In the Shape of His Father

Femi Kuti: The next generation of Afro-beat

Anyone who's ever complained about the difficulties of escaping the shadow cast by a parent should be shamed into silence by the story of Femi Anikulapo-Kuti. After all, Femi's dad, the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, wasn't just a star in his native Nigeria and many other African nations; he was a virtual demigod prized both for his creation of Afro-beat, an astoundingly hypnotic type of music that mates traditional Africanisms with contemporary Western forms, and his consistent rebellion against the oppression that has long been practiced by the rulers in his part of the world. When Fela died of AIDS complications in August 1997 (he was 58 years old), his home city of Lagos came to a virtual standstill to honor him. Approximately one million people flooded into the streets to watch as his body was transported from his home to an arena to lie in state.

"It was incredible," recalls Femi, speaking from Lagos in a heavily accented voice so melodious his sentences practically are songs unto themselves. "I do not think people in America really understand how famous he was." Femi does. He grew up witnessing adulation that, with the possible exception of Bob Marley, may have exceeded what was experienced by every other popular artist of Fela's time. And when Femi decided to step out on his own as a musician, he initially was pilloried by the very people who'd elevated his father to divine status. It took him years to establish himself in Africa and Europe as a worthy performer in his own right, but he remained little-known elsewhere. And now that he and his band, Positive Force, are finally getting a major push in the States thanks to MCA Records (which just released Shoki Shoki, Femi's debut disc for the company), he's been put in the position of competing directly with his father's legacy. How? MCA issued Shoki Shoki just a week before putting out The Best Best of Fela Kuti, a new two-disc overview of Fela's oeuvre; and over the next month, a period that roughly corresponds to Femi's current American tour, the imprint is set to deliver 20 more vintage Fela albums, out of more than 75 total, on 10 CDs.

This juxtaposition of his work with Fela's leaves Femi feeling torn. He's glad Fela platters that have been tough to find or expensive to purchase in the States will be back in the domestic marketplace. "It'll be very interesting for Afro-beat, because people will be able to hear all my father's classics," he say. But he understands that making his own mark here will be doubly challenging as a result. "It puts before me an obstacle I will have to overcome," he admits.

Femi Kuti represents the next generation of Afro-beat
Phillipe Bordas
Femi Kuti represents the next generation of Afro-beat

There are many misconceptions about Femi, not the least of which is that he's young and untested, as celebrity kin such as Julian Lennon and Ziggy Marley were when they first arrived on the scene. Wrong: Femi is 37 years old, with more than two decades of musical experience and three previous albums to his credit. In fact Shoki Shoki isn't even his first American release. Five years ago he issued Wonder Wonder on Taboo, a subsidiary of Motown that quickly folded, dragging Femi's disc into obscurity with it.

He describes his pre-Shoki Shoki catalogue dispassionately. "The first one was from 1989, and it was very lousy," he opines. "I was very inexperienced in the studio. The second one, made in 1991, was much, much better, because I was more relaxed, but technically it was not very good. And the one I made for Motown was not technically as good as I wanted. But the new one is the best of everything. I see it as a step into the future for Afro-beat."

Shoki Shoki bears out this boast, at least from an accessibility standpoint; the recording isn't as mind-blowing and hallucinatory as Fela at his finest. It does, however, manage to compact many of his music's chief attributes into tasty, bite-size nuggets that are served up in English for the benefit of the international audience. Whereas Fela's tunes often stretched out to ten minutes or more on vinyl, and regularly exceeded half an hour when presented live, Femi generally keeps things in the five- or six-minute range, with the album's most extended opus, "Scatta Head," clocking in at just over eight. Likewise he gives his compositions comparatively tight structures. The opener, "Truth Don Die," blasts off on the power of bracing horn riffing that quickly gives way to Femi's assertive singing/chanting (his voice is similar to his father's, but a tad lighter) and the call-and-response assistance of back-up vocalists such as his wife, Funke. "What Will Tomorrow Bring" is introduced by a Femi sax solo and a brass chart suggestive of Quincy Jones's '60s-era film scoring, while "Eregele" sports a pop-guitar figure and pulse-quickening funk jazz. Such stylistic fillips are sharpened in a remix of "Blackman Know Yourself" by the hip-hop act the Roots, just one of the notable stateside acts with which he's collaborated (Lauryn Hill, Common, and D'Angelo are three others). The tune makes clear the connections between Afro-beat and American sounds that were inspired to a considerable degree by the music of Femi's homeland.

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