Published Apr 01, 2000As the evening light fades in Lagos, Nigeria, Femi Anikulapo-Kuti is beginning his fourth hour of interviews, talking to media from around the world about his forthcoming album, Shoki Shoki. There's a certain amount of pressure on him ? expectations for a breakthrough from his French label, Barclay, and its North American distributor, Universal. Bigger than that is the looming legacy of his father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a rare musical and political personality comparable in stature and influence to Bob Marley ? a regal, mythic figure. Yet Femi's concerns at this moment are more down to earth, more immediate: this African superstar, winner of 1999's Kora All Africa Music Award as top male bandleader, and son of a musician whose stature approaches that of a god, is sitting in the dark. There are no lights in his house in Lagos, and there haven't been in quite a long time.
"I just want to play my sax and think about my music and not think about nothing," Femi says. "When you start to think, you get big headed and you lose everything. I don't want to think about what people are saying. There are more important things right now. We have no light. I have to be focussed on what I am about right now. What is my life, right now, about? What is my music about? Move on from there. That is the reality of life. I need to be in touch with reality all the time."
The current activity in Femi's life and career have been a long time coming. Following in the style of Afrobeat invented by his father, he has been leading his own band Positive Force since 1986. He has not reinvented Afrobeat on Shoki Shoki, his third album, but has gone back to his father's leaner, early 70s big band sound, with a contemporary production style. Analog keyboard sounds abound, as do chunky hip-hop-informed bass and drum sounds. There is also a distinct dub-wise sheen to the production supplied by producer Sodi. Notably, there are no breakbeats, no attempts at essaying minimalist grooves, just a brass-heavy band in all its splendour, with a few choice overdubs.
Inevitably, one cannot talk about Femi's life and music without addressing the music and the legacy of his father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who forged a style called Afrobeat from Ghanaian highlife, jazz, traditional Yoruban drumming and a hefty dose of James Brown soul during the late 60s. Born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, Fela studied music in England, where he was exposed to the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. After gigging through West Africa for several years, his band went to the U.S., where Fela was introduced to the writings and politics of Malcolm X and Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. The final catalyst in the development of Afrobeat was James Brown's first African tour in 1970, resulting in one of those chance meetings that changes history. As the Godfather of Soul tells it in his autobiography:
"While we were in Lagos we visited Fela Kuti's club, the Afro-Spot. His band had a strong rhythm, I think Clyde [Stubblefield, the most sampled drummer of all time] picked up on it in his drumming and Bootsy [Collins] dug it too. Some of the ideas my band was getting from that band had come from me in the first place, but that was okay with me."
Fela's political opinions were front and centre in his art ? he maintained that Africans should emphasise African ways of thought and activity and that slavish colonial attitudes should be abandoned. He was also a hedonist ? a heavy marijuana smoker with an enormous appetite for sex. Fela once married 27 women simultaneously to demonstrate the irrelevance of marriage. (His attitude that women and men have entirely separate roles in life was frequently criticised, particularly by the European press.)
Fela's most stinging attacks were trained on the brutal conditions in Nigeria. Nigeria's rulers repeated harassed and jailed Fela from the mid-70s onward. His home base, the Kalakuta Republic, was burned to the ground and his 77-year-old mother was thrown from a second story window during a raid by Nigerian soldiers in 1977. These events served only to increase his popularity, to the point where he became the most popular African performer ever. In the 80s, he undertook many tours of Europe and the U.S. with his 80-member band, thrilling audiences wherever he went. Although he never became a mass phenomenon in the North America, Fela continued this high level of popularity until his death in 1997 of AIDS-related causes.
The unique history of the Kuti family didn't start with Fela. His grandfather composed Christian Yoruban hymns that constituted some of the first recordings made in Nigeria. Fela's father was a trumpet-playing minister and his mother Funmilayo was a leading Nigerian political activist, the first Nigerian woman to drive a car and travel to the USSR. Funmilayo was a formidable woman: intelligent, driven, and determined. Although Fela's attitude towards women was deeply controversial, he had nothing but love, respect and obedience for his mother. Femi and sisters Yeni and Sola resided both in Funmilayo's home base of Abeokuta and in Fela's Kalakuta Republic. Her point of view factored strongly in the children's upbringing, as related by John Collins in his book West African Pop Roots:
"One day when I was teaching Fela's children some science at her house in Abeokuta, Fela burst into the room and told me to stop, accusing me of teaching his children colonial mentality. His mother blasted him for this and told Fela she wanted her grandchildren educated even if he didn't and told him to leave the room; he left."
He is not just his father's son, as many celebrity offspring are. Femi is empowered by his father's spirit but not enslaved by it. But it is an obvious marketing angle to co-promote father and son ? particularly since Femi's record label, Barclay, recently reissued many of his father's 70s albums ? and Femi has no big problem with that.
"I could never lie to anyone. I've drawn a great deal of inspiration from my father's music. All through when I grew up, from when I was born he used to play trumpet in my ears, man. So I can't come back and say Afrobeat is mine.' Everyone will just start laughing. Yes, I put my own feeling into it, yes, it's fresh because it is Femi and blah blah blah. But Afrobeat is Fela's and everybody should accept that."
Femi's sister Yeni (his younger sister Sola died of cancer in 1997, shortly after the death of his father) and wife Funke also help to keep him grounded: "They are very important for me, in my entire life. Communication is important here; I'm trying to communicate with the world and not forget to talk to my people. That's very hard, and sometimes they suggest things."
The result of his education from a family of strong-willed individuals is the knowledge to try to see things as they are, to bring an African sensibility to the world stage, and above all, not be consumed by second-guessing and cynicism. Cynicism won't turn the lights back on.
Changing basic conditions in Nigeria and Africa is Femi's first priority. Femi looks to follow in the tradition of African master musicians who uphold music as an essential form of communication and social interaction. To play music is an important public responsibility, not just a source of livelihood or one's personal artistic development.
As for his non-musical, political viewpoints, Femi's organisation, the Movement Against Second Slavery is on hiatus. "MASS is on hold right now. People thought that since I signed to Polygram I was coming back with a lot of money. They were all greedy and were after the money. It wasn't about people contributing positively to African thinking. It brought out people who weren't thinking positively onto my web site, so I had to close it down."
Which brings us to the thorniest issue in Femi's career: the considerable expectations placed on him: dealing with those who are just after his money; critics who think his music doesn't measure up to his father's; and speculation that he will leave Nigeria for New York, London or Paris. But Femi is resolute in his intentions: to play music for the world while concentrating on the problems of Nigeria. He is staying in Lagos ? remaining in Africa is central to his world view.
"If I start listening to what people are saying [about the importance of international success] then I lose focus. I could move to America or to France and all would be lost. I would lose touch with my roots. Then I'm lost. All the people in Europe, America and Canada who believed in me would say What happened to Femi?' That's the problem. So I need to be focussed for them as well."
On the business end, expectations are high as well. With only four major labels left, the chances of an African artist being given a major push are slim, but a combination of factors may see him succeed in a way that his father and other African artists could not. DJs are resurrecting and reconstructing Afrobeat for the dance floor and North America has seen the popularity of Latin and Jamaican styles make inroads for non-Euro-American music into the pop charts as never before. It would seem a perfect time for a proven performer and hard worker like Femi.
He has faith in his label to make the right business decisions, even though his father's international career was bedevilled by poor distribution. He is not as preoccupied with the ownership of the rights to his songs as his father was, and describes his relationship between himself and Barclay as "a normal international deal." Femi went through the major label wringer in 1994 when Motown put out his Wonder Wonder album just before the label was swallowed by Polygram, stopping the promotion of that album dead in its tracks. Presumably, he's older and wiser the second time around.
"It's not a problem for me. My music is my life, so I can decide. With my father's music, it is heritage that my sister and I [as executors of his estate] must preserve, but with my own music I can take risks. After my death, the label can reissue and reissue, but my son will always reap the royalties."
World-wide marketing strategies are important to Femi, but only secondarily so. Nothing keeps it real like talking to the media around the world about international touring schedules when your house has no lights.
"It's not about being hypocritical about things. If you believe in what you are doing it will all fall into place. At the end of the day we'll all die. So what do you want to be when you're dead? You will look back and say, Well, I did what I wanted to do, and if I did not succeed I tried! I went all the way, I gave it everything I could, and if I don't succeed it's for other reasons. People can't blame me."
The Legacy of Afrobeat
"Since my father died, a whole bundle of people are trying to do Afrobeat," Femi says. The Nigerian media also pooh-pooh most latter day attempts as inferior. Perhaps with Fela passing the torch to Femi, Afrobeat will resemble classical Indian traditions that get passed down within a family for generations.
The best place to start is with the master himself. This is the best time ever to become a Fela fanatic, due to Barclay Records' reissued of about a dozen discs containing two original albums apiece. Most of these titles have never been available in their original forms in Canada. Early highlights in Fela's career are Fela's London Scene (1971) and Open and Close (1970) ? compact, relentlessly up-tempo JB funk with Yoruban bass lines, and Sun Ra-ish keyboard extrapolations. Songs become longer and the band gets way bigger with Confusion (1975), Expensive Shit (1975) and the echo-laden He Miss Road (1975). Fela released more than 20 albums from 1975 to 77 and among the best are Zombie (1976) and No Agreement (1977), featuring Lester Bowie on trumpet.
Other Fela CDs of note are Shanachie Records' Classic Fela, (1979-82), Beasts of No Nation (1988) and ODOO (1990). Celluloid Records reissued several Fela titles in the mid-80's. Live with Ginger Baker (1971) is an intense live recording with Cream drummer Baker's no-nonsense beat pushing the band hard. Bill Laswell's mix of Army Arrangement (1985) featured Sly Dunbar overdubbed on drums, and P-Funkster Bernie Worrell playing some of the most inspired organ solos of his amazing career. Fela hated it, but it holds up well today. Finally, if you can find it, Stern's London issued The '69 Los Angeles Sessions a few years back, featuring Fela playing amazing trumpet. The loose energy of Femi's Shoki Shoki is oddly reminiscent of Fela's first Afrobeat recordings.
Tony Allen, Fela's drummer from the mid-60s until 1979, first appeared as a leader with Africa 70 on Jealousy (1975), which has not yet been reissued. NEPA (1984) is a wicked, dub-wise EP well worth seeking out. Afrobeat Express (late 80s) is solid but not as distinctive. Black Voices (1999) is another outstanding deconstruction of Afrobeat. Tony also helps out on the Soul Ascendants 1999 release Variations.
Femi's first CD was No Cause For Alarm (1988). Wonder Wonder (1994) has a sound not unlike his latest, although the subtle touches of contemporary production on Shoki Shoki are better executed than in 1994.
Nobody can carry off Afrobeat in quite the same way as the Kuti dynasty. Other Afrobeat performers in Nigeria include Kola Ogunkoya and a curious masked performer named Lagbaja, whose mix of highlife and Afrobeat was released on So Why. Outside of Africa, Afrobeat devotees are less slavish to Fela's unique personality. Desco Records of New York brought out the Daktaris' Soul Explosion last year, which features a cover of Fela's "Upside Down," and new material from Antibalas will be released soon. Possibly those greatest influenced by Afrobeat are DJs and remixers. Conscious types like Masters at Work and Ashley Beedle have provided new contexts for the music ? the slowly building grooves of house music are perfect for Afrobeat experimentation.