Nigerian composer, multi-instrumentalist and singer Femi Kuti spoke to Alison Bentley ahead of his gig at Camden’s Jazz Cafe on Nov. 4th and 5th (tickets HERE).
He spoke from Lagos about his music, his new album (No Place For My Dream, Knitting Factory Records, 2013) and his late father, Fela Kuti (musician, political activist and Nigerian icon). Femi Kuti sings and plays trumpet, saxophone and organ on the new album.
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Alison Bentley: You mentioned John Coltrane in one interview, and your solos sound like his free jazz. Is that something that’s influenced you?
Femi Kuti: At one time. I used to listen to a lot of jazz when I was much younger. But I’m sure it’s still in my genes somewhere!
AB: Can I ask you about Afrobeat? Your father said that Afrobeat was like a ‘weapon of the future’. What did he mean by that?
FK: I think it means that music would be in the forefront of change, to fight against corruption and things like this.
AB: One of the amazing things about your music is the contrast between the lyrics which are about social justice and suffering and the instrumental music, which is so uplifting and exciting. Is that part of the weapon?
FK: It is my own way of trying to… it’s maybe what my father was grooming me to do. But it’s the kind of music I’m playing.
AB: Your band is called Positive Force. Do you think that music can change people’s attitudes?
FK: Yes, I think so, definitely. We had a festival, one week called the Felabration. It brought everybody together, over 10,000 people, and it was very peaceful. Everybody enjoyed themselves under one roof. So it shows you the power of music.
AB: Is it dangerous writing such politically explicit lyrics? [Song titles like: No Work, No Job, No Money; Politics Na Big Business]
FK: Yes it can be. As we see with Bob Marley and my father. Yes, of course.
AB: Do you feel that for yourself? You even write in one of your songs about ‘dead heroes’
FK: Yes, I’ve felt it a couple of times, many times in my life. And I need to close my mind and do what I have to do. And if I worried about that then I wouldn’t get anything done.
AB: How do you write your music? Do you create all the horn lines yourself?
FK: I write everything myself, everything.
AB: What about the rhythms?
FK: Everything! The only thing I don’t do is the improvisation of the percussion, the congas. I give him the basic part and then he can just explore round that. The basic rhythm I give him.
AB: It sometimes sounds like a big band.
FK: Yes, I used to like orchestras. I used to listen a lot to classical music. I used to like Duke Ellington. When I was younger – between the ages of I think maybe 20 to about 24 I sat down and tried to listen to everything.
AB: I read that you were interested in Motown when you were younger as well. Would you say that was an influence?
FK: Not to my notice, but like I said, we danced to everything in America in the 70s- Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson. But my father always stood out for me. So I always knew that was where I was going. This is part of my upbringing. But then I had to find my voice. I’m sure all this must be part of my influence, subconsciously or consciously.
AB: It also made me think of Herbie Hancock and Head Hunters.
FK: Aah, I listened to all of them, I loved them so much when I was young.
AB: The grooves, and call and response between you and the backing vocals- is that from traditional Nigerian music?
FK: It’s not particularly Nigerian. It’s an African thing- it’s done all over Africa. It was part of my father’s way of writing as well.
AB: How do feel that you’ve developed your father’s music? Have you changed it in any way?
FK: I think, to summarise, I just found my voice in the chaos of his life- a new voice.
AB: What about your work with hip hoppers like Mos Def and Common. Do you find that any of those hip hop rhythms have come through into your music?
FK: Not really!
AB: So that’s not something you’re going to carry on with?
FK: No. But don’t forget that hip hop came out of the Afro beat, so I know where hip hop’s coming from. But I really enjoyed working with them. But it’s not where I want to go…
AB: What about passing on the tradition to your own children? I read that your son plays saxophone. Is he playing in your band now?
FK: No, he’s in England studying Classical Music right now. He’s in University there. I want him to study Classical Music and jazz. I think the future is going to be very tough and if he doesn’t know how to read and write music… I was lucky to get to do so many things in my time. So I would like to arm him with everything possible. I would love him to be able to work with orchestras all over the world. And the only way for him to do that is for him to have a solid education, so that’s what I’m doing with him. The other ones, they’re very young right now. They still have a long way to go. My eldest child is 18 now, so he’s definitely playing music.
Alison Bentley: Tell me about your band. How big is the band that’s coming to London?
Femi Kuti We’ll be 12. This is the minimum I can bring on tour- minimum or maximum. But when we’re in Lagos the band is much bigger than that. We don’t have that kind of budget to bring everybody, so.. I still try to produce the kind of music I produce here in Lagos. It’ll be entertaining and delightful.