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Seun Kuti, Afrobeat, Walrus article


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There's a very interesting article in the new Walrus magazine about Fela Kuti's legacy and divisions within the family between Femi and the younger Seun Kuti. Seun Kuti seems to have been more embraced by Fela and this Summer is coming out with his first album, bearing the Egypt 80 name. Seun has upcoming festival dates this Summer across Canada from Victoria to Quebec City:

http://www.myspace.com/seunkuti

And here's a link to the article from The Walrus.

Interesting stuff!

Revolution Afropop, Take 2

The progeny of late Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti carry on his legend, and his fury

by Banning Eyre

When twenty-five-year-old Seun Kuti of Nigeria took the stage for a showcase concert in Seville, Spain, last October, it was as if a ghost had entered the hall. Seun was fronting his late father’s band, Egypt 80, orchestra sized and iconic in the minds of some 2,000 world music professionals gathered for the annual womex trade fair. This was Fela Kuti’s legendary Afrobeat sound as few have heard it since the patriarch died of aids in 1997. The Egypt 80 brass section sounded dense and primal, blaring out passages from Fela’s epic composition “Colonial Mentality†over thick layers of interlocked guitars and keyboards, muscular bass, bubbling percussion, and — an Afrobeat signature — high hat sizzling like bacon in a pan. At centre stage, young fearlessly appropriated his father’s trademarks: the tight pants, the bare chest, the occasional dalliance with a saxophone, the rough, taunting, half-rapped vocals that morphed from playfulness to outrage, and the quirky stage moves — in Seun’s case, wildly elastic, almost contortionist. We could have been peering through a time tunnel at the young Fela himself.

Of course, when Fela Kuti was in his twenties he was an unknown. In 1963, he had been studying at the Trinity College of Music in London, and was returning to a hopeful, newly independent Nigeria with his head full of soul music, jazz, and “highlife†— West African boogie. Fela’s early attempts to fuse these genres were innovative but not especially well received in Lagos, where audiences preferred their highlife free of jazz complexity. It was only some seven years later, when, after processing black power, free jazz, and James Brown, Fela created Africa 70 and the funky, irreverent sound we now know as Afrobeat emerged. By the mid-’70s, he was pioneering a new art form with his bold, often profane assaults on Nigeria’s political class, which he portrayed as thieving and squandering billions in oil and other revenues while doing little to improve the lives of ordinary people. Fela’s songs lasted twenty minutes or more, with the maestro conducting his enormous brass section, pounding on a Fender Rhodes keyboard, blowing on his tenor sax, and, when he was good and ready, barking out pidgin English screeds the likes of which had never before crossed the lips of an educated Yoruba man. Songs like “Why Black Man Dey Suffer,†“Expensive Shit,†“No Bread,†“Up Side Down,†and especially “Zombie,†Fela’s lacerating parody of Nigerian soldiers, had no precedent in African music. Musicians were there to praise, to uplift, and entertain. This one seemed hell bent on destruction.

Fela’s courage was rewarded with brutality. In 1977, the Nigerian army raided his commune, the Kalakuta Republic, where he lived with his band, his retinue of twenty-seven “wives,†and various children. His mother was thrown from a window. When she later died from her injuries, Fela and fifty-seven supporters drove through a military roadblock amid a hail of machine gun fire and unloaded a symbolic coffin on the steps of the soldiers’ barracks. The stunt was later celebrated in his song “Coffin for Head of State.†By then, Africa 70 had become Egypt 80, and the music was pricking ears around the world. As he gained international stature, Fela was perpetually harassed in Nigeria, even imprisoned on a currency charge in the mid-’80s, but he could not be intimidated. It took death to conclude his supersized opus, and his grandiose poetry of shaming.

Fela’s story is well told and brilliantly contextualized in Michael E. Veal’s Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon. Veal’s book might have been the last word on the Afrobeat story but for two things. First, Afrobeat has a tenacity unrivalled by any African musical genre. Fela’s legacy has grown rather than faded since his death, and today there are Afrobeat bands all over the world, at least three in New York alone. And then there are Fela’s sons. Before Seun, there was Femi Kuti, who emerged as an Afrobeat artist in his own right even before his father died.

Femi is the eldest son, born in London in 1962 to Fela’s first wife, Remi. “We had complete freedom as children,†Femi once recalled. “You could talk [to Fela] about absolutely any problem.†Remi removed herself and her two children from the permissive environment of the Kalakuta Republic well before the 1977 raid, but Femi then returned on his own to play saxophone in Fela’s band. He discovered freedom’s limit when he founded his own band, Positive Force, in 1986, and weathered years of Fela’s scorn before they eventually reconciled. “Fela was the only one playing Afrobeat as far as he was concerned,†said Femi.

Femi’s music has always reflected the psychic bugaboos of a rebellious first son. His two internationally promoted studio albums, Shoki Shoki (2000) and Fight to Win (2001), simultaneously revere and reinvent the conventions of Fela’s art. Brassy big band power surges on every song, and there’s plenty of political tough talk. “Sorry Sorry†is an apology to the African continent, because “with these kind of leaders, Africa no get hope.†“Blackman Know Yourself †and “Traitors of Africa†also carry the Fela banner in their willingness to blame African politicians, not just white colonial whipping boys, for Africa’s problems. On the other hand, Femi boils down the Afrobeat formula to commercial pop dimensions — songs of six to eight minutes, not twenty to thirty — and he collaborates with hip hop and R&B figures like the Roots, Mos Def, and Jaguar Wright, and even allows DJ remixes of his songs.

Even Femi’s performance style conveys a tension between continuity and defiance. Fela onstage was all about don’t-give-a-damn confidence; sublime serenity coloured even his angriest moments. No son can inherit such a progenitor’s aura of originality. In its place, Femi offers dynamism, drive, and openness, but always with the edge of a son who still has something to prove.

On October 15, 2000, Fela’s birthday, Femi and his sister Yeni opened the New Africa Shrine, a nightclub in the industrial Ikeja district of Lagos, where Fela’s old haunt, the Shrine, once operated. The new club can pack in 2,000 people, and, located at the heart of Afrobeat’s fan base, it has done so on a regular basis. A 2005 film by Raphaël Frydman and the accompanying CD, Live at the Shrine, documents Femi as he nurtures Afrobeat’s cultlike following amid a milieu of street vendors, ganja sellers, and free-thinking revellers. Without this hub, Nigeria’s mainstream music industry might well have succeeded in burying Afrobeat along with Fela.

Leapfrogging the complexities of Fela’s family tree, we come to Seun, his youngest son. Seun’s mother, Fehintola, could be Femi’s sister. Seun himself could be Femi’s son, or Fela’s grandson. While Femi was building his band and at loggerheads with his father, Seun was in grade school, coming home to the circuslike household where Fela moved his entourage after the raid on Kalakuta. Seun comes off as the sunny, lovable brat by comparison with his world-weary older brother, but he recalls the same permissive father. “My dad didn’t believe in being like a father to his kids,†said Seun, curled up comfortably on a hotel couch before his concert in Seville. “He wanted to be our peer.†Seun was just eight years old when he accompanied his father and Egypt 80 on their 1991 US tour, which included a stop at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. At that show, Seun set his sights on a life in music. He recalled: “I went to him, and I said, ‘Fela, I want to start singing.’â€

He looks at me. ‘You? What you want sing? Can you sing?’†...

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