Following in Fela's Footsteps

Article excerpt

Byline: JANE CORNWELL

As the Barbican celebrates the legacy of the late Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti this month, Jane Cornwell meets Femi Kuti, the son who is carrying on his father's fight

Femi Kuti - singer, saxophonist, bandleader, Nigerian icon - stands tall and lean behind a microphone at the Nice Jazz Festival.

'Africa will be free, one day!' he sings in his growling baritone, the sweat from his bare chest glistening in the heat, his 15-piece band, the Positive Force, thundering behind him.

Three semi-naked female backing vocalists deliver celestial harmonies while the audience stare goggle-eyed at the spectacle - part soul review, part political rally - before them. Then they explode into dance.

Kuti has built an international reputation on a handful of albums, a gruelling tour schedule and the fact his father, the late, great Fela Anikulapo Kuti, was one of the most influential African figures of the 20th century. 'I knew my father was a living god, a unique genius,' offers Femi, 42. 'So I knew that if I wanted to play music everyone would be comparing me.' Fela was a hard act for his eldest son to follow. Known as the Black President, this singer, saxophonist, bandleader and Nigerian icon invented a musical genre called Afrobeat (a hybrid of Nigerian highlife, Yoruba percussion, jazz, funk and soul) and used it to give voice to the oppressed.

'Music is the weapon of the future,' he famously said. 'Afrobeat is not for entertainment. It is to spread a message.' Fela Kuti's onstage rants - sax slung slow round his neck, tree-trunk sized spliff in hand - were legendary.

Military government after military government tried to shut him up.

Politicised by a brief association with the US Black Panther movement, Fela vented his spleen at the legendarily corrupt Nigerian police, army and political leaders.

He was harassed, tortured and jailed. Yet he still delivered several sizzling performances a week at his beloved nightclub, the Shrine, and released more than 70 albums.

When he died of Aids in 1997, a million people joined his funeral procession through the streets of Lagos.

His fame has spread across the globe since his death: what Bob Marley is to Jamaica, so Fela Kuti has become to Nigeria and to Africa. Femi, with his updated Afrobeat, could only ever hope to pick up the baton and carry on.

'Things are worse in Nigeria,' he sighs.

'Becoming a democracy has made no difference.' Nigerians were euphoric when the current president, former military leader Olusegun Obasanjo, was elected in 1999, but fuel shortages, power blackouts, ethnic violence and entrenched crime and corruption turned euphoria to bitter disappointment. 'I won't run away,' says Femi. 'As the Yoruba proverb says, "The son of a tiger remains a tiger."' About time, then, that Fela Kuti's controversial life (he married all 27 of his backing singers in the Seventies, divorcing them again in 1986) and his enduring global legacy (his music has been covered by everyone from Al Green to the Red Hot Chili Peppers) is honoured here in London, where a young Fela lived for four years while studying music at Trinity College. …