Pop: Like Fela, like son

Dad created Afrobeat, dabbled in politics and owned a harem. Does Femi Kuti measure up?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I've got nothing against grass," says Femi Kuti, taking a forkful of Eurostar lasagne and chips. "If you know your instrument, it can enhance creativity. The trouble is, too much enhancing your creativity can ruin it."

We're discussing the running of Nigerian Afrobeat combos and the effect thereon of the consumption of NNG - Nigerian Natural Grass. For Femi's late illustrious father, Fela Kuti, grass was a passion, a raison d'etre that didn't prevent him from being a stickler for musical precision, with a deadly ear for every note produced by the great trundling sound-battalion behind him on stage.

Femi has inherited - exceeded, even - his father's perfectionism, but few other habits. He has given up drugs, he sticks to one woman, unlike his harem-owning father, and he doesn't put up with the retinue of area- boy hangers-on that Fela's old Lagos club, The Shrine, was full of. "I told them I wasn't going to have people hanging around - just wake up, smoke, sleep - from now on you sweep, or cook, or play an instrument."

Being Fela Kuti's son must be a role rather like that of Saffy, the sensible daughter to Absolutely Fabulous's Edina, except that Femi's wayward parent was widely regarded as a musical genius and hero of the masses.

When Fela Kuti died of Aids in August 1997, a million people attended his funeral and his status, as creator of Afrobeat and ambassador to the world, is now safely mythical.

Femi, therefore, inherited a number of problems. Artistically, these centred on finding his own style, achieving success without it being attributed to his father's name, and countering rumours and backbiting concerning competition with Fela's other children, notably Femi's brother Seun who now fronts Fela's old band, Egypt 80.

Femi had led his own band, Positive Force, on saxes and vocals since 1985 and achieved a measure of fame: the high point was his signing of an international record deal with Motown Records in 1994. Motown wanted the 50-album Fela back-catalogue too, but Fela told them to come back in two years, as the spirits said the time wasn't right. "I jumped on the deal like a fly," says Femi but the spirits were proven right. No sooner had the first of the five scheduled albums appeared, than Motown's boss was sacked, and Femi's project fell apart. Femi has just made up time with a new international contract, through Barclay/ Polygram of France, which he sees as a vital second chance. Though live music flourishes in the great chaotic megalopolis of Lagos, the record industry is dead, killed by bootlegging, lack of power, world-record corruption and economic meltdown. "An international career is my number one priority," says Femi. "If I can make money in Europe I'll subsidise my African activities."

So Femi has tailored his product to the market, analysing his father's music and modifying it. Fela's bands were huge and their staging leisurely, with banks of brass and percussionists idle through rambling quarter-hour sax or keyboard solos, squads of dancers emerging from the wings for a mere five minutes of a 25-minute number. Femi has retained key elements - the stentorian blast of the sax section, the great gbedu log-drum - Fela's own - the rich, colourful pidgin lyrics lambasting social evils. But he has edited and modernised. The results, judging by a recent Paris concert, are excellent: tight, exciting, with Femi accomplished on sax, though the music is still very much in the mould of Kuti pere's original Afrobeat.

Not that a family resemblance is a likely obstacle to Femi's international ambitions. Afrobeat happens to be flavour of the season in the dance clubs of New York, Tokyo, Paris and London, with DJs and producers like Joe Claussell, Kerri Chandler and Timmy Regisford recycling classic recordings and making new contacts with seasoned Nigerian artistes. Tony Allen, Fela's original percussionist from the Sixties, has a new record, produced by a Paris hip-hoppeur, Doctor L, on the way, and Dele Sosimi, keyboard player both for Fela and Femi, has formed a new band, Gbedu Resurrection, likely to become a fixture at the recently introduced Shrine night at Brixton's Fridge club.

Luckily for London, and Afrobeat fans generally, there are more gifts from Fela on the way. Rather pricey gifts - boxed sets, and series of double CDs - of the entire Fela Kuti back-catalogue. This is also due to Femi, his sister Yeni and his brother Kunle, the executors of Fela's estate (characteristically, he left no will).

Two years after his father's death, Femi has vacated The Shrine, Fela's legendary Lagos club, long reclaimed by the landlord, pulled together record deals and cleaned up all round.

He's also followed his father's lead into politics. Fela's last, unrecorded, songs reflected a desperation with the Nigerian military dictatorship. With Nigeria about to return to a sort of democracy, Fela's son has created an informal party, the Movement Against A Second Slavery, to keep up the pressure. His pronouncements seem promisingly robust. "I don't want power - I don't care who's in power as long as he provides electricity, petrol, water. The President should be like a houseboy..." For all his temperance and industry, Femi has a healthy streak of his father in him.

`Shoki Shoki' and a 10-CD set of 20 Fela Kuti albums, are out now. Another 10 are released shortly. Both on Talkin Loud/Mercury. Femi Kuti will be playing live in the UK in July (Bradford Festival, 16; Royal Festival Hall, London, 17; Cream, Liverpool, 18; Womad Festival, Reading, 25)