Aug 27, 2009

Femi Kuti ... biography and first albums


Femi Anikulapo Kuti was born in London on 16 June 1962, but he grew up in the Nigerian capital Lagos. Femi developed a real passion for music in early life, his father, the legendary sax-star Fela Kuti, teaching his son to play almost as soon as he could walk.

When he reached his early teens Femi's father gave him the choice of pursuing his education under Nigeria's "oppressive neo-colonialist system" or living in the independent community he had set up. At the age of 15, Femi chose to move to Fela's Republic, Kalakuta, leaving his mother, Remi, to continue living outside the community on her own.

Fela, the king of Afro-beat, provided his son with a strict but comprehensive education, teaching him the basic rules of music and the sax, but also instilling him with the will to fight for justice and equality (causes that the Kuti family, renowned as fervent Protestants and Adventists, had been fighting for generations).

Femi's maternal grandmother was a famous militant activist in her lifetime. Fighting to put an end to colonial oppression, she went down in history as Nigeria's first female trade union leader and died a violent death for her cause. She was brutally pushed out of a window at the age of 78 by soldiers who had arrived at the Kuti home with orders to raze it the ground.

Fela organised a much-publicised funeral procession for his mother in 1977, displaying her corpse outside the presidential palace. The funeral proved a huge rallying point for dissidents and opposition leaders of all boards, but for Femi the incident remained one of the most painful memories of his early youth. Following his grandmother's funeral procession through the streets of Lagos, Femi was literally terrorised. But his father's heroic stand against the country's military dictatorship showed Femi that courage and conviction could prove to be considerable arms in the fight against oppression. From this moment on Femi became his father's son, once famously declaring "I'd rather be dead than continue to live in a state of terror."

Learning to play sax

Meanwhile Femi followed in his father's musical footsteps, giving up his studies to devote all his time and energy to learning to play the sax. After spending an intensive two years training at Fela's side, Femi went on to join his father's group, Africa 70, and shortly after signing up for the group he embarked upon an extensive tour with them.

Femi soon proved to have inherited his father's energy and on-stage charisma as well as his musical skills. By the age of 19, Femi was already playing soprano sax with Africa 70 (later he would also go on to master alto and baritone sax). And on the group's tour of the States in 1985 he was called upon to step in and replace his father at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles when the king of Afro-beat was arrested by the Nigerian police (and accused of illegally exporting Nigerian currency).

The audience at the Hollywood Bowl appeared disappointed when the young sax star walked out on stage instead of his father, but Femi, the consummate showman, quickly won the crowd over with his personal charisma and sax skills.

Positive Force

The smooth professionalism which allowed Femi to step in and replace his father at the last minute did not go down well with all the members of Africa 70, however. Indeed, several musicians began accusing him of trying to deform the spirit and the image of the band. When Fela was imprisoned by the Nigerian authorities in 1984 Fela had little choice but to step in and fill his father's shoes once again. Besides leading Africa 70 he also took over the management of Le Shrine (the nightclub that Fela, the "Black President" had set up and played at since its opening in the early 70s).

When Fela was released from jail in 1986, Femi decided it was time to move on and find his own voice. Leaving his father to take up the reins of Africa 70 once again, he went on to form his own group, Positive Force, with his childhood friend, Dele Sosomi (on keyboards). Two of his sisters, Sola and Yeni, were also recruited to the group as dancers.

Femi later admitted that his father had been none too happy about the idea of his son launching his own group and he received little support from the king of Afro-beat. One of the sources of tension between father and son was that the two had radically different views when it came to lifestyle. Fela, the supreme bon vivant, was renowned for his excessive behaviour and wild living, but his son adopted a much more sober, down-to-earth approach, banning alcohol and marijuana from his inner circle.

Despite the lack of support or encouragement from his father, Femi soldiered on and tried to get his career off the ground. This was no easy business given that Fela was a living legend on the Nigerian music scene and critics accused Femi of cashing in on his father's name and copying his music. Femi held out for what he believed in, however, and Positive Force continued playing gigs on the local scene. And it was lucky they did! One day the group were spotted playing in a club in Lagos by a producer who was impressed by Positive Force's potential.

1987: "No cause for alarm"

Femi went on to record his first album in 1987. Entitled "No cause for alarm" and produced in Nigeria, this competent debut album featured a vibrant mix of soul, jazz and funk. Having grown up at Fela's side and been influenced by Afro-beat from his earliest childhood, it was hardly surprising that Femi's early compositions were much in the same vein as his father's music. As for the lyrics of his songs, these continued to fly the flag for the Kuti family's favourite political causes, railing against corruption, war and the evils of apartheid.

Following the release of "No Cause for Alarm", Femi began to receive invitations to perform in Europe. In May 1988 he and his group made their first appearance at the "Musiques Métisses" world music festival in Angoulême. They then went on to bring the house down at the legendary Paris jazz club, Le New Morning (where, bowing to popular demand, they played again the following year). Femi then turned his attention to Africa, touring across the country to play a number of concerts (mainly at French cultural institutes).

Following his experiences on the road, Femi went on to release a new album, entitled "Femi Kuti" in 1992, which reflected the raw energy of his live shows a lot more strongly than his earlier albums had. He returned to Paris to perform at Le New Morning on 6 March 1992 and this concert made it clear that his earlier flirtation with jazz styles had become an essential part of his Afro-beat-influenced fusion sound. As for Femi's virtuosity on the sax, this needed no more proof whatsoever – indeed, certain critics began to claim that when it came to sax-playing Femi was even capable of toppling his father from his throne!

Femi flew out to the States as part of the "Africa Fête" tour in March 1995, performing 17 dates alongside Oumou Sangaré, Bookman Experience and Baaba Maal. In July he went on to bring the house down at the "Summer Stage" festival, held in New York's Central Park.

1995 also marked the release of a new Femi album, this time on Tabu Records (the famous Motown subsidiary specialising in African music). "Wonder Wonder" featured a masterful reworking of Afro-beat, a powerful brass section and musical influences from Nigeria's traditional voodoo culture. Critics threw their support behind "Wonder Wonder", praising Femi's technical precision and his sense of discipline and hard work. Needless to say, comparisons with Fela continued to run like an inevitable undercurrent through most reviews.

Femi went on to perform an extensive tour of France, bringing the house down at venues up and down the country. In May '96 he went on to sweep the board at the Fame Music Awards (the Nigerian equivalent of the Brit Awards), carrying off six trophies for Best Producer, Best Cross-over Song, Best Cross-over Music, Best Music, Best Single and Best Artist of the Year.

Assuming Fela's Mantle

1997 proved to be a landmark year in Femi's career. In August '97 Fela finally succumbed to AIDS and African music fans and the specialist music press in the West looked to Femi to take his place. There was intense pressure on the Black President's eldest son to carry on his father's name and musical heritage. And Femi rose to the challenge with impressive serenity.

This calmness and serenity have often been remarked upon by fans and critics alike, many of whom have noted that Kuti junior is a lot less excitable than his father. (Indeed, many have also reproached the fact that Femi has not carried on his father's tradition of incendiary political speeches and hypnotic stage performances bordering on trance).

Femi has always insisted that the difference in his and his father's temperament has been caused by the fact that he has not had to live through the same atrocities as Fela. "If I'd been physically beaten like my father," he once confided to an interviewer, "I'm sure I'd have had just much anger to vent!"

The Kuti family had barely come out of mourning for Fela when there was a second death in the family. A few months after the king of Afro-beat passed away, Femi's younger sister, Sola, died of cancer. Sola, one of the founding members of Positive Force, was replaced in the group by Femi's wife, Funke.

1997 finished on a more positive note with Femi signing a record deal with Barclay/Polygram. Shortly afterwards he went into the studio to record "Shoki Shoki", the first of his albums to be released on the international scene in 1998.
"Shoki Shoki" made an instant impact on the 'world' scene with its powerful mix of traditional influences, Afro-beat, jazz, hip hop, dance and funk sounds. Femi, who had launched his career as a virtuoso sax-player, had gradually developed his singing skills over the years. And his new album found his melodic vocals coming to the fore on hits such as "Beng Beng Beng" and "Truth don' die". A true showman born and bred, Femi proved a huge hit with African and Western audiences, bringing the house down wherever he played.

Although the hits soon came rolling in, Femi never dropped the political message in his songs. On "Blackman Know Yourself" he urged the African community to learn the lessons of their collective past and face the future armed with political and cultural awareness. Femi did not just defend his ideas in his songs, either. He also went on to set up his own organisation, MASS (the Movement Against Second Slavery), in Lagos in October '98. Taking a stand against the "new forms of slavery" perpetrated by the world's multi-nationals, he also denounced the international companies who had plundered the riches of poorer nations.

Continuing the spirit of his father's famous "Movement of the People" party, Femi set out to fight injustice on all fronts. He was eager to point out that MASS was not a political party, however, just an organisation ready to point the finger at the underlying causes of the problems facing Africans across the continent. The political situation in Nigeria was becoming more explosive by the day, but Femi was not afraid to stand up and fight for democracy over a situation he described as "Democrazy".

Femi conquers the 'world' scene

Meanwhile, Femi's music career continued to go from strength to strength. At the "Kora All Africa Music Awards" held in Sun City in South Africa in September '99, Femi walked off with two major prizes, carrying off the awards for Best Album by a male artist and Best Song of the Year.

Femi – who, by this stage of his career, had earned a new nickname, becoming known as "the Prince of Afro-beat" - appeared to strike a perfect balance between music, politics and family life. Taking up the torch inherited from his father, the sax-star mastered his destiny with consummate self control, assuming his new status without a hint of any Messiah complex. What's more, Femi's talent and professionalism had now spread far beyond Nigeria.

At the end of '99 Femi received a special music tribute when an album of remixes of his work appeared, featuring contributions from many of the world's top DJs including Ashley Beedle and Kerri Chandler. Needless to say, "Shoki remixed" made an impact on the thriving 'world' scene.

Femi managed to find time outside his increasingly hectic tour schedule to invest time and money in the revival of Fela's legendary nightclub Le Shrine (which re-opened its doors in October 2000). In fact, Femi supervised the building of a new Shrine in a new part of town, programming a line-up of happening young artists and carrying on the cult sound of Afro-beat. The Shrine revival was no mean undertaking, either, as needless to say, the Nigerian government strongly disapproved of the enterprise.

Meanwhile, Femi was also actively involved in the recording of the "Red Hot and Riot" compilation, an album which aimed to raised much-needed funds for the fight against AIDS in Africa. The album, designed as a musical tribute to Fela, featured contributions from many of the biggest Afro-American stars of the day. "Red Hot and Riot" was recorded in August 2001, just a few months before the release of Femi's own album.

2001: "Fight to win"

Femi's new album, "Fight to win" arrived in record stores at the end of 2001 and proved an instant hit with 'world' music fans. The twelve tracks on the album confirmed the sax-star's modernist take on Afro-beat. Paying tribute to his father's legend, Femi sought to make his music accessible to a broader base of fans, mixing in influences which would appeal to European and American audiences.

The impressive brass section on "Fight to win" powered out the famous Afro-beat invented by Fela, while Kuti junior opened himself up to new musical horizons, working with surprise guest stars such as New York rapper Mos Def ("Do your best"), Mos Def's alter ego from Chicago, Common ("Missing Link") and Money Mark (ex keyboard-player from The Beastie Boys). As for the production side of things, Femi left that in the more than capable hands of Sodi, the producer who had worked on his last album, "Shoki shoki".

2002 opened with a sad event in Femi's personal life when the sax-star lost his mother, Remi, on 12 January 2002. She died at the age of 60 after fighting a long battle against illness. Remi had played an increasingly important role in Femi's life as the sax-star distanced himself from his father and played a major part in his new family life as a grandmother to his young son, Made.

2004: "Live at the Shrine"

2004 saw the release of "Live at the Shrine", a double album featuring Femi playing live at his father’s famous club together with a DVD documentary made by Raphaël Frydman. Frydman’s camera followed the saxophonist in his daily to-ings and fro-ings as he oversaw the final work on the Shrine, living in an apartment above the club to keep a watchful eye on things. When he was not stuck in one of Lagos’s notorious traffic jams, Femi appeared to spend an inordinate amount of time in rehearsal. Most nights, he was on stage performing at The Shrine with his group Positive Force, their only night off being Friday when the club organised disco nights and booked other bands to play in their place. The Shrine, which Femi co-managed with his sister, appeared to be packed out on a regular basis.

Femi came up with an original idea when it came to selecting the songs which were to be included on the album "Live at the Shrine." He and his group played a broad selection of songs for several months in the run-up to the recording, getting audiences to vote for their favourites. The album ended up including a radiant cover of Fela’s "Water No Get No Enemy" and a reworking of "97", but also featured ten totally new songs. "Shotan" and "Can't Buy Me" not only proved Femi’s talent as a musician and songwriter, but also found him following in his father’s activist footsteps. Femi reintroduced the tradition of Fela’s "Sunday jumps" (afternoons of political and cultural debate) at The Shrine. But he decided to stop the MASS ("Movement Against Second Slavery") as he felt the movement had been misunderstood and had not achieved its initial aims.

"Live at the Shrine" proved to be a big commercial success and Femi took his new songs out on the road on an international tour that lasted several months.

In January 2007, Femi headed off to Paris to record a series of new songs, laying trumpet, organ, saxophone and vocals down at the Zarma studio near Les Halles. His future album, which is set to follow in the "same direction" as his previous work (think Afro-beat and committed political lyrics) is set to feature Femi’s 12-year-old son, Wade, making a guest appearance on sax.

2008: "Day by Day"

On 27 October 2008, the 'Prince of Afro-beat' released a new album, entitled "Day by Day." The twelve vibrant tracks on it were recorded in Paris and honed to studio perfection by Sodi (a French producer renowned for his work with a broad range of artists including Fela, Les Négresses Vertes and French rap superstars IAM). Femi whipped up his usual mix of catchy choruses and hypnotic African beats on his new album, also integrating elements of hip-hop and swing. Meanwhile, his lyrics proved to be as militant and hardhitting as ever, campaigning forcefully against war and all kinds of injustice. "Day by Day" also featured an original cast of guest stars including Keziah Jones, guitarist Sébastien Martel, keyboard-player Patrick Goraguer and singers Julia Sarr and Camille (who provided backing vocals on the title track.)


The first quite hard to find albums ...

No Cause For Alarm (1987/89 - ?)


01. madness unlimited
02. no cause for alarm
03. the struggle must stop
04. search yourself
05. so-so talk and no action
06. generation gap
07. africa unity a must
08. stupidity an act of ignorance

M.Y.O.B. (Mind Your Own Business) (1991)


01. m.y.o.b. (mind your own business)
02. i know why
03. master plan
04. armed robbers
05. t.o.t. (theory of togetherness)
06. august fool

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