Taking a father’s legacy from Nigeria to Broadway

PHILADELPHIA – Femi Kuti, the Nigerian singer and saxophonist, admits
to being delighted that “Fela!,” the Broadway musical about his father, Fela
Kuti, is a hit, attracting new fans to Afrobeat, the politically charged musical
genre that Fela created and Femi plays. Even so, he did not see the
Tony-winning show during a recent trip to New York for a performance in Lincoln
Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series.

“I’m protesting for it to come to
Lagos, so if I see it now, I will lose that fight,” he said before a performance
with Positive Force, the 13-piece orchestra he leads. “It’s good that it’s on
Broadway, the publicity is great, and everyone is talking about it. But if
there is truly respect for the music and the message, it has to come to Africa,
back to Lagos and the Shrine that we, his family, have built for him. That is
important spiritually and culturally.”

As Fela’s oldest son, Kuti, 48, is
in an unusual, demanding and potentially contradictory position. Since his
father’s death, from complications of AIDS in 1997, the younger Kuti has
pursued two careers: his own musicianship and that of serving as the main
guardian of Fela Kuti’s legacy and of Afrobeat, the inviting and highly danceable
mixture of West African rhythms with jazz, soul, funk and psychedelic rock

Being his father’s son may be a
draw abroad, attracting curious listeners, but at home in Nigeria, it comes
with considerable baggage. In 1977, enraged at Fela’s criticisms of corruption
and military rule in songs and speeches, the Nigerian authorities burned down
the Shrine, the Lagos nightclub and compound where Fela played and lived with
his extended family; an imaginary version of the club serves as the setting of
the musical.

With great effort, Fela’s survivors
have built a New Africa Shrine in a different area of Lagos. But Kuti complains
that the government, now nominally in civilian hands under President Goodluck
Jonathan, looks for excuses to shut the club down, harasses its patrons and
bans some of his music from the radio. That, in large part, is why he welcomes
the increased visibility that “Fela!” has brought him.

“Fela was a complicated character,
and Femi has tried to be very savvy about which aspects of the Fela legacy he
embraces and which he distances himself from,” said Michael Veal, author of
“Fela: The Life and Times of an African Music Icon” and leader of Michael Veal
and Aqua Ife, a New York Afrobeat band. “He’s embraced the whole political
heritage of Afrobeat.” But when it comes to marijuana and promiscuity, “he’s
not advocating smoking, he doesn’t have a thousand women around him, and his
band and his business are not chaotic. So I think he has dealt with it gracefully.”

Musically Kuti has also refined the
Afrobeat sound; he writes almost all of his own material and has broadened the
range of influences on Afrobeat.

“It’s a different rhythmic language
and a different harmonic language too,” said Aaron Johnson, the musical
director of “Fela!” and a member of the Afrobeat group Antibalas, the musical’s
house band. “He’s retained the general framework while incorporating
instrumental and rhythmic elements from the last 10 years of popular music,
like having that four-on-the-floor house dance beat pushed to the front, for
instance, when Fela had so many polyrhythms going on.”

“Femi has had the good sense not to
try to reproduce his father’s music, and instead created his own interpretation
of Afrobeat,” said Carlos Moore, author of the authorized biography “Fela: This
Bitch of a Life” and a Cuban-born expert on tropical music. “He was determined
to do that even before the death of his father, and has come up with a modern
sound in tune with 21st-century tastes that can be played for audiences in both
Africa and the West.”

And as Thompson was quick to point
out, in person Kuti can be nearly as commanding a presence as his father.
Thompson recalled their initial encounters, at recording sessions in 2000 in
which he, other hip-hop, soul and funk stars collaborated with Kuti on a new
version of “Water No Get Enemy,” one of Fela’s most anthemic songs, for a
compilation CD for the Red Hot Organization, the coalition against AIDS.

“When Femi came to the studio to
meet us, it was like a scene straight out of ‘Coming to America,”’ the 1988
movie in which Eddie Murphy plays the prince of an imaginary African country,
Thompson said. “He walked in like the king of Zamunda, with his entourage and
all these royal-looking women, and me and Common and D’Angelo just looked at
each other. But what was beautiful was that although he has his father’s
charisma and authoritative stance, he is also very humble.”

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