Music

20 Questions: Femi Kuti

The force behind one of 2011's most enthralling releases, Femi Kuti ruminates on music, politics, and his children's happiness.


Femi Kuti

Africa for Africa

Label: Knitting Factory
US Release Date: 2011-04-12
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These days, the vehicle for revolution is a Hammond XK-2, especially when Femi Kuti stands behind the keys. Though Nigeria achieved its independence from the United Kingdom, in 1960, corruption continues to infiltrate the political system, a reality that's informed much of Kuti's nearly 25-year recording career. Africa for Africa, his latest album, takes on the hypocrisy of leaders in his home country who have failed to lead by example, while citing individuals from throughout history who have led and inspired positive change: Kwame Nkrumah, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and his father, Fela Kuti, among them. It's a brave and bold work that transmits some of the quotidian concerns of those living in Nigeria, especially Lagos (Kuti's home city). With the polyrhythms of the Positive Force, Kuti tirelessly pilots a set of 14 original songs and delivers one of the most enthralling releases of 2011.

Just 24 hours before Kuti was named "Best World Music Artist" by Songlines magazine, he arrived at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn for a stop on the North American leg of his Africa for Africa tour. Dressed in traditional attire stitched by tailors in Lagos, Kuti was a calm but commanding presence as he walked from his dressing room down a set of stairs into the Hall for sound check. He surveyed the stage, tested the microphones, and prepared his organ and saxophone for a full run through the horn-driven "E No Good", one of the highlights on Africa for Africa. Even without an audience present, Kuti and the Positive Force communicated more passion, virtuosity, and professionalism than most bands do with hundreds of cheering fans.

Needing only one song to complete the sound check, Kuti spoke with PopMatters backstage. For an audience of one, Kuti was thoughtful, engaging, and exhibited a quick sense of humor as he ruminated on music, politics, and his children's happiness in this edition of 20 Questions.

* * *

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

The book on [Patrice] Lumumba made me scared, very scared. Movies don't make me cry anymore. What movie made me cry? I can't remember the name of the movie but it was in '81 or '82 in England.

2. The fictional character most like you?

[Laughs] That's a very difficult question. Probably any character that fights against injustice. I could probably find my character in many characters--Spider-Man--things like this.

3. The greatest album ever?

The greatest album probably would be Sketches of Spain (1960) by Miles Davis. Greatest track would be "Things to Come", Dizzy Gillespie. There are 15 horn players on that track--five trombones, five tenor saxes, five trumpets--and they play like one. It was incredible. I couldn't believe it was possible to play a horn line so fast and so together. Every time I listen to it, I'm still overwhelmed.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I like both of them.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Practicing. Only when I practice, I tend to be able to think with a clear mind.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

The success of my children. Any time my children smile, or they're happy, I feel very accomplished.

7. You want to be remembered for . . . ?

Basically, everything I do is for the future of my kids. As a father, I want to be there to give them all of the advice they'll need. I don't care much about myself these days. I'm 50 next year, so success for me will be the success of my kids. If my kids become successful--it doesn't have to be material but that they're happy--then I think I could rest in peace in my grave.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

I have to say Lumumba, my father, Mandela. Mandela because he overcame racism, Martin Luther King, as well. Lumumba because he had no fear for death and he still stood his ground, my father as well, Malcolm X as well. They knew they were going to die but they stood their ground and never compromised the truth. I thought that was the greatest thing a man could do--to lose his life--and that made me think that there has to be more to life. Even if one is confronted with death, you must always stand by the truth. People like this, I've always had tremendous respect for them.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

The trumpet.

10. Your hidden talents . . . ?

If I told you, it wouldn't be hidden anymore [laughs].

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

My father's advice: never to lie.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

My Shrine, my club [in Lagos]. I think that is the greatest thing I've done in my life, building that Shrine.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . . ?

I only wear these kind of traditional clothes. I feel it's very important for the tailors in my country to survive.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

My son.

15. Time travel: where, when, and why?

I've heard so much about Hawaii. I would love to take my kids there on holiday one day. I don't think that will ever happen in my lifetime. I just want to see my kids happy, so probably one nice day I want to take them somewhere very peaceful, no stress.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation, or Prozac?

A spa vacation.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . . ?

Coffee. I love the smell and I love the taste.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I love the country for peace of mind. I'm a very indifferent kind of person. I don't really care, as long as I have my space and I can practice. Country, because no one will disturb me from practicing. In the city I might make too much noise!

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Would he [President Goodluck Jonathan] listen? He has to end corruption very fast. The way to end corruption is to bring many people to justice, to show that nobody's above the law, and nobody will go scott free. It's not by just arresting people and the case is pending in court for years, and most of us will die by the time judgment comes. Quick judgment, doesn't even have to be very long term, but just to lay a solid foundation to let the youths know that they don't have to be corrupt to be successful. Now I think corruption is the biggest problem in a country like Nigeria because everybody believes that if you're not corrupt, you'll never have a house or buy a car. It's killed the nation. It should be a priority, as well as providing electricity. We have no electricity in Nigeria. I'd have to sit down and talk for hours with him. Basically: corruption, electricity, health care for the people. We need to do more for our people. Much, much more.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on now?

I'm starting work on my next album. I think I'm on my third or fourth song. I hope to finish it before the end of the year, go into the studio early next year, because late next year I want the next album out. November 2012, the next album should be out.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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