Am I the only one who finds the more or less coincident release by MCA of a chunk of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s catalog and elder son Femi’s first major-label album to be un peu gauche? An almost endearingly classic Oedipal anxiety surrounds the marketing of 37-year-old Femi’s Shoki Shoki, his not unpleasant yet watered-down and admittedly condensed continuation of Fela’s brash and utterly radical afrobeat sound. Femi has been recording and touring for more than a decade. But like Julian Lennon, Ziggy Marley, and even old “Bocephus” Williams (not to mention HWIII), Femi has established himself not in opposition to his father, but as his mostly ho-hum successor.
They say only when Dad kicks the bucket does Junior truly become a man; but the trappings of phallic overthrow are apparent throughout Femi’s career. Femi led Fela’s Egypt 80 band in the mid ’80s, while his father was imprisoned on trumped-up currency-smuggling charges (today Femi’s teenage half-brother Seun leads members of that band in a kind of Fela rap act). Femi, however, wanted to do his own thing upon Fela’s release from jail after 18 months, causing a long rift the two eventually mended. Nevertheless, Femi’s inevitable kill-daddy impulses have been neatly sublimated into his recent work.
Shoki Shoki‘s title translates as “stud stud,” and the Eurohit “Beng Beng Beng” is dick-as-gun porn-funk belying Femi’s image as monogamous good boy in contrast, of course, to Fela’s polygamy and promiscuity. (“Twenty-seven wives?” sniffs Femi, who ought to know, in interviews. “Twenty-seven problems.”) And most of Femi’s compositions, though iced by trip-hop production sparkles, stick to an abbreviated version of the template used throughout his father’s 80-plus albums: a rhythmic intro, a horn-driven statement of the composition’s theme, a pidgin English vocal section including call-and-response interplay with the chorus, a sax solo, then an outro.
But where Fela named names, Femi sticks to relatively bland antiauthoritarian generalities in songs like “Sorry Sorry,” wherein he quotes two of his father’s more incendiary and bitterly satiric tunes: “Mr. Follow Follow” and its original A side, “Zombie,” the mocking antimilitary number that some believe was responsible for the attack by 1000 soldiers on Fela’s compound in 1977, a siege that resulted in rapes, beatings, murders, and the eventual death of Fela’s mother. Femi, however, writes songs like “Eregele,” which cautions against the “dangerous play” inherent in ice hockey and kick boxing, and “Scatta Head,” a sort of observational, have-you-ever-noticed-how? pop song warning listeners that long division, mixing alcohols, and (presumably female) breasts can really mess up your head.
Femi, in all fairness, is no mere “chairboy of the board.” His live shows with his band Positive Force are a rousing chip off the old block, and he’s been lucky enough to throw his coming-out party in conjunction with renewed international interest in afrobeat and its cousins. Compilations like the U.K. Harmless label’s AfricaFunk and the French Comet label’s Racubah! and Ouelele reflect and enhance interest in the sort of African jazz-funk being played, for example, by orthodox afrobeat revivalists like New York’s Antibalas. But why now?
In his forthcoming Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon (Temple University Press, June), a virtually indispensable study for anyone interested in either Fela or West African popular music in general, ethnomusicologist Michael Veal concludes that “Fela’s odyssey will likely be fondly remembered as an episode that, while it accurately forecasted the future problems resulting from the corruption of Nigeria’s leadership during the country’s economic heyday, is inextricably linked to the halcyon days of that period”—an era of “bliss, folly, and sorrow,” according to Ghana’s Accra Daily Graphic, with only the latter of those terms still relevant today.
One of the great countercultural figures of modern times, Fela visited America in 1969 and returned to Nigeria with both a trans-African point of view and The Funk. Raised by autocratic parents with liberal ideas, he had a career that flourished under duress. From “Lady,” which castigates knee-jerk antitraditional feminism, to “ODOO (Overtake Don Overtake Overtake),” a raging critique of Africa’s unmandated military governments, not a single note on the Femi-compiled two-CD hits collection The Best Best of Fela Kuti sounds as though it were played in anything other than playfully vehement opposition to the status quo. Most of Fela’s work, in fact, lies firmly in the Yoruban tradition of “abuse songs” criticizing bad social or political behavior.
Fela was not working in a vacuum. You can hear his afrobeat almost verbatim in tracks by African musicians ranging from King Sunny Ade (whose guitarist Bob Ohiri played in Afrika 70) and Sonny Okosuns in Nigeria to Bembeya Jazz National in Guinea. Bootsy Collins picked up on Fela in Lagos during James Brown’s African tour in 1970, while George Clinton quotes “Mr. Follow Follow” in “Nubian Nut.” But nobody—even James Brown, whose “Hot Pants Road” Veal cites as an example of Fela’s influence—played Fela like Fela played Fela. Lifting the Brownian motion (as arranged by “Pee Wee” Ellis) during his visit to America, Fela returned it to Africa, where he replaced the music’s often goofy sexual content with populist politics. He added Coltrane-ish modality to Brown’s one-chord vamps, soul shouts, and chicken-scratch guitar, and gave himself more solo space than West African music traditionally condoned. His wavering sax and piano solos sounded almost sarcastic in tone, as though he were mocking The Man while challenging anyone to criticize his lack of technical expertise.
A teaser for a series of 20 Fela albums MCA will reissue over the next two months on 10 CDs, Best Best tends to rein in the excessive nature of what Fela came to characterize as his “classical African music” (attributed to marijuana’s influence by some), editing down his increasingly spacey 20-or 30-minute compositions to 10 or 15 minutes. And I don’t think you need to be Dr. Freud of Vienna to discern the underlying impulse here.
“A real slave driver” of a bandleader, according to drummer Tony Allen, Fela could be as authoritarian, in his own way, as any African general. Kuti lost one of the world’s great drummers when Allen quit, along with the rest of Fela’s Afrika 70 band, in 1978. Fela continued to record and perform with a reconstituted group he named Egypt 80, but the earlier ensemble remains a legendary example of talent and rigor sacrificed to an ego as large as all Africa. Allen continued to record with conga wizard Henry Kofi and other members of Afrika 70, and his 1979 album No Discrimination is a rousing afrobeat classic.
Black Voices is even better; much better, in fact. Where Femi puts an electropop veneer on Fela’s sound, Allen has made a radically dubwise deconstructive departure from afrobeat’s orchestral complexities. The result is enigmatic and profound: Afro-Jamaican-American chamber music for the cosmic diaspora. One of the world’s great drummers in any genre, Allen is also one of the percussion world’s more beguiling polyrhythmists, with a knack for nearly always sounding like two players at once. On Black Voices he attacks the trap set with the lithe storytelling prowess of Tony Williams on Miles Davis’s Filles de Kilimanjaro. (Allen plays a minimalist Miles card hard throughout the “In a Silent Mix” version of “Asiko.”) Fela may have brought the funk to Africa, but—accompanied by P-Funk bassist Mike “Clip” Payne and guitarist Gary “Mudbone” Cooper—Allen takes it into outer space.
Where Fela and Femi shout, Allen sounds cooler than ice, muttering generic blackisms like “To know thy brother is to know thyself.” The secret word in “Ariya” turns out to be its “shabba-doo-bee-doo-bee-doo-bee-doo” refrain. This is postcolonial lounge dread, an intense and anxious yet laid-back sound with satirical undertones, beginning one step beyond the point where Fela stopped. If Fela’s music and pan-African dreams sprang in angry full force from the corrupt prosperity of ’70s Nigeria, and Femi’s music is a largely forgettable product of the dance-crazy ’90s, Tony Allen trades in the deep, dark future.
Femi Kuti plays Irving Plaza March 23. Tony Allen plays the Knitting Factory April 5.