The heir to Afrobeat carries on a titan's legacy.
“I have to say,” Seun Kuti declares, his voice crackling over a tenuous Nigeria-to-Chicago cell-phone connection, “that this record is the best album to come out of Africa in a long time.”
The boldness that allows Kuti to make such a strong statement (and, according to many critics and fans, an accurate one) regarding his debut, Seun Kuti + Fela’s Egypt 80, is only one of the riches that the Nigerian inherited from his father, Fela Kuti. The youngest son has also inherited his father’s band, the Egypt 80, save one trumpet player; his legendary venue in Lagos, the Shrine (though it has changed locations several times); and his instrumental skills on saxophone and keyboard. Most strikingly, when Kuti holds court onstage—blowing sax, stripped to the waist and commanding his mighty orchestra—he echoes his father not only in spirit and power, but physically.
The originator of Afrobeat, the reverse-Diaspora musical movement in which the funk of James Brown was absorbed by its roots in Africa and adjusted accordingly, Fela died in 1997 of AIDS-induced Kaposi’s sarcoma. More than 1 million mourners attended the funeral.
By then, Seun (pronounced “shay-oon”) had already been singing backup in Fela’s final group, Egypt 80, for over half a decade, since he was nine. The teenager quickly adjusted to his new role as leader of the group and began a trial-by-fire apprenticeship with the Egypt 80. Monthly concerts at the Shrine became epic affairs, with Kuti onstage for at least four hours. “It was mighty fun being onstage when my dad was alive,” the bandleader explains. “After my dad died it can still be fun, but it became my job. It is work.”
One of the additional job pressures Kuti, now 25, faces upon releasing his first album is the universal problem of bootlegging. Always prevalent in Nigeria, illicit trade has escalated with an influx to the country of Chinese investment and the Chinese black market, according to Kuti. He hopes his current world tour not only will allow him to bring the music and the concerns of Africa to the world, but also will introduce him to countries with greater potential for CD sales.
Though his father’s name graces the new record’s cover, and the powerful sounds laid down recall Fela’s groundbreaking work, this is not a derivative or contrived effort. Rather, the veteran musicians—vast and tight as a military unit—explore the limitless potential of the genre in Seun’s ambitious tracks. He composed six of the seven songs on the record, alongside one contribution from the group’s septuagenarian elder statesman, Baba Ani, one of Fela’s first collaborators. In “Mosquito Song,” the band executes a musical interpretation of the deadly insect’s flittering flight pattern, while “Na Oil” hypnotizes in stereo with panning percussion and horn punctuations.
The album employs samples of Lagos street sounds and the voice of a corrupt Nigerian politician. It’s not a nod toward hip-hop pastiches that some contemporary African musicians (including Seun’s brother Femi) have created—though Femi’s more prominent collaborations with rappers may have been at his label’s urging. But like hip-hop at its most potent, Kuti’s songs address social issues by painting vivid portraits of the lives of oppressed urbanites without becoming didactic or losing the groove.
Kuti’s concert at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion last summer was memorable for at least two reasons. For one, the debut American tour by the son of the man who recorded “Black President” was made possible by the last-minute intervention of Senator Barack Obama, who helped smooth out unexpected visa problems. But more significantly, the concert culminated with Kuti inviting hundreds of dancing Chicagoans to join the band onstage.
“I loved it,” Kuti recalls. “Sometimes people come onstage but not that many. It was probably one of my best shows.” Even though he proclaims the Shrine to be the best place in the world for African music, Midwestern revellers made an impression. “The people of Chicago gave me a wonderful gift,” Kuti says, “a crazy concert.”
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 perform at House of Blues Monday 30.