Apr 5, 2011
Guarding a Legacy From Nigeria to Broadway
Femi Kuti, the Nigerian singer and saxophonist, admits to being delighted that “Fela!,” the Broadway musical about his father, Fela Kuti, is a hit, attracting new fans to Afrobeat, the politically charged musical genre that Fela created and Femi plays. Even so, he is not planning to see the Tony-winning show during a trip to New York for a performance Monday night in Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series.
“I’m protesting for it to come to Lagos, so if I see it now, I will lose that fight,” he said before a performance with Positive Force, the 13-piece orchestra he leads, here Saturday night. “It’s good that it’s on Broadway, the publicity is great, everyone is talking about it. But if there is truly respect for the music and the message, it has to come to Africa, back to Lagos and the Shrine that we, his family, have built for him. That is important spiritually and culturally.”
As Fela’s oldest son, Mr. Kuti, 48, is in an unusual, demanding and potentially contradictory position. Since his father’s death, from complications of AIDS in 1997, the younger Kuti has pursued two careers: his own musicianship and that of serving as the main guardian of Fela Kuti’s legacy and of Afrobeat, the inviting and highly danceable mixture of West African rhythms with jazz, soul, funk and psychedelic rock influences.
“The baton is definitely in his hands,” said Ahmir Thompson, drummer for the Roots, better known as Questlove, who is a longtime fan of the Kuti family’s music. “But I also understand the plight of a son trying to make his own voice heard in the world.”
Being his father’s son may be a draw abroad, attracting curious listeners, but at home in Nigeria, it comes with considerable baggage. In 1977, enraged at Fela’s criticisms of corruption and military rule in songs and speeches, the Nigerian authorities burned down the Shrine, the Lagos nightclub and compound where Fela played and lived with his extended family; an imaginary version of the club serves as the setting of the musical.
With great effort, Fela’s survivors have built a New Africa Shrine in a different area of Lagos. But Mr. Kuti complains that the government, now nominally in civilian hands under President Goodluck Jonathan, looks for excuses to shut the club down, harasses its patrons and bans some of his music from the radio. That, in large part, is why he welcomes the increased visibility that “Fela!” has brought him.
“This democratic era is a farce,” he said, adding that his next CD, to be called “Africa for Africa” and due out later this year, will address this and related topics. “It’s the same corrupt leaders, the same corrupt godfathers. The military are taking off their uniforms and are pretending to be politicians. The government is clowns as far as I am concerned.”
But with time and experience, Mr. Kuti has also learned to be less confrontational than his father, who was beaten and arrested more than once. As Mr. Kuti once explained it, while his father would simply declare that “the government is a thief,” his own style is to try to be diplomatic, to say that he would prefer that the government stop stealing money.
“Fela was a complicated character, and Femi has tried to be very savvy about which aspects of the Fela legacy he embraces and which he distances himself from,” said Michael Veal, author of “Fela: The Life and Times of an African Music Icon” and leader of Michael Veal and Aqua Ife, a New York Afrobeat band. “He’s embraced the whole political heritage of Afrobeat.” But when it comes to marijuana and promiscuity, “he’s not advocating smoking, he doesn’t have a thousand women around him, and his band and his business are not chaotic. So I think he has dealt with it gracefully.”
Musically Mr. Kuti has also refined the Afrobeat sound. His younger brother Seun, also a saxophonist and singer, performs with the remnants of their father’s orchestra, Egypt ’80, and specializes in cover versions of Fela’s songs. But Femi Kuti writes almost all of his own material and has broadened the range of influences on Afrobeat.
“It’s a different rhythmic language and a different harmonic language too,” said Aaron Johnson, the musical director of “Fela!” and a member of the Afrobeat group Antibalas, the musical’s house band. “He’s retained the general framework while incorporating instrumental and rhythmic elements from the last 10 years of popular music, like having that four-on-the-floor house dance beat pushed to the front, for instance, when Fela had so many polyrhythms going on.”
Purists may not like those changes, which also include songs much shorter than the half-hour pieces that Fela typically favored, and have sometimes complained about them. But as Mr. Kuti noted, if he stuck to the classic Afrobeat sound, he would run the risk of being accused of imitating or copying his father.
Though he tours regularly, Mr. Kuti had a seven-year gap between studio CDs of new material, broken only in 2008 with the release of “Day by Day” (Mercer Street/Downtown). He spent much of that interval, he said, trying to expand his musicianship by studying trumpet and piano, both of which he now plays in his live shows with an orchestra, which includes a five-man horn section and three female dancers and backup singers.
“Femi has had the good sense not to try to reproduce his father’s music, and instead created his own interpretation of Afrobeat,” said Carlos Moore, author of the authorized biography “Fela: This Bitch of a Life” and a Cuban-born expert on tropical music. “He was determined to do that even before the death of his father, and has come up with a modern sound in tune with 21st-century tastes that can be played for audiences in both Africa and the West.”
And as Mr. Thompson was quick to point out, in person Mr. Kuti can be nearly as commanding a presence as his father. Mr. Thompson recalled their initial encounters, at recording sessions in 2000 in which he, other hip-hop, soul and funk stars collaborated with Mr. Kuti on a new version of “Water No Get Enemy,” one of Fela’s most anthemic songs, for a compilation CD for the Red Hot Organization, the coalition against AIDS.
“When Femi came to the studio to meet us, it was like a scene straight out of ‘Coming to America,’ ” the 1988 movie in which Eddie Murphy plays the prince of an imaginary African country, Mr. Thompson said. “He walked in like the king of Zamunda, with his entourage and all these royal-looking women, and me and Common and D’Angelo just looked at each other. But what was beautiful was that although he has his father’s charisma and authoritative stance, he is also very humble.”
Published by Larry Rother, July 11, 2010, NYTimes.com