A Tale of Two Kutis

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 06.24.11 in Spotlights

From Africa With Fury: Rise

Seun Kuti

Born to different mothers in 1962 and 1982, respectively, afrobeat architect Fela Kuti‘s oldest and youngest sons, Femi and Seun, have upheld their late father’s musical legacy in distinctly different ways. Femi has always sought to distinguish his music from Fela’s by adding jazz and hip-hop ideas. And Sean, following Fela’s death in 1997, assumed leadership of his father’s longtime band, Egypt 80, and carried on.

Like Fela, Femi and Seun serve up inflammatory pidgin-English rhetoric on a hot platter of percussive horns, melodic drums and elongated James Brownian-grooves. And three years later, each has released his first album since 2008. So let’s watch the sons rise.

You have to give Femi credit. Bearing the oedipal onus of being the heir apparent of African music’s most prominent political upstart and self-styled sex symbol couldn’t have been a walk in the park. The oldest of Fela’s eight acknowledged children, Femi was born to Remi Taylor, Fela’s first and only legal wife. After learning the ropes in Egypt 80, and even fronting the band when his father was indisposed, Femi left to form his own group — the 10-piece, horn-heavy Positive Force — in 1986. Displeased by his son’s refusal to take over the family business, i.e., running Egypt 80 and the Shrine club in Lagos, Fela broke off relations with Femi for five years.

Nobody wants to be Frank Sinatra Jr., so Femi distinguished himself from Fela by adopting a jazzier, more harmonically motivated saxophone style (while abstaining from Dad’s passion for pot and polygamy). Determined to succeed abroad, Femi hit his mark in 1998 with his fascinatingly contradictory fourth album, Shoki Shoki (Sorry Sorry), whose first two tracks are “Truth Don Die,” about an evangelical Christian, and “Beng Beng Beng,” a hit single in which Femi gets down with a girl blessed with breasts “like Dunlope Maria” tires. No less politically engaged than Fela, Femi gave rappers Mos Def and Common guests spots on 2001′s Fight to Win. This furious condemnation of Nigerian corruption also featured Femi’s most personal track ever, “’97,” which recounts the year in which his father, sister, and cousin died within months of one another.

The other distinguishing characteristic of Femi’s music is its relative concision. Where Fela made side-long jams the norm, Femi rarely reaches beyond the six- or seven-minute mark, even on live albums like 2004′s African Shrine, which provided material for his next two studio albums, 2008′s Day By Day and his new Africa for Africa.

Femi’s latest is sort of a minor miracle of afrobeat economy. Tracks like “No Blame Them” (about corrupt journalists) and “E No Good” (about shameless politicians) contain as many great musical ideas, memorably massive horn riffs, and polyrhythmic epiphanies as some of Fela’s best side-long workouts. Femi also turns out to be the family’s best singer, and the whole album shines with craft while screaming with righteous indignation.

Seun Kuti, on the other hand, has never felt compelled to push the afrobeat envelope, either on his 2008 debut, Many Things, or on his new From Africa With Fury: Rise. In Seun’s case, though, the word “destiny” comes to mind. Seun grew up within Fela’s Egypt 80 band as its child mascot, and the majority of the current edition played with his father. His mother, Fehintola Anikulapo Kuti, who sang in the group, was one of the 27 wives Fela famously married simultaneously in 1978. How could Seun notstick around?

Co-produced by Seun Kuti, Brian Eno and John Reynolds, Rise is a tighter, tougher and cleaner iteration of Many Things. One can only guess that even Fela’s sons became less than enamored with Dad’s lengthy keyboard and saxophone workouts. Eno’s sonic influence is most evident in the title track, where the guitars take on a subtle cybernetic flavor as Seun advocates rebellion against petroleum and diamond industries, and “African Soldiers,” which recalls the transcendent genius of Eno and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. Unfortunately, there’s nothing on it quite so sticky as the incessantly buzzing “Mosquito” from Many Things. But if Femi is afrobeat’s most important innovator, Seun is its foremost traditionalist. He’s also most clearly his father’s son, down to pot paean “The Good Leaf” that brings Rise back to earth.