SEUN KUTI “You gave me your mud and I made gold from it”
This famous Baudelaire quote could be the Kuti family motto, employed by father and son alike. Their songs, filled with the corruption, ignorance, malady, sadness, pollution and the many others ill that ravage contemporary Africa, are veritable musical treasures, flamboyant, jubilatory songs that make you want to get up and dance. So are you ready to dance like crazy to the misfortunes of Africa? Just be sure to dance and listen to what Africa is telling us. Manu Dibango, Seun Kuti’s friend has said that “the most beautiful flowers grow out of manure”.
Seun’s songs, like those of his father, are these “flowers of evil” blossoming out of the shit, out of the foul smelling lagoons of Lagos, the most unbearable, yet most alive and most human of cities, the place that both Seun Kuti and his father would never dream of leaving. The illustrious Ransome Kuti family come from the Yoruba people, the largest ethno-linguistic group in Nigeria. It is said they descend from Oduduwa, the demi-god who founded the Ife kingdom in the 12th century.
When Oduduwa died, he ignored the custom of leaving his throne to the first born son and instead left it to the cleverest and most capable last born. Since then the Yoruba people have always maintained a particular esteem for the youngest family member and it’s no different for Seun Kuti, born in 1982, the third son to be recognised by Fela Kuti... Seun (pronounced “Shehoun”) is an abbreviation from his Yoruban name Oluseun: “God has done great things”. It’s also, ironically, the first name of President Obasanjo, the Kuti family’s sworn enemy and originally comes from the Abeokuta village, like the Nobel literature prize winning Wole Soyinka, Seun’s uncle and friend.
Long before the General Obasanjo became president in 1977 following a military coup, he had already organised a murderous assault with over a 1000 armed men on the residence of Fela, who had called his home “The independent Republic of Kalakuta,” and which is still where Seun Kuti and the musicians in the Egypt 80 orchestra live.
Seun’s grandmother, Funmilayo, Nigeria’s most important human rights and feminist activist, was thrown out of a window to her death by Obasanjo’s troops. The satirical song, whose title is also that of the album, Many Things, starts off with an extract from a recorded speech by Obasanjo and is a good summary of his dotted 30 years in power: They built magnificent bridges but the people underneath them still had to drink the water into which they piss.
There’s no doubt that Seun is the worthy heir of Fela Kuti’s hardline militancy. Moreover he has adopted his father’s second Yarouba name, Anikulapo (“I’ve got death in my quiver”). In other words his songs are arrows that never miss their targets; the corrupt, bribers and oppressors. Apart from the erotic Fire Dance, every track on this CD is a ravaging pamphlet against the corruption and carelessness of African leaders from Think Africa and Many Things to Na oil and African Problems. Seun had recently joined Youssou N’Dour in a major project fighting against malaria and Mosquito Song explains how the governments’ negligence in teaching the importance of hygiene is responsible for the effects of this plague that kills more people than AIDS... With the same energetic and booming voice as Fela, Seun has added his own raging rhythm clearly influenced by rap. He cites Chuck D, Dr Dre and Eminem among his musical heroes. Aged eight Seun Kuti was his father’s orchestra’s mascot travelling everywhere with them as his mother – who passed away last year – danced and sang in the chorus of Egypt 80.
The name of Seun Kuti’s inherited orchestra might be seen as surprising. Fela’s renamed his original group, Africa 70, in 1983, after he’d read the resounding works of Senegalese historian-physician, Cheick Anta Diop, on black Africans originating from Pharaonic civilisation. The orchestra is legendary in the true sense of the word... it is Africa’s equivalent of what Duke Ellington’s jungle music did for the Afro-American Diaspora and boasts some remarkable resemblances. For example, just like Ellington, the baritone saxophone is at the heart of Kuti’s music, Afrobeat. Veteran musician Lekan Animasahun, nicknamed Baba Ani, has now relinquished his sax lead to the excellent Adedimeji Fagbemi, (stage name Showboy, who also plays the role of MC) as the instrument became too heavy for the seventy-year old. Baba has now taken on the keyboards but remains musical director of the orchestra. And what an orchestra it is!
As soon as Egypt 80 blasted out their first notes, they instantly set things straight. It’s been easy to forget what big dance orchestras are all about, what the likes of Fletcher Henderson, James Brown and Sun Ra, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton really mean. And not forgetting George Clinton, another – very audible! – influence on Seun Kuti. But Seun’s orchestra isn’t a clone of his fathers, even if we do see as much crazy, frenetic movement on stage and even if two thirds of the orchestra’s members were already there in Fela’s time. Above all they are just the best funk group today, which is no surprise really. For the last 25 years they’ve played and rehearsed daily in Lagos at the Shrine Club... the name of the club says it all. Egypt 80 embody the major aspect that’s been lost in popular music; endurance. They been together for over 20 years and it shows. Music is after all about human relations.
Duke Ellington once said that to play well with another musician, you have to know how he plays poker! And that’s where the magic of this album lies. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 are more than just an orchestra, they’re a musical family who deserve enormous respect for having stayed united so long, especially since the last years of Fela and those that followed were so hard. This cohesion and longevity alone explains the absolutely terrifying precision of the rhythmic reflexes down to the thousandth of a second that makes their ultra-syncopated polyphony the perfect ‘swing’ model. It could seem passé to use a word like swing, but it’s difficult to find a better way to characterise Afrobeat at this level of expression.
Let’s not forget that in the 1930s and 40s, Ghana and then neighbouring Nigeria adopted and adapted jazz to create “highlife”, the direct ancestor of Afrobeat, which Fela himself practised in the early days. Today Seun too makes the most of this long musical tradition. Aged eight, Seun would find himself back stage at the Harlem Apollo, the place where, little did he know, all the Afro-American musical greats from Aretha Franklin to James Brown, had begun. He watched his father sing and said to himself, “I want to sing too.” Fela laughed but let him try anyway... with success. From that moment on Seun never quit the orchestra, taking control after his father’s death from AIDS in 1997. He briefly studied music, as his father had long ago, in England. Nothing too serious though, just like his father he isn’t a virtuoso saxophonist and he knows it, but maybe that’s not what counts...
When playing live Seun can’t help but pay homage to Fela by playing a couple of his tunes. But this first album is resolutely his, emphasising his own compositions and those of the orchestra. From the opening bars of Many Things, as with Fela’s records and perhaps even more so, ideas, words and notes whiz about with abandon. The Afrobeat magic is set in motion, the delirious, unrelenting machine carries us away and yet we can’t miss a second. The rhythm section is simply arresting. Then there’s drummer Ajayi Adebiyi, who follows in the footsteps of contemporary jazz greats such as Al Foster or Paco Séry. The two guitarists, David Obanyedo and Alade Oluwagbemiga have a very contrasting sound as they endlessly braid captivating riffs that weave the whole thing together.
Both Emmanuel Kunnuji and Olugbade Okunade, the two trumpet players, perform remarkable solos on Many Things and Mosquito Song. So ten years after Fela’s death, the orchestra of which he was so proud continues, and there’s no doubt that he would be happy with what his son is doing and proud of the singer that he has become. Seun Kuti is indeed a great live performer with his daddy’s charisma and energy radiating from every pore. After several triumphant tours everyone who has seen him in concert knows this and he hadn’t even recorded an album, only a rare 12” vinyl...
His first American tour, last summer, was certainly on everybody’s lips. The Egypt 80 musicians only got their visas after Barack Obama intervened and their concert in Chicago practically became a riot as hundreds of spectators leapt onto the stage, much to the distaste of the security services. The festival organiser declared it the best concert of his life! All you have to do now is listen to the album and understand why all other dance music seems so desperately mechanical, static and dull when compared to the incredible Afrobeat of Seun Kuti and Fela’s Egypt 80.