The Music NOVEMBER 6, 2012 - by Michael Smith


The late Fela Kuti not only invented Afrobeat but also made it a musical statement of freedom for all Africans. His son Seun Kuti has taken up the challenge for his generation, as Michael Smith learns.

Seun, the youngest son of legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, leads his father's former band Egypt 80. He also continues to espouse the political and philosophical ideals of his father (as does his older brother, Femi), in particular championing freedom and equality for his Nigerian countrymen and women and all Africans. The title of his most recent album says it all - From Africa With Fury: Rise - but it also says that the youngest Kuti has finally come into his own.

"As much as possible, as an artist, you have to let the music grow with you," Kuti explains, on the line from his home in the Nigerian capital, Lagos. "So I believe you have to researching that and also transmit it to my album, and that's why I'm really happy about it. Music is always about evolution - not really about change but the degree that we grow with the art. We're working on a new one now and we're hoping to record it in Australia actually."

Seun Kuti literally grew up with this music, having taken on the mantle of lead singer for Egypt 80 at the age of fourteen when his father died of HIV/AIDS in 1997. Over the next decade, he also developed his skills on the saxophone and as a songwriter, though he was still, to some extent, working with his father's repertoire when he recorded his debut album, Many Things, in 2008, Egypt 80 still including around three-quarters of the original line-up. Now very much Seun Kuti's musical statement, the new Egypt 80 album was recorded in London; Kuti coproduced it with John Reynolds and sonic genius Brian Eno, whom he first met when Eno invited him to participate in the Luminous Festival at Sydney Opera House in 2009.

"I met him then and we've always been in contact, but I asked him to do the album with me and it's only my second album and he's such a great guy, it was not a financial thing 'cause you never see how much you have to pay but he agreed to do it. Brian is a genius, his ears for music and his production angles are quite extraordinary, while John Reynolds is the master technician, you know? Everybody came in with a magic touch I believe."

Ultimately, the test for any song as far as Kuti is concerned is how it connects in the live context. All his songs evolve on the road, the band jamming them out until they have the structure he feels best represents the ideas at the heart of them. "Afrobeat is also a way of talking to people about what is going on in the world. In Africa, there is a lack of a voice right now, because foreign musicians come on the radio and get on the TV and become propaganda in the media about the state of the people in Africa. So we don't hear from the local musicians."

Like the rest of Africa, Nigeria is a country that was carved out of the continent by European colonialists, and while it ostensibly gained independence from the UK in 1960, it remains a deeply divided country not only across ethnic and religious lines but also economically, as international oil companies continue to use their influence to corrupt government officials in order to maintain the flow of oil out of the Niger delta, an issue Kuti addresses in the title song, Rise. "All these multinational corporations are buying all the artists because they are afraid to have music talk about what's really going on instead of champagne and fast cars."