Happy Music About Sad Experiences
One glance at the song titles on Femi Kuti’s latest album, Africa for Africa, and the thrust of his concerns becomes clear. “Politics in Africa”, “Bad Government”, “Can’t Buy Me”, and “Africa for Africa” all express messages protesting corruption and small-mindedness while advocating self-empowerment, national and continental pride, and hard work. Or as Kuti himself puts it, “Given the opportunity, the African man will excell.”
Listeners used to other, non-Anglophone proponents of Afro-pop—Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, Rokai Traore, Gigi—may find the accessibility of the lyrics off-putting or preachy. But there is an African tradition of using music as a vehicle for voicing social concerns, and besides, these tunes are so damn catchy, so thoroughly irresistible in their hip-shaking groove, that to complain about the lyrics seems a little, well, provincial.
In light of Fela Kuti’s epic recording career, it’s easy to overlook the fact that son Femi has himself been performing for more than 20 years now. Africa for Africa is a raw, sweaty, bouncy record full of pulsating bass, sharp horn accents, and bubbling keyboards, all glued together with a thick paste of percussion and Femi’s urgent, chant-sing-along vocals. It’s a tremendously soulful record, more James Brown than Marvin Gaye, and at the same time thoroughly African in its concerns and style. Anyone wondering whether the son could break free from the father’s long shadow need look no further than this.
The pyrotechnics start right off the bat. Opener “Dem Bobo” crashes forth with waves of horn and a faintly reggae beat, anchored by tripping bass and sweetened by organ lines. At four and a half minutes, the song feels too short, but this is true for the bulk of the album. Unlike many African albums that feature longer tracks, most tunes here are in the four-minute range. With 14 songs, that still adds up to a lot of music, but many of these tunes establish a groove, only to see it off all too soon.
Nearly all the subsequent songs pick up the groove and carry it on, though, so maybe a better way to think of this record isn’t as a collection of 14 songs, but as one monster tune divided into 14 movements. (As Neil Young said of his own work: “It’s all one song.”) “Politics in Africa” slides in on a funky bass ‘n’ organ interplay, again punctuated by horns, all of it propelled by percussive rhythms that render it impossible to sit still—this is either great driving music, or dangerous. Pick any song at random and you are likely to hear a variation on this template.
“Make We Remember” brings the percussion to the forefront, while “Boys Dey Hungry for Town” slows the tempo (slightly) and sees Kuti singing in a quieter register than his usual full-throated whoop, but the overall vibe is the same. Kuti and his band—13 backing musicians are listed in the notes—exude such comfort and vivacity, they are able to remain energetically attacking while simultaneously avoiding monotony.
That said, this is a remarkably consistent record in terms of its energy, and that could be taken as a criticism. There is nothing resembling a ballad here, and only one song—“No Blame Them”—which could even be described as midtempo. Ultimately, this criticism is irrelevant. This is music to party, dance, and possibly argue to. It’s music for late nights and sunny afternoons and people who want things to get better. If you’re in the mood to stare at the rain and mope, hmm… better find something else.
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