested in politics." The track "Many Things" is "a sarcastic song about our rulers. They say they have done many things but the reality is so different."
On stage, it's remarkable how much Seun evokes the presence of his father – not in an imitative way, but in possessing the spirit of the man, the wildness and defiance and physical abandon. "I'm crazy," Seun says. "It's just the way I am. My father was, too."
As Egypt 80 found in America last year, the Afrobeat message is beating loud again. The music has a growing cult following in the US. One fan is the Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, who intervened when visa difficulties looked like preventing them entering the country. "We had to play a free gig in Chicago in homage to Fela. And Senator Barack's office intervened in order for us to get the US visas on time," Seun says.
You can't imagine any of our lot stepping in like that if Egypt 80 found themselves at the wrong end of Terminal 5. But then, you get the feeling there's not a force in the world that can hold this band back.
Seun Kuti launches Groove Nations at the Barbican, London EC2 on 28 May (www.barbican.org.uk). 'Many Things' is out now on Tôt Ou Tard
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