The incomparable Fela Kuti was among the first African musicians to become widely-known internationally. Fela gained a worldwide reputation not only for more or less inventing the style of music known as Afrobeat, but also for his frequent run-ins with Nigeria’s military dictatorship. Fela created a most improbable form of music: the political dance song. When it worked—which was often—it worked brilliantly, savagely attacking the deficiencies of the Nigerian leadership through a genuinely populist art form. In the darkest years of the Nigerian dictatorship, Fela gave voice to his people’s discontent at considerable risk to his own well being.
When Fela died of AIDS in 1997, the Afrobeat crown was passed on to his 37-year-old son, Femi Kuti. In the world of Afrobeat, Fela casts an enormous shadow. Yet on the remarkable Shoki Shoki, Femi not only lives up to Fela’s legacy, but also develops his own distinctive version of Afrobeat. Positive Force, the fourteen member-strong band that Femi started in 1986, adds a funkier and more soulful tone to the soca-jazz polyrhythms perfected by Fela’s own band, Egypt 80. This is pulsating, infectious, and powerful music. To Afrobeat’s characteristic horns, Femi adds heavy percussion (ala James Brown), synthesizers, wah-wah pedal effects and the stylings of Western club music. For a new Nigeria, with a newly elected democratic government, Femi Kuti has invented a new Afrobeat that looks toward the future and while remaining true to its roots.
This is perhaps nowhere so evident as in Femi’s lyrics. European club kids might be able to dance to the Afrobeat without worrying about the words (three club remixes are included on the album). But in songs like “Truth Don Die,” “What Will Tomorrow Bring?” and “Blackman Know Yourself,” it is clear that Femi has taken on his father’s role of musical gadfly and social critic. “What Will Tomorrow Bring?” raises the question of Africa and Nigeria’s future, reminding us that even with the advent of democracy things haven’t yet changed all that much. Fela’s most famous song, “ITT,” drew attention to the damage wrought by unchecked neo-colonialist expansion in Africa. And While Femi may not get as deeply into the realities of geo-politics as his father did, Shoki Shoki powerfully and joyfully explores the problems and possibilities faced by Africa at the beginning of the new century.
// Notes from the Road
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