CARGO CULT

On the eve of his tour to WO­MADe­laide, Afrobeat artist Seun Kuti tells Jane Corn­well he wants Africans to stop fight­ing and start think­ing about the fu­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

SEUN Kuti takes his time com­ing on stage. Here at Cargo, a live mu­sic venue housed un­der rail­way arches in East Lon­don, his big band Egypt 80 is build­ing ten­sion, work­ing the room on his be­half. Elec­tric gui­tars are vy­ing with blar­ing horns and wail­ing key­boards. A gi­ant conga is be­ing beaten with what look like base­ball bats. Two fe­male back­ing vo­cal­ists are trac­ing speedy fig­ures-of-eight with their bot­toms. A ca­pac­ity crowd is whoop­ing in an­tic­i­pa­tion.

‘‘ We’ve got to get up and think, not get up and fight,’’ de­clares Seun ( Shay­oon) when he fi­nally ap­pears, decked out in a tight African print shirt and flares, alto sax­o­phone hang­ing around his neck. ‘‘ We have to start us­ing our minds.’’

Later, when he strips off his shirt, he’ll re­veal the words ‘‘ Fela Lives’’ tat­tooed across his sinewy back; right now, how­ever, there’s no doubt­ing that the 26-year-old is his fa­ther’s son. ‘‘ Fela cre­ated Afrobeat to fight in­jus­tice,’’ he says over a trade­mark blend of jazz, funk and African hi-life rhythms. ‘‘ What started in Nige­ria is now a global move­ment. The mes­sage is beat­ing louder than ever.’’

Seun Kuti was 14 when his fa­ther, Fela Aniku­lapo Kuti, aka the Black Pres­i­dent, died of AIDS in 1997. More than one mil­lion peo­ple lined the streets of La­gos, Nige­ria’s cap­i­tal, to watch the fu­neral pro­ces­sion, mourn­ing a rebel who took on the coun­try’s au­to­cratic and cor­rupt leaders and was reg­u­larly beaten and in­car­cer­ated as a re­sult.

The most no­to­ri­ous African mu­si­cian of the 20th cen­tury ( he once mar­ried all 27 of his back­ing singers in one go, then di­vorced them all soon af­ter­wards), Fela Kuti was a fear­less voice of the masses, de­liv­er­ing po­lit­i­cally charged songs with the self-same dance or­ches­tra that backs Seun Kuti to­day.

‘‘ Th­ese guys are the real deal,’’ says Kuti, re­lax­ing in Cargo’s tiny dress­ing room af­ter the en­core-filled show. He nods as var­i­ous Egypt 80 mem­bers file in and out: sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian mu­si­cal di­rec­tor and key­board player Baba Ani; the flam­boy­ant Adedimeji Fagbemi, aka Show­boy, wear­ing dark glasses and cart­ing his bari­tone sax. ‘‘ Some of them went through ar­rests and beat­ings with my dad. They are all ac­tivists. They all have strong po­lit­i­cal views.’’

Seun’s half-brother Femi, 20 years his se­nior, has been chan­nelling the fury and pas­sion of Afrobeat with his own band Pos­i­tive Force for decades. Though ru­mours of sib­ling ri­valry abound ( they are yet to ap­pear on the same in­ter­na­tional stage), Femi res­ur­rected his fa­ther’s La­gos night­club The Shrine in 2002 and reg­u­larly in­vites Seun to play there. At present it is the only venue in Nige­ria, Africa’s most pop­u­lous coun­try, to host live Afrobeat mu­sic.

‘‘ The Gov­ern­ment are still try­ing to crush Afrobeat but the re­sis­tance isn’t phys­i­cal any more,’’ says Seun, re­fer­ring to the in­fa­mous 1978 in­ci­dent when Nige­rian sol­diers stormed his fa­ther’s com­pound, at­tacked Fela and threw the lat­ter’s el­derly mother — the women’s rights cam­paigner Fun­mi­layo Ran­some-Kuti — from a win­dow ( she sub­se­quently died of her in­juries).

‘‘ Afrobeat is on the rise across the world. There are at least 20 places in New York where you can see Afrobeat live. There are Afrobeat bands in Aus­tralia.’’

Seun Kuti’s ap­pear­ance at the WO­MAde­laide fes­ti­val will mark his first visit to our shores. Years of in­ter­na­tional tour­ing have fine-tuned his act, broad­ened his fan base and re­vealed Afrobeat fans in high places. When visa and im­mi­gra­tion prob­lems threat­ened to sab­o­tage Egypt 80’ s 2007 tour of the US, none other than Illi­nois se­na­tor Barack Obama stepped in to help.

‘‘ This is the first real hope for Africa in a long time,’’ Kuti says of Pres­i­dent Obama.

As a child Kuti was his fa­ther’s or­ches­tra’s mas­cot, trav­el­ling ev­ery­where with them as his mother sang and danced in the cho­rus. It was while watch­ing Egypt 80’ s leg­endary con­cert at the Apollo The­atre in Har­lem, New York, at the age of eight that he de­cided to be­come a singer (‘‘ My fa­ther laughed, then said, ‘ Why not?’ ’’). He joined the or­ches­tra and of­ten did an open­ing set at The Shrine.

‘‘ Fela never taught me in the mu­si­cal sense.’’ He shakes his head. ‘‘ But he taught me that I am a mem­ber of the band, and that the band are the most im­por­tant thing ever. When he died I knew I had to keep them go­ing.’’

When he was 20 he was re­united with his fa­ther’s one-time man­ager Martin Meis­son­nier, whom the band had in­vited to La­gos from Paris to watch them re­hearse with their new front­man. Struck by the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween fa­ther and son, Meis­son­nier ( by then a doc­u­men­tary maker) of­fered to man­age Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 af­ter the young band­leader had taken time out to study mu­sic in Eng­land, just as his fa­ther had done. Af­ter which, armed with an arse­nal of Fela Kuti stan­dards, Seun Kuti started per­form­ing and tour­ing in earnest.

Ea­ger to forge his own iden­tity, he waited un­til 2008 be­fore re­leas­ing his Meis­son­nier-pro­duced de­but al­bum, Many Things , which sees his growl­ing vo­cals tackling such African ills as malaria, in­equal­ity and po­lit­i­cal ap­a­thy over an Afrobeat tem­plate flecked with reg­gae and rap.

‘‘ I didn’t want to do an al­bum when I was 17 or 18,’’ he says. ‘‘ Afrobeat is not pop. You have to talk about what you un­der­stand. Now I can see that the whole of Africa is locked in a sort of sur­vival of the fittest men­tal­ity. No­body re­ally wants to think about pol­i­tics. Every­one is just try­ing to get by. Many are wast­ing blood for noth­ing. I’m say­ing we have to stop fight­ing and start think­ing about how we can re­ally make proper, long-last­ing changes.’’

So does it bother him to be con­tin­u­ally as­sessed in terms of what his fa­ther did? ‘‘ Be­ing in my dad’s shadow is a good place to be,’’ he says with a shrug. ‘‘ He was a very great man.’’

‘‘ I’m an artist in my own right, of course, but ul­ti­mately it’s Afrobeat that mat­ters.

‘‘ Why?’’ He flashes a grin. ‘‘ Be­cause Afrobeat is the truth.’’ Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 play WO­MADe­laide on March 7. His CD will be re­leased lo­cally on Fe­bru­ary 15.

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