Following the father

Femi Kuti innovates with Afrobeat sound


You’ve probably heard of the father of Afrobeat bandmaster and award-winning musician Femi Kuti. And if by chance you haven’t, you’re missing out on one of Africa’s greatest musical legends.

Fela Kuti, known by most simply as “Fela,” was by turns renowned and notorious for the relentless Afrobeat sound that he blasted out of the combustible urban supernova of Lagos, Nigeria, onto the world stage beginning in late 1960s. The genre he created changed the course of music across the globe.

Fela would hold court in front of sweating, seething crowds that flocked to the shows where his 40-piece orchestra would perform half-hour-long songs. The music moved along with the gravitational force of a small planet, melding guitar and percussion riffs inspired by everything from jazz and blues to reggae, funk and soul. His lyrics were full of powerful and often angry political commentary, as well as odes to free love, marijuana use and a life unencumbered by staid notions of what was proper. Underpinning it all was an unmistakable slow-fast tempo that brought performers, audience members and frowning government lackeys alike to trancelike states of excitement.

It was, you might say, a hard act to follow. But the legend’s son, Femi Kuti, took the old adage to heart: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” He dropped out of school at age 16 to play saxophone in his father’s band Egypt ’80. Since then he has worked relentlessly to keep the spirit of Fela’s music alive — if not all the elements of his eccentric and freewheeling lifestyle — and adapt it to the new musical and political realities of the day.

By any measure, Femi has been astoundingly successful. As he arrives in Tokyo next week for the fourth time since he began touring with his own orchestra, Positive Force, he is on the verge of doing the unthinkable: not only matching, but in important ways, eclipsing the influence and popularity of his father both musically and politically.

Femi will arrive in Japan as the headline act of the Mount Fuji Calling festival, which also features Tony Allen, lead drummer and musical director of Fela’s Afrika ’70 orchestra. Although Fela never made it to Japan for a performance, his legacy is deeply felt among DJs such as Shinichio Osawa and Towa Tei, who revolutionized Japan’s club-music scene with their own innovative takes on house music in the late ’80s and early ’90s. So it is perhaps no wonder that Femi has always received a warm welcome here, especially as his pioneering work matches well with the efforts of homegrown Japanese musicians. Like him, they have adapted Afrobeat to modern sensibilities by cutting down long tracks to tightly produced, four-minute pop-standards with faster, more club-friendly tempos that were easy to mix in with other dance music.

The wide appeal of these innovations is seen in Femi’s recent work with artists such as the Philadelphia hip-hop collective The Roots, and on his hit 2001 album “Do Your Best,” on which he collaborated with Mos Def, Common and soul singer Jaguar Wright.

Reached by telephone in Lagos this week, Femi credited his success not only to innovative tinkering with the classic Afrobeat sound, but to speaking out about social and political themes that are close to people’s hearts not only in Nigeria and Africa, but around the world.

“My music is about telling the truth,” he told The Japan Times. “I see what I see and I speak the truth with my music. I see corruption and I sing about that. I see hunger, I sing about that. I don’t see the need for a lot of the problems that exist. These problems exist because people are corrupt, worldwide, not just in Africa. But here in Nigeria, the problems that we were facing 30 years ago are now only 30 years worse. People are more hungry, they are suffering more.”

Femi’s effort to speak the truth is another trait he shares with his father. He has, though, avoided the constant troubles that faced Fela, whose outspoken political views and lifestyle put him at odds with Nigeria’s various fractious political leaders and the military regime that ruled the country for 16 years until 1999.

“Because my father had been beaten so many times, he was kind of fed up with society and struggle, and maybe because of that his music was more relaxed,” Femi says. “But maybe my music has a new kind of vibrant energy, ready to continue. Still, some times I get fed up. I wonder, why does a man have to struggle so hard? In Africa it is so difficult. There is so much poverty, corruption, betrayal from people you trust. So in some ways I have been through the same thing my father went through. But I have not been beaten yet.”

A much less controversial figure than his father, one of Femi’s major efforts over the years has been the fight against HIV/AIDS, the disease that tragically killed Fela in 1997, and which today infects more than 4 million people in Nigeria alone. This, along with his campaigning on behalf of children and against poverty, and his far more palatable lifestyle (he doesn’t do drugs, drink or smoke), has led to his widespread popularity not only with the people of Nigeria, but also with the country’s democratically elected government. It has also put him in good stead with other institutional aid and advocacy groups such as UNICEF, which named him a goodwill ambassador in 2002.

Despite the severity of the problems that he addresses in his work on and off stage, his music retains a quality of joy and hopefulness that may strike some as a strange contrast to his obvious frustration with the current state of affairs in Nigeria, Africa and much of the rest of the world. But for Femi, the difficulty of the life that so many in the world today are facing goes hand in hand with the need to inspire people to go on with their lives as best they can, building for the future.

“Music is life,” he says. “My music touches on a force that is located deep in life, and for me it is about enlightening people about that. It is about giving you joy, making people think, inspiring people. But of course, it is also there to show us that life is serious and to show things as they are. And to that end there is no other choice. We need to keep speaking the truth. We need to keep on fighting.”