All About Jazz JULY 14, 2011 - by Dennis Cook


In many ways it does not that Seun Kuti is the youngest son of Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti. Such is Seun's naked passion, political uprightness, musical swing and humanitarian spirit that he'd be a major force with or without his family legacy. A few minutes in his company show him to be clear-eyed in his assessment of Africa and the role music can play in making it a better place. Moreover, his music, particularly the vibrant, stirring strains of his latest, From Africa With Fury: Rise (released June 21 on Knitting Factory Records), is a blazingly alive thing, not some recreation of any past glory but an extension of what Fela and his contemporaries began in the 1960s and 1970s. However, unlike the other Fela children, Seun has remained strongly attached to his father's last band before his passing, Egypt 80, and considers it one of his roles as Fela's son to protect and nurture these musicians. But that makes From Africa With Fury: Rise even more impressive since it only faintly echoes his father, modernizing Afrobeat and making the most of production help from Brian Eno and John Reynolds (Sinead O'Connor, Jah Wobble). Pro-marijuana, anti-corruption and built upon unassailable playing and composition, this album marks the full arrival of one of today's great African artists, someone capable of motivating and enlightening both his countrymen and foreigners alike.

Some records seem made of muscle and blood, and that was definitely my impression of From Africa With Fury: Rise.

That's what we were going for, so thank you. I'm really lucky to have the exact team to carry out my vision, the right band to record the album and Brian Eno and John Reynolds to mix and master it.

What made you decide to record in Brazil?

I'd just broken up with my last label, and in Nigeria we don't have recording companies and studios for live bands. And we played a festival in Brazil and just took the money from the festival to pay for the studio time. It was all done in a week - the first three days we did the show and the last three days we did the album.

What made you want to work with Brian Eno and John Reynolds?

Well, they were all I could afford, I have to say [laughs]. I had a relationship with Brian and told him my situation and he was really, really nice and basically did it for free. I really appreciate that his work came from the heart and not the pocket.

That comes through in the music. When people's intentions are pure like that and not oriented towards commerce first the music is better. You also have the challenge of leading a really large band. What's that like to direct and control?

We've been together for such a long time. When my father died, I started working with the band. I've been playing with them since I was eight, so, it's twenty years now we've been together, and I've never left them alone or played with another band. So, we have an incredible relationship. Everybody knows me and I know them like the back of our hand. We're like family, and they trust me to lead them. I'm fifteen years younger than my drummer! But they see I want the best for them, I want their lives to improve. When they know that it's easy to run a band.

Do you feel a responsibility as Fela's son to carry on his legacy?

Basically, I play with Egypt 80 because I don't want the band to die. That's part of my legacy because my dad said this band was one of the most important things to him when he was alive, so it's important to me. My family was ready to let the band go away and nobody helped me keep them together. But the Egypt 80 band did a lot for African music in general, too.

How do you feel your music is different from the music your father made?

Well, as an artist, I'm me and that makes me different from my father. I'm not him. And secondly, the way I compose music is different. I don't try to be my father. My goal is to play African music. If I were to play music like my father I'd be a genius, and that would make me happy! It's something I aspire to, to be as good as him. I'm not there yet but I think I'm a good musician and I'm on my way and I'm working hard. But for me to compare myself to him would be ignorant because music is not sports where you compare athletes. I'm sure if I wasn't his son people would say, "Oh, what a great African artist!" But some people think I must have found his writing book or something somewhere, but they don't understand. I work really hard on my music.

In some ways, you're keeping Afrobeat alive and not treating it as something from the past.

Yeah! That makes a real difference. I'm trying to keep it fresh for today. I'm not trying to do something you've heard before. It's all original and I try to put a youthful vibrancy into it.

Also, you're making music in the Africa of today, so naturally, your concerns are going to be different than the concerns your father had.

Actually, the shame of the matter is Africa is the same. Nothing has changed except we don't have a military government in my country [now], but we have military men in civilian clothes. They no longer say they are military but they all have military backgrounds. How many generals have gone on to rule the United States? Zero except for maybe Eisenhower, and that was during wartime. That's why you guys kicked him because his ideology is military. In Africa it's different, and people don't get enough to eat, enough to do. There's no health care and corruption is worse than when my father was talking about it. Now the government is able to fool people better and nobody speaks up for the people anymore. Everybody is trying to tow the line to get a job, kissing the government's ass because Africa is ruled by poverty. When you're thinking about your next meal it's hard to do something for someone else. Everyone is guided by survival. We need to sacrifice now so our children have something to eat twenty years from now, and no one is doing that because it's all me, me, me. Take orders, be submissive, Jesus Christ, Islam, that's what we're taught. So, that's why I think we need a different voice in Africa to let them know what's going on. I'm willing to do that and break this yoke.

The title of this new album speaks directly to this thinking with words like "fury" and "rise" right up front.

I've had the title for this album for two years. This is my second album and I already know the title of my third. I look at Africa and I read and I know what we'll need in two years and I'm working towards that already.

You need to have a plan if you want to build anything of substance. It doesn't work to do it in the moment.

That's why I think African music is so different from other music. We play our new songs for a year or more before going into the studio, so we're prepared and we're not writing songs in the studio like so many other artists. Commercial songs aren't written with any other purpose than to make profit. To make good music for the world you have to make good music IN the outside world not the studio. We're not just thinking of a catchy hook. We're living this music for a year before we go into a studio.

It's a much harder path than just making music for profit.

It's true. Most people just think you're crazy and don't want to touch you [laughs].

The kind of music you make must draw the attention of the government in Nigeria. Does it pose any danger for you, your family or band to be so outspoken?

Yes, of course, the leaders are unhappy about it. It's not easy to be a political activist in Nigeria. The means of getting your music out are all owned by the government - radio, TV, newspapers. So, if you're preaching something they don't like they don't let you get any publicity. You get put in the back. It's hard, but the truth is I don't give a fuck. I do my thing and history will be my judge.