Going Beyond a Legacy

Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar

When Nigerian musician Femi Kuti discovered last year that his young son was musically gifted, he wasn't entirely thrilled.

On one hand, he could already imagine taking Omrinmade, 4, on the road with his band in a few years.

"But I don't want to make the mistake some people make," says Kuti, 37. "He should go to school, be with his friends. He has to experience life, make his mistakes, have his successes. Maybe he wants to do football in school, play tennis. He needs that and needs to just be happy."

It wasn't a choice Kuti himself was given. The oldest son of the late Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti, Femi was early on anointed to step into the world of Afro-beat--the horn-driven, heavily rhythmic funk and jazz hybrid created by Fela.

That legacy has come to fruition in the U.S. with the recent American release of Femi's dynamic new "Shoki Shoki" album and a tour that brings him to Vynyl on Saturday and to the Hollywood Bowl's "African Funk Sensations" bill (along with influential saxophonist Maceo Parker) on Aug. 6.

"I was under so much pressure--had nothing going for myself," says Kuti, speaking in the authoritative yet joy-filled voice that characterizes his records and recalls Fela's delivery. "My father's friends gave a lot of pressure for me to go into music, but I had no education with music and wondered how everyone wanted me to do that."

Femi did, in fact, join Fela's Egypt '80 band as a teenage saxophonist in the early '80s, perhaps as the only way to get quality time with his father (who reportedly fathered dozens of children by as many as 26 different women). What's more, he was thrust into a leadership role in 1984.

A political firebrand and a constant irritant to the Nigerian government, Fela was arrested that year and jailed on spurious currency smuggling charges. The day after his father's arrest in Lagos, Femi found himself in his father's place in front of the band at the Hollywood Bowl. Though the gig went well, it was traumatic--and it only served to heighten expectations for him.

Yet surprisingly, when he fronts his own band at the Bowl this summer he will be remarkably at ease and agenda-free, as far as demons left from his youth are concerned. There's no sense of the grappling with a father's legend we've seen with sons of such icons as John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. Instead, his music consciously echoes Fela's, though it's more compact musically and doesn't directly attack the Nigerian government in its social commentary.

And he's willingly aligned his new album with the recognition of his father, who died of complications from AIDS in 1997. This isn't his first U.S. album--"Femi Kuti" was released in 1995 during Motown Records' brief foray into world music, but the album was never widely distributed here. So in effect, "Shoki Shoki," just released by MCA Records, represents his U.S. debut album.

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Rather than keep the spotlight completely on himself, though, he's simultaneously overseeing the same company's comprehensive reissue plans for the Fela catalog--something which, given Fela's stature in the world music community and the fact that his recordings have only been haphazardly available in the U.S., could potentially overshadow Femi's release.

"Just because I want to think of my career, I shouldn't put my father's down," he says. "I don't think I should get involved in thinking of my career to the extent of sabotaging his.

"I look at it from this point of view: What if he was still alive? I'd still have to continue my life, right? It's not a problem. If people want to buy his CDs instead of mine, or mine instead of his, or mine this month and his next month, fine. The good thing is if they like it, they buy it."

Tom Schnabel, who as music director and host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on KCRW-FM (89.9) in the '80s helped introduce Fela Kuti's music to the U.S., believes that Femi can reach farther than his father here.

"They're big shoes to fill," says Schnabel. "But the thing that Femi seems to be able to do that Fela never could is capture the youth market. Femi's music is more user-friendly--the tracks aren't 15 minutes long like his father's. And they have a wider appeal, not quite so targeted at Nigerian politics."

As far as the youth market is concerned, MCA is aggressively promoting Kuti to club and urban venues. The song "Beng Beng Beng," a club hit in Europe, has made inroads among club deejays here as well. And the company added remixes of that song, "Truth Don Die" and "Blackman Know Yourself"--the latter commissioned from hip-hop group the Roots--to the album as bonus tracks. Femi was also put together with MCA hip-hop artist Common for a guest spot on the latter's new album.

"We're trying not to go necessarily just down the normal avenues for a world music artist," says Hakim Abdal-Khallaq, the MCA director of marketing shepherding both Femi's and Fela's releases. "We do want to go down those too, but broaden it as well. That's why it's important to bring the hip-hop element in."

Politically, Femi's somewhat softer (though still sternly pointed) approach is not a concession to an international market, but an understandable reaction to having been witness to the consequences of Fela's outspokenness. His father was arrested several times and harassed constantly, and when Femi was a boy his grandmother died from injuries inflicted by soldiers who raided the family compound.

"I am not as confrontational as my father," he says. "I have no problem with the president of Nigeria, who I should have problems with. But I stick to the issues [in lyrics]--he's not providing light and water and too many people have died. But it's not about hatred or about what happened between him and my father. I will not even talk about that."

But that's about the only aspect of his father's legacy he seems uncomfortable addressing, and he credits his ease with having been able to resolve key father-son issues before Fela's death.

"That [1995] album made me in Nigeria," he says. "If I did not have that, and my father had died, people would say that now I was just trying to step in. But I had that.

"And that album, my father, he said he was impressed with me. Having a great father, he's like a god. He had criticized me for so long. And then one day he says to you, 'Wow, you're great.' He says to everyone, 'I never told you this before, but [Femi's] great. Keep it up.' "

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Femi Kuti plays Saturday at Vynyl, 1650 Schrader Blvd., 8 p.m. $22.50 in advance, $25 day of show. (323) 465-7449. Also Aug. 6 with Maceo Parker at the Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., 7 p.m. Only three-concert series subscriptions are available now. Single shows on sale in late April. (323) 850-2000.

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