Pushing Afrobeat Anew

On a summer night two decades past, a bravado-wielding Nigerian known as Fela pulled into Tipitina’s with a retinue of dancers and his rolling horns-and-percussive sound called Afrobeat. A lithe man whose fiery protests of government tyrants fattened by oil profiteering had drawn brutal attacks on his compound in Lagos, Fela Anikulapo Kuti burned on tenor sax and sang the struggles of his Yoruba people – indeed Nigerians everywhere. In “Sorrow, Tears and Blood,” the universal track on Black President, gushing horns and weaving drum lines form a bed for Fela’s vocals on government atrocities:

run, run, run
scatter, scatter
Some people lost some bread
Someone just died
Police dey come, army dey come
Confusion everywhere…
Them leave sorrow, tears
     and blood
Them regular trademark.

Fela’s shows were mesmerizing. In Western concerts and clubs, large crowds swayed as he unspooled lyrics of epic memory and hammered hopes. A wild man, a radical, an absolute force of nature, Fela took his music to a plateau that Gil Scott-Heron, an American polemicist never quite achieved. Mixing politics and music is hard on the music; Fela pulled it off.

That night at Tipitina’s the air-conditioning conked, turning the place into an oven. By midnight, Fela had been at it two hours and people were drenched. But he was just getting started. Striding the stage without a shirt, torso gleaming, he lit a Marlboro, pointed an index finger to the ceiling and said: “Do not worry about the air, people of New Orleans. Fela has come to speak to you!” To a bass line rumbling like distant thunder he delivered a steam winder against African tyrants, oil companies polluting the Niger delta, Anglo-American imperialism, the works.

He came from a distinguished Nigerian clan (Wole Soyinka, his first cousin, had won the Nobel Prize for Literature). Banned from Ghana after riots at one of his concerts, Fela trumpeted the glories of smoking marijuana and embraced Nigeria’s polygamy laws by marrying 27 women in a single service. He did 20 months in prison on trumped up currency charges. He kept the fuse lit in blasting Nigeria’s regimes in what may be the world’s most corrupt country. He kept recording right up until his death of AIDS at 59 in 1997.

The Knitting Factory label in New York has reissued most of his discs including the new one, Fela. Live in Detroit 1986. In 2010 his music hit a new plateau with a Tony award-winning bio-musical on Broadway, Fela! I saw it; the play is superb.

I have been listening to an album by his youngest son, 29-year-old Seun Anikulapo Kuti, in preparing to interview him at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on the first Friday.

Seun [pronounced Shay-un] leads the Egypt 80 band that has a dozen members who played in the group under Fela. Seun was 14 when Fela died. After a stretch in the UK at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, he made his way back to Nigeria, retooled the band and began his own career. The last of Fela’s children, Seun is 22 years younger than the eldest brother, Femi, who made an electrifying appearance at Jazz Fest several years ago. For world beat fans in a city that feeds music to a hungry world, Jazz Fest is the best shot each year to see so many artists from the Sub-Saharan Africa.

“There was no such thing as an average day,” Seun told writer John Lewis of The Guardian about his upbringing in a commune with 300 people in Lagos:

 “My father kept an open-door policy. Anyone could come in or out. We had ex-convicts, killers, doctors, lawyers, professors, electricians, plumbers, as well as many musicians. For many, their lives had gone off the rails. My dad would give these people a job and some money.

There was real equality. I’d mix with everyone, and learn what they did. It was a great education, better than any university on earth. There was a market where women would sell alcohol and marijuana. Occasionally someone famous, like Shabba Ranks, would drop by with his posse. It was always uptempo, always exciting.”

“Always upbeat, always exciting,” fits Seun Kuti’s new release, From Africa With Fury: Rise on the Knitting Factory label. Recorded in Rio, mixed in London by the legendary musician Brian Eno and coproducer John Reynolds, this one has tighter horn charts than Fela in his prime, and resonant echos of the Yoruba “talking drums” in polyrhythms. Seun has a potent voice, youthful warmth and soaring messages all of a piece.

I cry for Africans when I see
Them in the clutches of
These people…
We must rise up against all these
African rulers.

Seun Kuti is known to sing bare-chested on big stages when it’s warm. (Hel-lo, New Orleans.) The child is poised to become father of the man. Fela’s spirit hovers on this production. The guiding hand of arranger and keyboardist Lekan Animashuan, an Egypt 80 veteran, gives the disc a quicksilver artistry. Seun’s saxophone weaves through shifting tempos with fluid ease, building tension to release in the vocal plateaus. Here is an artist whose time has come.

“Which came first, speech or song? In the case of Africa it’s virtually impossible to estimate. On the other hand, it’s a fact that much African music is based on speech. The bond between language and music is so intimate that it’s actually possible to tune an instrument so that the music it produces is linguistically comprehensible. The language ‘spoken’ by the slit-drum, for instance, is so realistic and specific that the messages it transmits can only be understood by members of the community where that particular language is spoken.”

– Francis Bebey, African Music: A People’s Art

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