News, reviews and commentary on afrobeat and related music from Africa, The Caribbean and The Americas

Friday, May 23, 2008

Keeping It In The Family

By Kenneth Eaton

Fela Kuti is praised the world over as the father of Afrobeat. His virtuosic approach to songwriting and legendary stage presence still provide inspiration to countless musicians and bandleaders. Fela’s two sons, Femi and Seun, are continuing in their father’s footsteps and blazing new trails in Afrobeat. Last month, Seun launched a world tour and released his first CD--you're definitely going to want to hear it. Be sure to check out this excellent new article in this month’s issue of The Walrus about Fela and his sons. Here's a clip about Fela from the article:

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.
You can hear tracks from the new CD on the My Space page for Seun Kuti and Egypt 80.

A particularly exciting performance in the works is on July 6th in NYC’s Central Park for the Summerstage concert series--Seun Kuti will be playing with Afrika Bambaata (who has been credited more than anyone else as a driving force in the emergence of hip-hop), plus reggae hero U-Roy. Seeing these legends of music in one night will definitely be a memorable experience. For those in the Washington, DC area, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 will be playing at The 9:30 Club on July 7th.

Banning Eyre has a great interview with Seun from 2007 on Afropop Worldwide. And--I hope you have room to dance near your computer--check out this spellbinding video of Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 while in Dakar in 2005, featuring the immortal Tony Allen on drums and Manu Dibango on sax. Wow!

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