Interview and Coverage of Femi Kuti at World Café Live

The clock on my iPhone reads 2:52pm, and I am sitting on a black chair at the entrance to the World Café Live. All ready for action, my Black SONY mirrorless camera is strapped around my neck, as I adjust its settings to fit the conditions I am anticipating for the afternoon, evening, and night — international, unstressed but energetic, sentimental, and revelatory. We are on site to interview the prominent Afrobeat musician — Femi Kuti — known both for his raw singing voice and after tones, and as the son of the legendary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

World Café consists of multiple spacious floors, with the top floor characterized by a raised and extended front desk that stands as you walk in to the left, and a dividing wall that separates the entrance from a bar and dining space. We begin walking downstairs, passing by two black men who are taking portrait pictures, with intricate paintings featured above the man who’s primarily the one getting his pictures taken. The images contained above him are unique in their illustrations of all types of colors, but unidentifiable to the untrained eye.

The black-rimmed spiral staircase leads to the first ground level, and placed on the walls there as we continue down onto the floor below are images representative of a venue that often showcases bands and their live music. The space is temperate and moderately well lit, as we open the door into the stage area. We first settle down in the seats at the reserved concert dining spot positioned right when we walk in. The brown seats around the brown hardwood tables run horizontally, paralleling the venue’s second bar. There is a small set of stairs on both sides of the performance space that go down to a sort of multi-purpose-like floor. The floor is midway between the bar and the stage itself, containing also an open sound production booth.

             audience

                                                     

                                                 The Genre

Afrobeat knows no race, gender, nor creed. Albert Oikelome provides a good working definition of the genre: “Afrobeat is a musical style that incorporates jazz music, American funk and African instrumental styles, popularized in Africa in the mid to late 1960s. It includes elements from Soul music, European rock and West Indian/Caribbean calypso and reggae music. However, its distinctive feature is its identification with political activism, protest, resistance and revolution.”

In “Fela: This Bitch of A Life,” Fela himself describes the working process in America that led to making Afrobeat: “’Who was I? It was in America I saw I was making a mistake. I didn’t know myself. I realized that neither me nor my music was going in the right direction.’ Fela meets an African American computer scientist by the name of Sandra Smith, who transforms and redefines his purview of the world. Fela: ‘Sandra gave me the education I wanted to know. She was the one who opened my eyes. I swear, man! She’s the one who spoke to me about… Africa! For the first time I heard things I’d never heard before about Africa! Sandra was my adviser. She talked to me about politics, history. She taught me what she knew and what she knew was enough for me to start on. Yeah, Sandra taught me a lot, man. She blew my mind really. She’s beautiful. Too much. Nothing about my life is complete without her. Sandra was the woman, I swear… I came back home [to Lagos] with the intent to change the whole system. I didn’t know I was going to have… such horrors! I didn’t know they were gonna give me such opposition because of my new Africanism. How could I have known? As soon as I got back home I started to preach. I had decided to change my music. And my music did start changing according to how I experienced the life and culture of my people.”’

                                                         

                          The Interview

Excerpts from Femi Kuti’s pre-concert interview:

Spady = S

Femi = F

S: What are your earliest memories of Afrobeat?

F: They forget I was there. I was there from the very beginning. I was six or seven years old before Fela started playing Afrobeat.

pensive

S: Were you in England at that time?

F: I was born in England. Immediately thereafter I went to Nigeria.  There are pictures of me in Nigeria when I was two or three years old.  There are lots of pictures of me there when Tony Allen was playing the drums. And I am there like a toddler playing. They would give me the drumsticks. I mean, I grew up in all of that… Wherever Fela went we used to tag along with him.  I witnessed everything and I still remember various things from being very young.

                                     Femi’s Jazz Influences

S: Who were your favorite jazz musicians when you were coming of age?

F: Lee Morgan was my favorite trumpeter at one time. I didn’t know who I preferred, Miles Davis or Lee Morgan. I preferred Lee. But then his wife killed him. I know. I followed this story. Do you think I am clowning? I was a jazz fanatic. I loved Jazz more than anybody around. Because I didn’t just listen to music. I also studied the lives of jazz musicians. When I listened to Lee Morgan, I was hearing it from a musician’s point of view. I loved Miles Davis’ big sound. But I believe if Lee Morgan had lived, he would have given Miles a run for his money.  Yo Yo Yo Yo!  I loved Lee Morgan.

S: Was it his use of melody?

F: He had everything. He was …  He had everything Lee Morgan had everything! {Femi pauses for a moment and looks straight ahead, straight across the space and time that separated Femi from his interlocutor} I think… See, that’s a scary thing. Death takes these guys away probably because they would have been too special.

S: What do you mean when you say they would have been too special?

F: The world would not have known how to deal with somebody like Lee Morgan.

S: So he took Lee on outta here?

F: Probably. You see, let’s look at it from the Creator’s point of view. We all criticize violence, Blah. Blah. Blah. But why is there violence and nonviolence, good and evil?  Maybe it’s because we are just mortals. We see death. We don’t really want to see death as it is. Why did the creator put death there? Is it that bad? What is the devil? Who created the devil? So you go to the religious books. God created the devil. Why? Because things were too good. He needed something to manipulate us, to test us. This world is about balance. That is why I created the song, “No Place For My Dreams,” in 1993 or 94:

“Determined I was to make them see

Happiness for all can be more than a dream

A dream come true for humanity

This dream can become a reality”

sax performance

F (continued): So I just pretended to myself. people discouraged me but it was myself talking to myself. I wanted to set out to be this, and people just said no you will end up a dead hero. See the world as it is. The world is corruption. Corruption will always be there. There will always be good. There will always be bad. And this is when I came, I was studying the dictionary, I came through the word equilibrium. Balance. There has to be balance.

                                Wizkid, Femi Kuti and Common In Motion

S: How did your recording with Wizkid come about?

F: ….Wizkid is like a son to me. I’m in the studio and my sister says she’s doing something for a Nigerian artist. But I was getting ready to leave for a tour. She says, ‘please you have to do this for Wizkid.’ I say ‘who is Wizkid?! Who is this Wizkid?’ She says ‘oh he’s one of the younger artists, he is very popular.’ I say ‘look, please leave me alone I’m not doing this.’ I said ‘look, I’m leaving at 6 oclock in the morning.’ I want to spend more time with my kids, there’s no time to go to the studio. I said ‘don’t put me, I’m not ready.’ She starts begging me; and I mean, she’s my older sister, you can’t say no to your older sister like that. And so on the day of the recording she said ‘I told him you’d do it, he’s already booked the studio.’ And I’m thinking, how can somebody just book a studio?! I mean, it takes time to book a studio. So I said make sure he books a studio very close to the shrine. She said ‘he has already done it.’ Ah ah! This boy is very popular O. So we get there, they play the song. He comes in with his whole gang and everything. He was very very respectful. If I accept to do a job, I will put everything I have. And I love the group; it was to just put a good melody, catchy melody. I said I will find a very good melody that people would like to sing to, or make that groove to, so that’s what I did.

S: Was it different than when you recorded with Common and The Roots?

F: Ah! Roots were very big! Common was already just becoming very big. Most Def was already becoming very big. And don’t forget, it was a recording company that collected all of us, MCA. They all knew me, they knew my father. And there was a respect because of the political aspect of the family heritage.

                                    The Challenges of Being Fela’s Son

S: There’s something inside that kept you on the right track, despite all the challenges.

F: It’s probably the love of my mother, who I knew probably was always there for me. There was always this pain. I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t understand… I’m Fela’s son. Did I ask to be Fela’s son? So is it my problem? Is it my problem he’s popular? Is it my choice that I’m inheriting his empire? And If I don’t accept it, I’m sabotaging.

S: So everything you did was wrong.

F: Everything I did was wrong. Then u had the journalist that just kept attacking me. So when I started up my band, I told my friend, ‘I’m starting up my band.’ He probably felt it was impossible for him to remain as my friend in my band, and not be victimized. So I said ‘well, if you’re going I’m going.’ Now, my older sister knew the consequences of my action. She now came and begged me and begged me and begged me, ‘Please don’t do this. Don’t leave.’ I said ‘ah Yemi, I’ve made up mind. Nothings going to convince me to go back. I cant go back.’ And I decided to leave. The press went, Fela was angry, everybody was angry. Nobody would be at my gigs. Only 3 people, my best friends. I’d play for hours, and they’d say, ‘don’t you see nobody’s here? We’re the only ones here.’ Even my younger sisters said, ‘don’t you think you should take up another profession? try and be a fisherman or something.’ {The room erupts in laughter}

all on the table

S: What was the turning point?

F: At this time, the only really supportive people were my sisters. They were dancing for me in my band. My mother had used all her inheritance from her father on me. We were dead broke, we couldn’t pay rent, there was no money for food, and nobody was ready to go apologize for my father. We were sitting there. I was very close with the French cultural center. They said somebody is coming and they want to take a band to France – Michel. I asked if I could organize one more show. They said ‘okay we’ll come and watch you.’ But they said, ‘you’re too much like your Father.’ And Michel says, ‘look, we’ll organize another show, we must be suffering from jet lag.’ He came and said ‘ok this is different.’ That was the turning point.

                                       

                                          The Monster Perfomance

Gearing up in Philly, fans were hailing from all over. From the Nigerian audience member who had relocated to the States – with his low cut fitted blue jeans, tight-hugging black loafers, black jacket and white tee – to the middle aged Caucasian fellow dressed modestly in a green tee and jeans. Philadelphia is well recognized for its reputation to host lively, uninhibited, celebratory concert performances. This one was no different, as evidenced by the venue being filled to capacity.

Before the star makes his appearance, the band and dancers walk in successively, set on making a statement with their blinding stylishness. Each of the band members walks onto the hard stage floor with conspicuous orange pants, and splash-painted orange and black dashikis. The dancers, most of them flaunting their symbolic tattoos on their skin almost as a part of their attire, present with blue and black striped skirts with red and orange polka dots, matched by knotted blouses of the same color and design. There are three of them to be exact, the ladies. They accentuate their facial statement by white face paint lining and dotting their glistening black skin. The performers on stage are emphatically dancing their familiar African rhythms, the band members spewing the unavoidable and resonating chords, building up the space’s energy for the anticipated entrance.

dancers

Honorable and dignified, Kuti walks onto the stage matching his black dashiki with his black pants. His upper wear is lined like his pants with red diamonds, embroidered in yellow. Beside him on the middle of the stage is his multitude of instruments, which he will use in rotation during the performance to show his versatility and ability to integrate different musical styles – the golden brass alto and soprano sax, the trumpet, and the one mic. There’s a commanding presence that Femi has on stage, over his band and the audience members, not unlike his father’s leanings some decades ago. His added commentary between or sometimes in the middle of pieces, which would result from spewing his voice into the raised mic with his chin floating in the air, are just as important as his instrumentation.

The band crew is no less impressive. The head member can be seen with an at ease low-fade haircut, playing addictively his light brown, shiny electric guitar. There are also two drummers, one whose set includes a number of wood-carved bongos, the other who uses fully a standard set that is sparkling like a glass of cider. Then there is the supporting cast, each person equipped with a different instrument — a Bass sax, Tuba, Trombone, Trumpet, and Black and White guitar. The arrangement and placing of these artists on stage have been well thought out and intend to show the Philly crowd how it’s done internationally.

And boy did they show AND tell. The audience members standing on the dance floor can only stand for so long before they are moved to begin breaking out their own dance moves. The pulse of the drum is in complete motion on this night, and each and every person can’t help but follow its beat and lead. Groups of friends are to the right, old and new — only slightly seen because of the off-lights outside the stage – moving and grooving. You can see it on the face of Femi, and the vigor in his performative acts that the night is not yet over, but it has already been a success. When the whole crew — Kuti, band and dancers — come back out for the encore, and “Beng, Beng, Beng” comes out the mic, the event has been inked in an as one to truly remember. Until next time – Femi Kuti and the Positive Force.

closing

Copyright James G. Spady and Akinyemi Bajulaiye 2015