Words: Kayceman | Photos of Femi Kuti: Grace Dunn

Femi Kuti :: 07.27.05 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
What does it mean to be the son of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti? To understand this one must understand just how revolutionary, how visionary, how empowering, how important, how magnanimous, how prolific, and how amazingly talented Fela Kuti was. Born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1938, Fela was born to a middle-class family with musical and political interests, as well as cultural and educational ones. He was sent to London in 1958 with parental dreams of Fela joining the medical profession. Instead, he found music and became a regular on the London club scene with his band Koola Lobitos.

In 1963, Fela returned to Nigeria with heavy James Brown influences and began to jazz-up and funk-out his instruments, eventually giving birth to the entire rhythmic monster we know as "Afrobeat." While in Los Angeles in 1969, Fela found the works of Malcolm X and Eldridge Clever, which would be the catalyst for a band name change, from Koola Lobitos to Nigeria 70. With the change in moniker would come a shift in focus, as the music would become more overtly political, specifically in fighting for the rights of the oppressed and the emancipation of the Blackman in Africa.

Fela Kuti in front of his Kalakuta Republic
Surrounded by his wives and his faithful
By the time Fela returned to his homeland of Nigeria, he was the leader of a revolution - the spokesman for the poor. He founded the Kalakuta Republic - a self-governing communal compound and recording studio. It was around this time that Fela gave up his "slave name" "Ransome" and assumed the name "Anikulapo" ("he who carries death in his pouch"). As Fela's fame and following grew, the opposition (the military power) began to battle back - heavily. Fela was constantly harassed, jailed, beaten, and came close to death numerous times at the hands of the oppressors. In one of the most infamous attacks (1977), the Nigerian government sent in soldiers to storm the Kalakuta compound. In the battle Fela suffered a fractured skull while his 82-year old mother was thrown from a second-story window, which would eventually lead to her death. The soldiers set the compound on fire destroying his studio, his master recordings, and his musical instruments.

Femi Anikulapo-Kuti :: 07.27 :: Fillmore, SF
In 1979, Fela began his own political party - MOP: Movement of the People. This was a relatively calm time for Fela as his band toured and recorded heavily under the Egypt 80 name. Things turned violent again when military rule returned to Nigeria in 1983. Fela was jailed and sentenced to ten years, but he was freed in 1985 by Amnesty International. By this point, Fela had become more than just a musician and more than just a revolutionary; Fela had assumed a role akin to Bob Marley. While his legacy in the Western World has never been fully appreciated, it is no stretch to put Fela Kuti in the same league as Marley and Miles Davis. With his death in 1997 to AIDS-related problems, Fela left behind 50-plus recordings, legions of devoted followers, Afrobeat, and his son Femi Anikulapo-Kuti .

Femi Anikulapo-Kuti - Dancer :: 07.27 :: Fillmore, SF
So what does it mean to be Fela's son? It means you have both a great responsibility and a great opportunity. It opens doors and also shadows your own life's work. Femi was born in London and raised in Nigeria, cutting his teeth in his father's band until forming his first group Positive Force in 1986. As one would think, Femi very much follows in his father's footsteps, both musically and politically. While Fela literally invented the art form, Femi has made great strides in introducing the world to Afrobeat. Often seen as a bit more tepid, a bit more digestible, and a bit more mainstream than his father's music, the sounds of Femi Kuti are incredibly infectious and rhythmically overwhelming in their own right.

Omorinmade Anikulapo-Kuti :: 07.27 :: Fillmore, SF
In some way similar to when one goes to see Damien, Stephen, or Ziggy Marley, it's impossible to not have Bob in mind and to not hear the musical and see the genealogical influence; thus it is so with Femi and Fela. When one is fortunate to be in the presence of a man like Femi Kuti - as San Francisco was on a recent cool August evening - the energy from the man's history is tangible. The importance of Femi's legacy and the power of his conviction are visible in his intensity and are felt in the vibrations of his music.

With performers dressed in bright, loosely-matching garb, the show begins with the rhythm section, led by none other than Femi's pre-teen son: Omorinmade Anikulapo-Kuti. Soon, the four-piece (then five with Femi's son, and then six when Femi joins) horn section dances on stage, and then the three captivating, relentless female African dancers join the fray. When Femi takes the stage to an already bouncing, funky groove, he places his trumpet by his feet and heads straight for the keyboard.

Femi Anikulapo-Kuti :: 07.27 :: Fillmore, SF
The deep-seeded rhythms that will carry the evening start from the ground up, slowly enveloping bodies and souls and eventually creeping into every single body inside the hallowed halls of The Fillmore. Enjoying a rare evening in the company of those who are not predominantly white, it was easy to allow one's mind to drift with both the African beats from the stage and the African languages and French dialects heard throughout the auditorium. Toward the end of the ten-minute opener, Femi has moved to his sax and is commanding attention at center stage. Leaning heavily on the delay effect, he is able to create a swarming wall of sound reminiscent of Pharoah Saunders.

Having already discarded his shirt by the third song, Femi looked even more like his often half-naked father, grinding next to his dancers, shifting hips to his "Beng Beng Beng" in a manner that would make Elvis blush, and captivating the crowd with his incredibly intense vocals. Dancing from his lyrical, at times almost rapping vocal work, to the call/response cadence of the genre, to his keyboards, to several saxophones, to his trumpet, Femi Kuti takes on a larger-than-life persona, often not only calling his father to mind, but also Miles Davis, and in more tender moments, even Bob Marley.

Femi Anikulapo-Kuti :: 07.27 :: Fillmore, SF
The music of Afrobeat is both life-affirming and life-questioning. For close to an hour, the music literally never stops; songs are linked by sax improvs or percussive lash outs. And when it does stop, for perhaps six seconds, it drops back in with the relentless drumming and the punctuation of the always-perfect horns. Toward the middle of the show, Femi's son joins him center stage for a sax combo that foretells the future. As Femi took the torch from Fela, eventually the weight will fall on Omorinmade. At his shockingly young age, the young man is already a pivotal player in his father's band. Not only does he play percussion and support the horn section, at times he leads the band with his horn - not just blowing notes, but blowing with style. Not even at puberty yet, the child plays with style. At such a young age, it is truly a gift and a burden that runs through the Kuti bloodline. The day will come when Femi's son must lead, and in time, he will also need to bare another male so that the Kuti-Afrobeat legacy can continue. But there is time for all of that. For now, Femi leads the charge and has managed to escape, at least somewhat, the shadow of his father. While it's imperative to remember and to consider Fela Kuti's influence, it would be insulting to not give Femi Anikulapo-Kuti his due respect when witnessing one of his two to three hour non-stop dance-athons. While those of us in America have few opportunities to witness the infectious and joyous genius of Femi Kuti, it would be a shame to miss the rare chance to see him each and every time he comes to town. The legend most certainly lives on, and it is thriving with Femi.

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[Published on: 8/30/05]

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