INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Financial Times APRIL 1, 2011 - by David Honigmann
'AFRICAN MUSIC HAS TO BE ABOUT STRUGGLE'
When I arrive to interview Afrobeat star Seun Kuti, he is busy attaching a clip-mic to his clothes. "Next time," he instructs me, "you should come with a female assistant to..." and he mimes threading the wire underneath his polo shirt.
But after that ice-breaker, Kuti is all seriousness. Now twenty-seven, he is the youngest son of famed Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who died in 1997. He has inherited his father's band, Egypt 80, and (along with his much-older brother Femi) his mantle as Nigeria's provocateur-in-chief, issuing scathing denunciations of the country's elite wrapped up in funky polyrhythmic Afrobeat. His new album, From Africa With Fury: Rise, is released on Monday, followed by an extensive tour of the UK and Europe.
The album's songs were held up for a year while Kuti looked for a new record company before he and his band committed them to tape in Brazil. "In Nigeria, there are no studios good enough to record me." Once the basic tracks were recorded, the album was produced by Brian Eno, a fan of Afrobeat since buying a copy of Fela Kuti's Afrodisiac in 1973. "I played that album to anybody who'd listen," says Eno. "I recall Robert Wyatt described it as 'jazz from another planet', which always stuck in my mind. Subsequently I bought every album that Fela ever released - that's a lot of albums." Forty-five, in fact. "I saw Seun play in London about four or five years ago and realised that everything I loved about Fela's music was still alive and well, and sounded just as radically fresh. I had thought for years that Afrobeat had a new evolution waiting for it and I realised that Seun could make it happen."
But Eno "gradually realised that possibly more than just mixing was required: some of the songs felt like their structures could be improved, and so we set about that." Kuti enthuses about Eno's grasp of detail, including a dub fill added to the drums on the title track. Eno says the CD represents "the beginning of the exploration of 'New Afrobeat', a music which would find a place somewhere between Fela, Steve Reich, math rock and hip-hop."
The New Afrobeat on this record is ablaze with horns, drums and scratching guitars, with Kuti in declamatory voice. "Everything," he says, "is call and response. You need powerful music to deliver a powerful message." The title track, Rise, is an insurrectionary call to arms. "I wrote that for a hip-hop group I was producing, then I thought, this song is too powerful for hip-hop." The words rail at oil companies, at diamond miners, at corrupt African rulers.
Current events, he insists, require this spirit. "In Africa the people are going to get fed-up of being second-tier citizens. Of living in a country where expatriates are more important, where the profits of multinationals are more important than you to your government. People are going to realise this and stand up on their own without any plan."
He sees the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as essentially anti-colonial revolts. He is more ambivalent about the civil war in Libya, half-praising Colonel Gaddafi as "one of the most pro-African rulers in Africa today", by contrast with "rulers hell-bent on satisfying western interests. And Chinese interests - all over the place in Lagos right now. Africa is being sold to the highest bidder."
The revolutionary wave, he predicts, will spread south. "In sub-Saharan Africa we still need a unifying theme. We are divided. Tribes are in conflict with each other. We don't have Islam as a unifying culture. One of my big experiments is to find something in Nigeria that unites people."
Although his family have been "opposing corruption and oppression and injustice" in Nigeria for more than forty years, this "hasn't changed anything"; his ambition is "educating the people. I don't have an army but I use my music to fight for the people."
He scorns other African musicians for including the occasional political song in otherwise bland material. "I don't preach about love. I don't sing love will set us free. No, man. African music has to be about struggle. Case closed. There's no love in Africa." For Eno, "the political content in Afrobeat" gives the music "a focus and hardness that wouldn't be there if the songs were about, say, teenage love."
Teenage love was probably the least of the young Seun's problems. Fela Kuti's base was the self-proclaimed Kalakuta Republic, the compound where he lived with the twenty-seven dancers he had married and a loose collective of musicians and other guests. "Kalakuta was amazing. Murderers. Drug dealers. Robbers. Prostitutes. Professors. Electricians. Plumbers. Musicians. Everybody. Nobody had a past. Everybody had a chance to reinvent themselves." As a child, he ran wild. "It opened your eyes to the world. I learnt about human beings and behaviour. People criticise this way of raising kids but I'm not seeing the disadvantage of it."
His father, by then in his fifties, was "this pants-wearing dude who's always lying on his bed smoking weed. I never saw the superstarness of my dad. We never had a father-son relationship. We had more a teacher-student relationship. He'd sit down and talk to me about life."
The elder Kuti has recently enjoyed a posthumous career revival as the hero of Bill T Jones's Broadway musical. "The Broadway thing was a brilliant idea. People who wouldn't normally buy a CD are hearing the music. The next thing is a movie."
Fela's old band, Egypt 80, is now slimmed down to twenty members, all but four of them veterans of the original outfit. In Lagos, they play marathon concerts. "It's more fun than playing two hours. You have more connection to your crowd. People are dancing all the time, drinking, getting tired, sitting down. You get to the right part of the song and, boom, everyone's up again. It's an amazing feeling."
Last November, Kuti appeared at the Barbican as part of a concert marking the fiftieth anniversary of Nigerian independence and the seventieth birthday of Tony Allen, Fela's old drummer. At the time he announced, pointedly, that he was there to "wish uncle Tony a happy birthday, not to celebrate Nigeria". Now he elaborates. "There is nothing happy about independence fifty. What are we celebrating? Our independence every year should be a time of reflection when everybody locks themselves up in a dark room and cries." He laughs. "That's what I do. I don't cry because since my dad died I've not been able to cry. But I lock myself in a dark room anyway."