Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Dec 10th 2008 10:00AM by Steve Hochman
"They had to risk their lives to play this music," he says of the idols-in-question. "You can't imagine the life that was there, and this music produced all the music we are listening to today."
The thing is, he's not talking about his father, the late Afrobeat king Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who came under attack -- literally in the case of a 1977 raid on his compound that resulted in the death of Fela's mother -- from the repressive Nigerian government. Rather, Femi is talking about the African-American jazz musicians who toured the South in the mid-20th century in the face of heightened and often violent racial oppression.
"They had to go to concerts seeing people hung on trees," he says.
The experiences, though, shaped the legacy. "Jazz is protest music."
And in turn, it shaped his legacy: "Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, all the things Fela listened to -- he went to America and heard this and then went back to his music, took the music of his father and grandfather and great-grandfather and took that to this music. This is my heritage. He forced me to go listen to jazz as well so I could understand the politics of America -- Malcolm X, Martin Luther King."
With his last studio album, 2001's 'Fight to Win,' Kuti says he was trying to "build a bridge" to the African-American culture of that time, with groundbreaking collaborations with rappers Common and Mos Def, among others, setting the tone. But in the years after that release he found his focus turning more and more to his own musical and cultural heritage. His global touring time was balanced by the desire to stay home more with his family. He oversaw with his sister Yeni the establishment and growth of the New Africa Shrine, a Lagos cultural center and music club that has become a crucible for new directions in Nigerian music (and was the target of its own raid last year). He also helped manage a massive reissue series of his father's vast catalog.
All this brought him, at age 46, closer in touch with those earliest musical memories.
"The two musics that inspired me to want to play and made me what I am are jazz and my father," he says. "Maybe a little salsa, but not that much. Really, my father from the first I can remember, five years old, and then jazz. Coltrane, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Duke Ellington. All this music I listened to extensively. The politics behind them -- they could not speak, but they played protest music with their instruments. The dexterity involved, these are things at which I said, 'Wow.'"
As he reconnected with that, a few things stood out: "One of my favorites from Coltrane is 'All Blues,' and Miles Davis' 'Sketches of Spain' is lovely, because of the horn, the roundness of the trumpet playing, the sweetness. It's deeper."
It was with that in mind that Kuti went about building a different musical bridge. Having been predominantly a sax player, he wanted a new sound.
"I was teaching myself the trumpet and piano," he says of his hiatus. "Trying to change my music, to find a new way out. My music was angry on the political side. In Africa and Nigeria, where things are not changing, and seems to be getting worse, I was looking for a very aggressive sound. The trumpet made my sound so it was still very powerful but also kind of soothing."
It's not a jazz album, nor is it a crossover. It's pretty pure Afrobeat echoing the elements he cites, both from his father and the jazz influences. The opening track, 'Oyimbo,' kicks off with a breezy jazz-pop groove but soon morphs into a sterner yet fluid tone, a simmering heat that continues through tracks ranging from impressionistic looks at the tensions he's witnessed (the organ-centric, skittering 'Demo Crazy,' the steely 'Tension Grips Africa'), compact social studies ('One Two,' a tough-eyed look at human rights failings, featuring a children's chorus) and explicit calls to actions ('Tell Me,'), all powered by deep funk rhythms and a gale-force horn section of his Positive Force band. It's a natural and necessary shift, he says.
"What I wanted was the direction I was going," he says of his earlier work. "To work with great rappers was building a bridge to American music. Now I want people to hear Femi Anikulapo Kuti from the music inside me, deep down inside me, see me today in 2008. Maybe next time I'll work with jazz musicians. But this is what I wanted now."
And this, of course, comes at a time when his family sound has taken firm hold as a global musical force. Such young U.S. bands as New York's Antibalas, Michigan's Nomo and San Francisco's Aphrodesia have paid homage to Fela's Afrobeat with their own twists, while Femi's younger brother Seun this year burst onto the international scene himself, leading a new version of their father's Egypt '80 band. Femi also cites bands he's heard from Holland, France and even Israel. On one hand, he's exceedingly proud. On the othe,r he's become only more determined to live up to his name and stay ahead of the pack.
"I still have to do my own thing," he says. "I have to create. I am an individual. I know what my father would expect of me, politically and musically. I cannot let him down with the struggle. I have to stand and lead in this way with my music. The day I die and I go to heaven, I will not embarrass him. I will not go to heaven with my head between my legs. I will arrive and he will say, 'That's my son!'"