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Femi Kuti: True to the Source

July 30, 2018

By 1978, when Femi Kuti was recruited into his father Fela Kuti’s band, playing saxophone at age 16, the elder Kuti had already garnered international fame for a dance-friendly fusion of jazz, funk, and the traditional and contemporary “highlife” music of his native Nigeria, which, in 1967, he’d dubbed “Afrobeat.” In their home country, the Kuti name was also notorious for Fela’s repeated lyrical attacks on the corruption and military repression which had infested the government for much of Nigeria’s existence, since its liberation from British control in 1960. Fela had been severely beaten, his commune in the city of Lagos attacked, and his elderly mother, an anti-colonialist feminist, fatally injured.

Fela persisted in his music and his protests, commended by Amnesty International and many others, and also affected an idiosyncratically flagrant lifestyle, declaring his independence from the Nigerian state and at one point marrying 27 women. After his premature death in 1997, attributed to AIDS-related complications, Femi Kuti, who’d formed his own band (called Positive Force), opened the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos to help preserve his father’s music and legend. Seeking to update his own sound and appeal, Femi collaborated with Western pop musicians including Common, Mos Def, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove. He’s been nominated four times for a world music Grammy. Continuing to sing out against government wrongdoing in Nigeria and elsewhere, Femi has been named an Ambassador by Amnesty International. Earlier on the current U.S. tour, which will bring him to Stern Grove in San Francisco next Sunday, Femi spoke by phone with SFCV.

Was your father proud of you when you first joined his Egypt 80 band?

Yes, though now, at my age [56], I don’t know what he was so proud about. [Chuckles] I can say I’m very proud of my son [Made, pronounced “Mah-deh”], because he can read, he can write, at his age he’s far ahead of what I was at that age. But this is because I made sure he got the education he deserved.

I know he’s performed with your Positive Force band, will he be with them at Stern Grove?

No, he won’t. He just finished his university, so he’s trying to settle in, back in Lagos.

So your situation growing up with your father was different.

I was more of an experiment. My father did not believe I needed an education to be successful. He put me out there, and we could say he couldn’t be bothered, or that he had a lot of confidence in me. The pressure was not on him, but on me. But you could say he was right. What I’ve had to go through to accomplish a good life has been very chaotic and very painful and, I think, probably unnecessary. Having said that, probably if I had gone to school, my music would be boring. So probably this very turbulent life I’ve had has made my music very interesting to everybody.

Your music, like Fela’s, has taken issue with things happening in Nigeria. What’s the current state of things there, and are you still addressing them?

Yes, I am, because the current situation is not so good, it’s very rough and untidy. But I do more of my commenting on my albums [rather than in public], because I find that politicians just pay people to be stupid on social media, and I don’t have time for people being ridiculous about serious issues, or trying to condemn me. I’d rather spend my time practicing.

Can you give us an example of your speaking out from your latest album, this year’s One People, One World [Knitting Factory Records]?

One of the tracks, “Dem Militarize Democracy”, talks about the military as still controlling the democratic process. We’ve had military men as presidents and governors, and they’ve been like that since the introduction of the democratic process. Even when there was a civilian head of state, he was put there by military officers. They are playing with the minds of the people.

How has the music of your father and you helped illuminate people’s minds?

The music of my father was giving historical facts, he was talking about issues in the ’70s that are still dominant in our lives today. Some people see him as a prophet. And why would you want to read a book about historical facts, when you can just listen to my father’s music?

In your music, do we still hear Afrobeat?

Yes, of course, the foundation is still Afrobeat, and it always will be. You could say I’m still a loyalist.

How do you mean?

Because I appreciate the knowledge I got as a child, listening to my father. It was my first love, my dream, to always play this kind of music. I will never be one to bring my father’s music down. It is embedded in my soul and my spirit, I don’t intend to neglect the love of what I felt as a child. Ever.

Any other influences on your music-making?

I used to listen to jazz for inspiration.

Any new jazz of interest to you?

No, I don’t know of any. If I were to go and listen to jazz right now, I would go from the beginning; I’d go back to my Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I would go to people like this because I know where I’m coming from and I know where I want to go. I’m sure there are hundreds of good players, but my goal is to compose and be as good a player as I can, personally speaking.

So when we hear your alto sax solos at Stern Grove, it will be yours, without need of comparison.

I can assure you of that! My aim is to compose directly from my source. I’ve decided I don’t want to be inspired by anything else but life. I still try to do six hours of practice every day, and I look for melodies in my head.

How does the makeup of your Positive Force ensemble support your vision?

On tour, we are four horn sections, bass, guitar, piano, percussion, drums, three dancers, and singers. [In Lagos] we perform every Sunday and Thursday, year in and year out, and everybody must know my numbers, so I can call upon any tune, any time, new and very old songs of mine.

In Stern Grove, will we hear older Femi hits? Anything from Fela?

I will not go too far back, maybe about five years. And there will be stuff from the new album. I don’t know if I’ll have time for my dad’s music.

Is One People, One World a different disc?

Each album has to be distinct from the rest. This album is more optimistic.

What generated the optimism?

I think, being a father, giving my children a better future. There’s a different flavor in my mind.

Have your touring and international popularity affected your reputation back home?

They get excited, they think I’m making a lot of money, which is not the case. Being on the road night after night, taking a big band on tour, is very tedious, and not very financially rewarding anymore. But I think showcasing my music and what I’m talking about is more important than thinking about the financial aspect right now.

I’d assume your spreading understanding has been furthered by collaborations with Western acts like Common and Mos Def.

You reach an audience that probably would not have been listening to you, and they get to know you. It helps in passing the message, while I also keep my fan base intact.

And there’s a global message?

The orientation of world powers has to change, and it’s not just about Africa, it’s about the human race. Our energy has to be diverted into helping nations excel.

You seemed to have good things to say in the documentary about the making of Fela!, the musical about your father which opened on Broadway in 2009 and won a bunch of Tony nominations and awards.

They did extremely well with his character. And I’m especially impressed with [commodities trader] Steve Hendel, who put all his money into it, and probably lost a lot of it. He loved what my father stood for and wanted to get as many people as possible to see life through that music.

Let me finish by asking about your Guinness record for the longest note held on a saxophone, 51 minutes and 35 seconds, which you accomplished at your New Afrika Shrine in May of this year. How did you do it?

It took me a couple of years [of trying]. And every time I did it, with circular breathing, people would tell me, “Kenny G has the world record!” I wasn’t in competition with Kenny G, I just wanted to enhance my creativity. People never saw the beauty of what I was doing. But now that they cannot say to me that Kenny G has the world record anymore, I can spend the rest of my time just enjoying my playing.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.