Femi Kuti: Fight to Win
“ We are still living in the stone age. No lights, no life quality. Nothing works, people can't afford anything. The government is very proud to have provided mobile phones... ”
Femi Anikulapo Kuti was born in London on 16 June 1962, but he grew up in the Nigerian capital Lagos. Femi developed a real passion for music in early life, and his father, the legendary sax-star Fela Kuti, taught his son to play almost as soon as he could walk and thus learning to play an impressive array of instruments at a young age. Breaking free of his father's influence later in his career, Femi went on to fuse Afro-beat with a broad variety of styles including jazz, juju, high-life, funk and hip-hop. Throughout his career Femi has combined his musical innovation with a firm commitment to political causes and social ideals. Since Fela died from AIDS in August of 1997, his stature has risen to god-like proportions among the international dance music community and especially among the millions of Nigerians on whose behalf Fela constantly prodded the government over his 30-year career. Femi has always insisted that the difference in his and his father's temperament has been caused by the fact that he has not had to live through the same atrocities as Fela. In the forthcoming period Femi will be releasing new DVD Live At The Shrine.
AAJ: Could you tell me something about your early musical history?
FEMI KUTI: I was given a trompett by my father when I was 8 or 9 and somebody, his cousin, taught me the skill of si major, and that was it, then nobody was there again to teach me or grow me. The next time, my father gave me the sax at 15, I really wanted to play music at that time, and there was a school band in my school and the manager wanted to teach me for two weeks. My mother wanted me to go to England, my father to go to Ghana. In both case I had to stop my music education two weeks after. But I really wanted to play music so I bought a saxophone and tried to teach myself and I joined his band in 1978 and I played there for six years, then I started my band in '86.
AAJ: You started your career in Fela Kuti's Egypt 80. What was it like to live and work in that surrounding?
FK: It's a different world. Scary so much confusion. Everybody was so hypocritical, pretending they were concerned about what my father was talking about, this trouble and all that, really inside there was nothing about what my father was preaching about. So I think that was one of the most difficult time full of pretenders and hyprocrites. I didn't see any love for my father amongst any of them, his friends, women... so I had to leave. It was the most difficult time of my life. Full of pain. I had to leave. I knew it would not get me anywhere, eventually.
AAJ: Who were some of your earlier influences when you first started, and do you still feel these influences today?
FK: My father was my first influence. When he had his first hits I was a kid and he would send us a copy of each album since we stayed with my mother when he was away recording. He was my greatest influence.
Then when i was at school, we started to listen to Michael Jackson, Temptations, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, the '70's from America were all over Lagos. When I moved with my father he told me if I wanted to play music I had to listen to jazz, that was the only music which would make me a musician. So I was forced to listen to Jaly Paka who I could not understand, I didn't like it at all, it was very surprising, since I was used to funk, that seemed crazy! So he told me to listen to something easier : James Moody What is Mood for Love , and I bought the right tape. Then I went on to my house, listened to Dizzy, Coltrane, and I became a jazz fanatic, I started to understand, and I realized it wasn't about beeing like them but finding myself in all this. So I think between any great musicians from the jazz area, my great influences through my father were Miles Davis, Coltrane, Dizzy, Duke (his orchestra), I was, listening to them everyday. Then I realized I had to stop and find my own way. Then I went to classical music, to discover what it was. So I would listen to classical music, and jazz. Funk, not really, during parties maybe...If you just listen, then you play their music, their notes, you be them, but nothing comes from you, you won't find yourself. When I read a book from Miles Davis, it was one of his major complaints that people were just imitating his music. None of the musicians who came after Coltrane, Miles Davis, were doing anything original. He hated that so much... So when I read this book, I understood I was not on the right track : I wanted to be a Coltrane, a Davis, a Parker... But there was no me.
AAJ: You have a new live album and a DVD Live At The Shrine. Please tell me about these new releases.