Femi Kuti Confronts Father Time

Femi Kuti Confronts Father Time
After commemorating his 50th birthday and the 15th anniversary of the death of his legendary father Fela, Femi Kuti entered 2013 as the greying heir to the Afrobeat throne. Never one to dismiss his family's (still growing) legacy, Femi's music has always been about honouring his roots while stretching his branches into unexplored territory. Brimming with soaring melodies and tightly-packed song structures (just four of 11 tracks break the five-minute mark), Femi's sixth full-length, No Place for My Dream is undoubtedly the most accessible and pop-oriented album of his career. Exclaim! spoke with Femi Kuti about his new album, trying to stay positive in a time of escalating political strife and, of course, his dad.

Can you talk a bit about the new album?
I think this album is one of my favourites; it feels more down to my roots but very fresh. It was recorded in Paris. Took me about two years to complete, writing fully all songs and compositions. It was recorded by my producer, whom I've being working with since [1999 single] "Beng Beng Beng," Sodi.

Why did you choose to record the album in Paris?
I love the studio, Zarma, and I love the city, I'm comfortable.

How structured are your songs when you begin to record?
My numbers are always fully ready but after recording we make corrections to enhance the structure better, sometimes. This is where Sodi comes in very handy, especially if we think we have a radio play or want to make a single out of a track.

How much do you improvise in the studio?
I improvise a bit but I play my songs live for a while before going into the studio, to get a good feel.

What would you consider to be the main difference between the recording of this album and the recording of 2010's Africa for Africa?
The difference, I think is, I'm singing better. [Laughs] I'm more experienced in delivering my music, this comes from age of majority, I believe.

Can you talk about some of the lyrical themes you've touched on for this album?
The album is really a cry of the urgency we find ourselves in at this point in time in the history of the world. I feel more people are poorer, there's more suffering, more pain, not just in Africa — being the focal point of discussion — but Europe and America too. I talk about how politics is being run as a business and not truly for the people's welfare. I talk about how people discourage me saying there's "no place for my dream," saying the world will always face problems and wars. One of my favourite tracks is "It's Just the Beginning" which has a powerful jazz/Afrobeat feel, with a lot of brass.

That said, do you feel that people from Europe and North America have been starting to relate to your music more?
I do feel people from Europe and North America are starting to relate to my music. Quite a few people come up to tell me and a lot of journalists tell me this too, especially journalists who have followed my career for some time now.

Do you ever experience moments of hopelessness, like the battle against government corruption is too large of a battle to win?
Yes I do. But now I have a better understanding of our history and why sometimes the struggle feels hopeless, this comes from appreciation of our history and events.

You've been making records under your own name for almost 20 years now and you've worked hard to break free from your father's shadow. But it seems that there is a part of you that strives to keep his message alive. How do you balance your independence and your legacy?
This is very simple, I love my father and I'm very proud of him and I believe it's important I do my best telling and answering questions about him, for what he's done is of historical importance. He was my foundation and he's still relevant in my life. There's really no division, I'm part of the story but trying to tell my story from his time into my time, it kind of all adds up.

What advice do you give to your son [musician Made Kuti], whom I imagine, must have to deal with the same legacy issues as you did?
I tell my son to be himself, which I think he's doing a very good job of, and not to run away from his inheritance and that he should be confident and never doubt his ability to deliver.

Most people starts to become more like their fathers as they grow older. What have you noticed about yourself lately that reminds you of Fela?
I think I look a lot like my father these days, as I get older, and I find I kind of go into a state of thinking like him, I feel myself drift into thought like I notice he did.

What did you learn from playing in bands at such a young age that you bring to your band?
Discipline, focus and always try to improve on my instruments.

Do you still sit by yourself and practice or do you only pick up your instrument when you are writing?
I still try to do a minimum of six hours of practice every day by myself.

I feel that, on No Place for My Dream, many of the songs are driven by melodies rather than driven by rhythm. Do you agree with this?
Well, yes the melodies are very powerful and strong but deeply rooted in the rhythms.

Did you approach this album with the idea that you wanted to focus more on melodies?
Not really. I think this comes with trying to find a new path to express myself and make my melodies sweeter and more interesting.

Has your approach to writing changed over the last two years?
Yeah, I feel my approach has changed and still changing. This, I feel, comes from performing a lot, trying to find new ideas and playing more instruments.

Who or what inspires you?
Everything and kind of everybody around me. [Laughs] In the past, my father, and jazz these days. I still love Things to Come by Dizzy Gillespie and Sketches of Spain by Miles Davie and Gil Evans. I draw strength from my children too.