Those who have followed his career and have experienced his music know this for a fact: Femi Kuti never felt just satisfied with being the King’s heir. He freed himself from his father’s legacy in ’85 by putting together his own band, The Positive Force, and thereby working to find his own voice. He became, during the ’90s, a renowned artist in his own right with a distinctive, colorful and balanced style.
His records tell the story: After a short spell at Motown, he took on the Afrobeat sound with his first international album in 1998 («Shoki Shoki»), before rubbing shoulders with the modern urban style of his American peers such as Mos Def and Common on the album «Fight To Win».
Returning to Lagos he worked on rebuilding the new Shrine and released an unbelievable live project recorded in the heat of the moment in his own venue («Live at the Shrine», MK2 / 2004).
Finally his first studio record only came about in 2008, having found inspiration in Paris. This unanimously celebrated release («Day By Day») was his most successful one.
What was there left for him to accomplish from now on? To complete the cycle, Femi felt he needed to go back to his roots, to the origins of this burning feeling inside him which had fired all his work, and going back to the studio where he had produced his first recordings with his father and his solo album «Shoki Shoki».
Decca Studio, soon to become Afrodisia Records in the ’70s, was the experimenting ground for most Nigerian masterpieces of the time, including those of Fela. «It was a very important historical place for Afrobeat and the place have those mystical vibrations that Femi felt», recalls Sodi, his longtime travelling buddy, and Parisian producer, who made the trip to Lagos to be a part of it. «We knew the studio was in a bad state, with old mixing desks, ancient equipment, we all knew the gear would not be up to the test, but we wanted to take up the challenge. Because everyting is different in Lagos. The city is such a monster; it has an effect on the way musicians play. The trick is to capture the Lagos stress without yielding under it yourself». And Femi gives us further insight : « Between the power cuts and the dysfunctional AC, we were sweating like pigs. I was playing with Sodi, pretending to complain: We could be in a comfortable place right now, what are we doing here? It was madness, but that’s what we wanted it to be».
This record may be less carefully produced than the former one. However this was not unintentional, but rather a conscious artistic choice, i.e. not to polish the finishing touches and keep this afrobeat rough in its purest form….. « Aggressive is the word that Femi uses the most when talking about the album. This familiar Punk energy you hear is no surprise therefore even spiced up the African way! Here, the words echo the music perfectly. « Bad Government ». Never has Femi been so vindictive. Or his words so concise. « Nobody Beg »: « But never has my people’s condition been so serious» he justifies. As did his idols from the 60s, Coltrane, Parker, Gillespie, his militant spirit sometimes carries a jazzy jab that doesn’t however lose any of its intensity. « Politics in Africa ».
More than just a simple musician, the 48-year old composer has become a true African Ambassador, in its most honorable sense. Indeed the album recording had to be arranged around his busy schedule. For example, Femi was in Johannesburg to sing for Africa the opening ceremony for the Football World Cup. There he sang one of his hits « Beng Beng Beng », and took the opportunity to meet a few of the anti-Apartheid heroes. Shortly after, he was heading off to New York to see the famous and very successful Broadway musical about Fela, where he also got to appear on stage, invited by the actors at the end of the show. «It’s truly extraordinary, they really understood my father’s struggle and his mindset This show has got to travel the world, and come down to the Shrine», he says naturally.
Will we see Femi carrying out this project throughout the world? Maybe. In the meantime, his Shrine still carries the torch week in week out, so much so it has become one of the only last dynamic temples for live African music. Erykah Badu, Damon Albarn, Hugh Masekala have recently made appearances, as have the Lagos Police, who regularly raid the place, picking up and frightening off the local crowd, as they try to close down this highly regarded resistance venue.
For the Shrine’s 10th anniversary, coming this winter, Femi did an exceptional festival, following which he will be promoting his new album on stage.