"To the left/Don't slow down now," commands Nigeria's Femi Kuti. "To the right/Don't come too fast." The lyrics, announced authoritatively in "Beng Beng Beng," the catchiest, most pop-oriented song on Kuti's Shoki Shoki, well describes the basic feel of the musician's latest attempt to breach American ears: an energetic display with miraculous staying power. Or as he sings earlier in the same song: "Wey go make your battery charge extra."
Femi is the son of the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the fabled creator of Afro-beat, a mongrel world-music form that embraced both Western jazz forms and traditional hand drums. Through Afro-beat Fela brought the polyrhythmic R&B of James Brown back to Africa in the Seventies. Often running upward of twenty minutes, his songs were stop-on-a-dime funk workouts that effortlessly shifted from boasting about his sexual prowess to taking Nigeria's military government to task for its malfeasance; Fela was a sexual and political radical as much as he was a musical one. And he paid for it. Because of his government-directed outspokenness, he was frequently imprisoned, and his sizable entourage endured often violent harassment from the Nigerian government. At a time when artists like Bob Marley were showing the record industry that Americans had an appetite for more than disco, dinosaur rock, and simple pop, Fela never broke big in the States. Albums that rarely contained more than three tracks and a touring band of about twenty members didn't help matters either. (As part of a yearlong attempt to break the Kutis on these shores via Femi and a near-comprehensive Fela reissue program, The Best Best of Fela Kuti has just been released and provides an excellent two-disc primer.)
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To say that Femi exists in the shadow of his father would be an understatement. When Fela was imprisoned by the Nigerian government in 1984, it was Femi who took the leadership position of his band Egypt-80. Although he now fronts his own outfit, Positive Force (Egypt-80 having gone on to play with a younger half-brother, Seun), Femi's music remains an extension of his father's, deriving its power from the same focus on repetition, call-and-response vocals, and an unshakable sense of rhythm. Also like Fela, Femi plays a mean, keening sax.
Still, there are distinct differences between father and son. Most notably Shoki Shoki's nine songs never break the eight-minute mark. Generally Femi makes more concessions to the ins and outs of Western pop, using distinct melodies for chorus and verse parts. Finally Femi seems well aware of the enormous strides in popularity and complexity that rhythm-based music has made in the West since the Seventies. But given the primacy of overseas markets to his success (Shoki Shoki was first released more than a year ago in Africa and Europe), it's no surprise that it is house and electronic music, not hip-hop, that has had the most obvious impact. Femi's rhythms are more supercharged, looplike, and linear than those of his father's, and you can really hear how well his music lends itself to an electronic-music sensibility in two house remixes that close out the record along with a reworked version of "Blackman Know Yourself" courtesy of the Roots. If the house tracks amplify this album's deficiencies though (Shoki Shoki is definitely more sterile than Femi Kuti's truly brilliant, high-energy live act ), the Roots remix is a hopeful sign that the absorption of hip-hop may be right around the corner, and that Afro-beat's rightful heir might spearhead not just the genre's revival, but a second golden age.