Dec 8, 2010

Femi Kuti, Nigerian singer fighting the authorities through music

By Jan Fairley, 30 November 2010

FEMI Kuti is fighting the Nigerian authorities through music. As his new album Africa For Africa shows, he's raising the same hell back home as his father Fela did, continuing the struggle against corruption in ways that infuriate the government as it celebrates 50 years of independence from Britain.
"Nigeria still belongs to the hierarchy of people in power, not to Nigerians," he says. "There is no electricity; bad roads, terrible health care. Nothing has really changed for the better."

Femi describes Africa For Africa as aggressive, yet to use that word belies the charm and charisma he exudes on and off stage. Passing through London en route to Australia, where he and his 14-piece orchestra, the Positive Force, are starting the album tour, Femi is in fine mood. Fela!, the award-winning Broadway show about his father, has just transferred to London's National Theatre. The previews are packed and the week after he leaves, the show gets great reviews. I see it, and while it's a tad underpowered musically, and the more edgy side of Fela is lost in the emotive story, it's still an unmissable experience.

Set in 1977, when Fela's Lagos nightclub The Shrine was burnt down, the show tells the story of Fela Anikulapo Kuti as political activist and creator of Afrobeat. It covers the year when the military, enraged by Fela's persistent critiques, sent 1,000 soldiers to surround the Kalakuta Republic, the name he had given the family compound. The soldiers burnt it down after acts of extreme brutality in which many, including Kuti, were severely beaten. The women were raped; Kuti's 77-year-old mother, a feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement and founder of the Nigerian Women's Union, was thrown out of a first floor window causing fatal injuries. Kuti delivered his mother's coffin to the residence of General Olusegun Obasanjo, immortalising the moment in his song Coffin For Head Of State.

Fela's is a powerful story and a tremendous legacy for any son to inherit. Femi, his eldest at 48, took up his father's mantle some time ago. Africa For Africa includes such new songs as Bad Government, which asks how the continent produces such great doctors, sportsmen and artists while its countries are in a mess.

Femi's music is an irresistible affair, pulsing with interlocking polyrhythms that have audiences moving from the first note, with Femi singing and playing saxophone over rolling banks of horns, riffing guitars, organ keyboards and layers of percussion. He sings in Nigerian pidgin, a language adopted by his father in the 1970s to communicate with the country's multiple language groups.

"My music reminds people what is going on and my songs are part of the fight," he says. "When violence and injustice touch you personally you can't walk away."

For 50 years now the Kuti family, a dynasty of educationalists and intellectuals which includes Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, have shown they have the gift to create music that makes everyone move while offering the fearless messages few artists are willing to voice. Africa For Africa was launched last month at Felabration, an annual festival in tribute to Fela at the Africa Shrine built in 2000 by Femi and his sister Yeni in honour of their father's memory. Part performing space, part tribute to Fela's life and work, its walls bear portraits of US black leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who influenced Fela's thinking in the 1960s.

In 1958, Fela had arrived in London where he matched three years of studying classical music at Trinity College with playing the club scene with Koola Lobitos, the group he formed with Nigerian mates, who fused jazz with African-Ghanaian high-life. On his return to Lagos, Fela was decisively influenced by hearing versions of James Brown played by Sierra Leonian musician Geraldo Pinto. A tough ten months in the US with his band brought him into contact with the Black Panther Movement, which transformed his vision. Soon he began creating Afrobeat by adding US funk and psychedelic rock sounds to his jazz fusion of West African Yoruba roots music with high-life.

None of this was lost on Femi, who started playing saxophone in his father's band at the age of 16. When he was 26, Femi founded the Positive Force, modernising Afrobeat by shifting its harmonic and rhythmic language, absorbing ideas from newer genres yet keeping the message sharp.

As a result, at the Africa Shrine, Femi has similarly suffered continual harassment, with patrons bullied and staff thrown into jail. Last year, after it was summarily closed, supporters including Stevie Wonder signed a petition which saw it re-open. Since then international artists including Damon Albarn have played there.

Not that Femi has the same confrontational personality as Fela. Known to be more humble and diplomatic, unlike his father he does not advocate smoking marijuana, nor is he polygamous. (Although Fela finally rejected polygamy, he died in 1997 of complications from Aids.) In contrast, until 2005 Femi was monogamously married to Funke, a leading dancer who appeared alongside him. He was reportedly anguished by their divorce, and plays a big part in the life of his children, who include three adopted orphan friends of Made, his 15-year-old saxophone-playing son. "I put them in the same school," he says. "I love children and I want to have more. When I'm dead they will play beautiful music so my spirit will be dancing in heaven."

His father's spirit must be dancing there continually.

With the Fela! show due to play in at the Shrine in Lagos sometime after London, Femi is looking forward to his father's story reaching young Nigerians. "I have the hope a new vibrant generation is coming who will not take any nonsense from corrupt leaders, who will be strong and fight for a better Africa."


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