Father’s rebellious spirit fills Seun Kuti’s songs

Boston Globe, July 4, 2008

Seun Kuti sets himself a high standard.

“In the true tradition of Afrobeat, you have to make every album like a classic,” says the Nigerian singer and bandleader.

At 25, he’s the new standard-bearer of Afrobeat, the furiously groovy musical style that is one of the most beloved and distinctive in world music, not to mention politically incisive and preternaturally danceable.

Of course, Kuti, whose North American tour touches down at the Paradise Rock Club on Tuesday, has a unique interest in Afrobeat’s enduring quality. The genre – an almost miraculous synthesis of funk, jazz, and West African highlife – is in some ways a family franchise to which Kuti is now the principal heir.

Every one of Afrobeat’s hallmarks – the long, intricate songs; the liquid grooves; the elastic syncopation; the potent horn sequences; the conscious lyrics that range from sardonic to downright revolutionary – can fairly be attributed to Seun’s father, the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who together with a clutch of inspired, mostly Nigerian musicians crystallized in the early 1970s a sound and format that retain all their vitality today.

After Fela died of an AIDS-related disease in 1997, Seun’s much older half-brother, Femi Kuti, upheld the family banner on the music front, releasing several internationally successful records and, back home, operating a club called the New Shrine, named after Fela’s legendary Shrine venue.

But it was Seun, a pre-teen at the time, who performed with Fela in the father’s late years, and it is Seun who today leads Fela’s band, Egypt 80, with whom Seun has just released his debut, “Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.” It is largely the same unit as it was two decades ago, with stellar personnel like the septuagenarian music director Lekan “Baba Ani” Animashaun.

Considering this background, it only stands to reason that Seun’s album, matured over a decade of work with the band, would sound like Afrobeat of the highest order. All purists might find to decry is that each of the seven songs checks in at less than 10 minutes, as opposed to the lavish developments that characterized much of Fela’s work.

In response to this quibble, Seun laughs. “Only Fela could make songs 35 minutes long and have them published!” he says from a tour stop in France. “But me, basically, I feel like I have to bring Afrobeat into the future. People move so fast these days, you need to make shorter songs to get inside their head.”

Moving the sound forward does not mean changing the formula. Where Femi has mixed it up a little, working, for instance, with DJs, Seun operates from a position of orthodoxy. “I don’t know about remixes,” he says. “Maybe. But I believe Afrobeat is the future of music, so all those other genres should start sounding like Afrobeat.”

So he keeps the formal innovations minimal: a wee bit of sampling, some overlays of street sound or speeches by politicians to set up a song that excoriates corruption. And it’s there, in the lyrics, that Seun truly reveals himself to be his father’s son. The album is politically charged end-to-end, laden with blistering criticism of the venality of African rulers, the complicity of the West, and the complacency of those in a position to make change.

And just like Fela, Seun laces the message with drollery and sarcasm, in a kind of morbid truculence that perfectly captures the mixture of fatalism and outrage that many people harbor in societies like Nigeria where corruption seems always to carry the day.

Get to talking politics with Seun and the commentary runs fast and furious. “They are not nationalists, they are not patriots,” he says of Nigeria’s – and by extension Africa’s – elite. “Patriots are people who put the common man first, not their own bank account. These people have filled their bank accounts without lifting a finger, while some people cannot feed their children two meals a day.”

And he has little regard for the new professional class that has come about through globalization. “These young men who work in banks are like the house slaves. They work for peanuts compared to the West. And they say it is progress, but it’s just 5 percent of the population.”

It’s no wonder to Seun that so many in Nigeria have turned to various forms of petty criminality and ventures like Internet hustles to get by. “The attitude reflects the leadership,” he says. “They are imitating their rulers.”

But again like Fela, who withstood all manner of harassment by the authorities over the years, including detention and an invasion of his compound during which Fela’s mother was thrown out a window and killed, Seun instinctively veers away from any bitterness. He punctuates his music with levity and praises African women and the joys of the flesh.

And this firebrand critic of the global order and politicians in general isn’t above placing hope in US politics: An avowed admirer of Barack Obama, he only half-jokes that he’d love to play at the inauguration.

But whatever the result of our election, Seun Kuti is placing his music and message in the service of a transformation that he believes must surely come.

“I expect my generation to be the one that leads people out,” he says. “Even out of the hopelessness, there is hope. The people I meet, in Nigeria and elsewhere, by the way they speak to me, I know they want things to change.”