The musical shadow of a transcendent parent is a hard thing to escape. Just ask Sean Lennon, Nona Gaye or any of the 48 odd Marley offspring. Yet, thanks to an eclectic musical pallet, a strident social bent and years of relentless touring, Femi Kuti, son of Fela has managed to create his own lane. Characterized as much by the sticky bass lines of funk and the robust horns of jazz as the irrepressible percussion of traditional afro-beat, Femi’s music brings together all the sounds of the diaspora in a musical gumbo spicy enough to bring a paraplegic to his feet. His latest concoction bubbles with the flavor and assurance of a master chef at the top of his craft.
Despite the in your face afrocentricity of its title, universality may be Africa for Africa’s greatest strength, both sonically and thematically. The cascading horns of “Dem Bobo” open the album on a note of defiant resilience. When Kuti unleashes his fierce rebuke of greed and corruption atop a muscular mid-tempo groove, the sentiment seems just as appropriate for the Middle East, or the American midwest (yes, you Wisconsin) as for his native Nigeria. “Politics in Africa” bubbles over with a distrust of institutions every bit as feverish as its double type groove and full throated chorus. Even when he slows the beat down, like on the jazzy “Boys Dey Hungry For Town,” Kuti manages to keep the tension burning hotter than concrete in July, demanding active engagement in an era of increasingly passive listening habits.
That very intensity may be both a gift and a curse. Africa for Africa is not an easy listen, and listeners accustomed to traditional pop song structure may need a few spins to get fully acquainted with Kuti’s groove based sonic excursions. The occasional selection, like the keyboard and horn workout “Can’t Buy Me,” may not appear to land at any particular destination on their own, but work as part of the larger journey that make up the album.
Perhaps it isn’t possible to truly escape the shadow of a legend, and really, why would one want to? The fiery spirit of Africa For Africa certainly carries echos of the immortal Fela, and Femi seems quite comfortable carrying on his father’s legacy. But, with another powerful addition to an already stellar catalogue, the son is not so quietly building a legacy all his own.