In Nigeria there is a music called Fuji. In the early 1990s, Fuji was the most popular music in Nigeria. The music’s originator, Sikiru Barrister, named it after seeing a postcard of Mount Fuji. He said it was the most beautiful mountain he had ever seen, and dreamed of playing or recording in view of it.
Through his record company he sent me word of his idea, and for a couple of years I tried to generate interest here to make Barrister’s dream come true. Unfortunately, I never succeeded. The number of his touring party — 34! — made it, to say the least, extremely difficult.
It was therefore some consolation last year to see Nigeria’s Femi Kuti perform at the Fuji Rock Festival (although it was nowhere near the sacred mountain). Seeing Femi Kuti play live was even sweeter because his father, the late, great Fela Kuti, never made it to Japan before he died in 1997, despite having a large and devoted Japanese following. Probably because his band too, in its heyday, numbered about 40.
While Barrister may have been dreaming of Fuji, Femi Kuti was dreaming more of Tokyo. “When I heard I was playing at a rock festival in Fuji, I thought ‘Oh, my God, why?’ ” he said in an interview. He lamented not being given the chance to perform in Tokyo, as perhaps did some of his fans, who might not have had much interest in the rest of the bill at the Fuji Rock Festival. However, this is about to be rectified, as Femi Kuti will return to Japan to play in Tokyo shortly.
Femi Kuti is the eldest son of Fela Kuti who, in the late ’60s, united funk, jazz and Nigerian elements to create Afro-beat. For three decades he waged a cultural war against the establishment. Corrupt politicians, the middle classes, the multinationals — nobody escaped his vitriolic attacks. It landed him in prison for two years, and his mother died from injuries sustained when soldiers raided and burned down his house. He became a hero for Nigeria’s downtrodden, and millions turned out for his funeral in Lagos.
Following in the footsteps of his father has not been easy for Femi Kuti. He grew up within a sometimes violent atmosphere. “I was arrested many times myself and was beaten. I was also there when [the soldiers] burned down [Fela’s] house,” he said.
Fela would force his son to listen to jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, an experience he likens to taking bitter malaria medicine. At the time, Femi was more interested in listening to Michael Jackson.
When he was 15, Femi asked if he could join his father’s band. Femi learned and studied much under Fela, and came to love those jazz records.
“My eyes were constantly on him. I was always asking why does he do that, and where does he get inspired from?” he said.
However, the two were constantly falling out, and after six years, in 1986, Femi formed his own band, Positive Force. Their relationship became even more strained.
“After I left we didn’t speak for another five years, because he was annoyed. He wanted me to stay with him for longer, maybe forever.”
For the following few years Femi found himself playing to just a handful of Nigerians and was constantly compared to his father.
“Nigeria is the hardest place in the world to play. If you can play there and survive you can play anywhere in the world,” Femi said.
A turning point came in 1991 when Femi launched his second album “Mind Your Own Business” with a gig at the Shrine, Fela’s legendary nightspot in Lagos. It was the first time that Fela had been to see him in public.
“Fela was there watching me and everyone was watching him. When he started to dance, that became big news.” Fela became his son’s biggest fan, and thereafter would join him on stage every Sunday night at the Shrine.
His 1995 album “Wonder Wonder” became a big hit in Nigeria, but it’s only with the release of last year’s “Shoki Shoki,” and its subsequent remix version for the dance floor, that his international career took off.
By combining the heritage of his father with modern technology, Femi Kuti has laid down the blueprint for a new era of Afrobeat. Both Fela and Femi’s music has been remixed by a succession of DJs such as New York’s Masters at Work and Timmy Regisford, the U.K.’s Ashley Beedle and France’s Frederic Galliano. Femi Kuti, however, firmly said he is not influenced by any recent club music: “Where did dance and house come from? I believe it came from Afrobeat. If you go back to the ’70s you’ll hear today’s dance music in my father’s music.”
Onstage, the music of Femi Kuti, together with the 15-strong troupe of musicians and dancers of Positive Force, is at its most exhilarating. Several years ago I saw him in Liverpool in the U.K., but the set was cut short because the promoters said he had blown the P.A. system!
There were no such problems at the Fuji Rock Festival. His early morning set on the main stage woke everyone up, and within seconds of his arrival on stage, the party continued from the night before. Later in the afternoon, Femi and band were given the chance to stretch out, just as his father did, with extended dance workouts.
Unlike many African musicians who have moved abroad after tasting success, Femi Kuti is determined to stay in Lagos. The old Shrine was demolished after the lease ran out, so Femi is planning on opening a new Shrine.
In-fighting in the Kuti family has also continued. Femi’s teenage half-brother Seun now sings with Fela’s ex-group Egypt 80. The two are reportedly bitter rivals, and there is the prospect of having two Kutis touring the world and playing Afrobeat. But for now, anyway, this is the Kuti to watch.
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