The Black President

The extraordinary musical legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is finally to be given the celebration it deserves, says Martin Longley
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The Independent Culture

The death of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti came as a surprise to many. Outwardly in peak physical form, the 58-year-old Nigerian singer, saxophonist and keyboardist - and Africa's most influential composer - eventually succumbed to complications arising from Aids. An outspoken critic of political corruption in his country, Kuti had been a charismatic, idiosyncratic musician who recorded more than 60 albums of his signature style Afrobeat, and, alongside Ravi Shankar, brought "world music" to the rock-fed masses across Europe and the US. This month, seven years after his untimely passing, the Barbican mounts a celebration of his extraordinary life.

The death of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti came as a surprise to many. Outwardly in peak physical form, the 58-year-old Nigerian singer, saxophonist and keyboardist - and Africa's most influential composer - eventually succumbed to complications arising from Aids. An outspoken critic of political corruption in his country, Kuti had been a charismatic, idiosyncratic musician who recorded more than 60 albums of his signature style Afrobeat, and, alongside Ravi Shankar, brought "world music" to the rock-fed masses across Europe and the US. This month, seven years after his untimely passing, the Barbican mounts a celebration of his extraordinary life.

At the centre of the festival is Black President: the Art and Legacy of Fela Kuti, including a group exhibition curated by Trevor Schoon- maker at The Curve gallery. On display are works by 34 artists who were inspired by Kuti, and, for the first time in Europe, original designs by Gharioku Lemil, Kuti's album-cover illustrator. The exhibition includes intimate photographs of the singer, taken by his close friend Femi Osunla. In October, the Barbican screens a series of films, including the 1982 documentary Music Is The Weapon. BBC Radio 3 is to broadcast a documentary to coincide with the season, presented by DJs Max Reinhardt and Rita Ray, organisers of the Shrine nights at Cargo in London, modelled on Kuti's original Lagos club.

Kuti's prolific musical career was nurtured in London at the Royal College of Music, where he studied in the late 1950s. He went on to lead bands across Africa, including Nigeria and Egypt, and toured and recorded in Britain and the US. His upbringing was privileged, but he changed his original middle name of Ransome to Anikulapo as a rejection of its colonialist associations.

His music is a fusion of West African 'Highlife" pop, heavy Yoruba drumming, James Brown funk and searing Sun Ra big-band jazz, but always channelled through his fiercely individual style. The music is crown-ed by Kuti's convoluted pidgin English rants, repetitively building up a tirade of satirical observations on all forms of corruption.

The musician paid a price for criticising the establishment. He was imprisoned and beaten many times, his house was burnt down by the military and his mother was thrown out of a window and died from her injuries. By 1986, he was becoming jaded by his inability to effect any real change in the Nigerian system. He wrote "Look And Laugh", accusing his audience of being complacent, saying that he might as well lounge back and mock the political situation.

The Barbican festival features an impressive live music programme, headed by Fela Kuti's son Femi, who formed his own Afrobeat group, Positive Force, 20 years ago. The programme opens with Roy Ayers And The African Jazz All-Stars and closes on 17 October with a Red Hot & Riot AIDS awareness session, featuring Manu Dibango, Baaba Maal and Cheikh Lo.

On 10 October Femi Kuti performs with his own group Positive Force. The 42-year-old saxophonist's music retains his father's raw pulse approach while adding smoother funk and hip-hop influences. His lyrics are similarly charged with political awareness, but are more organised, less rambling and more focused into condensed lines. His songs are clipped well below Fela's typical 30-minute epics, constantly changing during rehearsal and performance.

He started playing in his father's band at the age of 16, concentrating on alto saxophone. In 1985, at the Hollywood Bowl, he found himself fronting his father's forty-piece band at very short notice. His father had been arrested in Lagos (the Nigerian authorities would seize any chance to cage this dissident voice) and Femi came forward from the saxophone ranks.He is releasing a live album and DVD, with mostly new material recorded at The Shrine, the Lagos club that his father opened, now going through something of a reawakening. Femi says: "It takes over 2,000 people, comfortably: one big room. It's in a quite remote area, an industrial area, which is good for the music. We can blast away!"

The Barbican's Black President season runs until 24 October ( www.barbican.org.uk). 'The Best of Fela Kuti' and 'The Underground Spiritual Game' are released by Wrasse Records on Monday

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