Seun Kuti contends with complicated family ties

When a son enters the family business, there's sometimes a built-in price tag. While some folks are proud of the kid for maintaining a fine institution, others will accuse him of taking advantage of a parent's reputation. But if your father was an icon on a par with Bob Marley — as well as a musical innovator and the head of state of his self-proclaimed nation — and your brother is hoeing the very same musical row, things get stickier careerwise. Welcome to the tangled bloodlines of Seun (pronounced "shay-oon") Kuti, youngest son of Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Let's look at the legacy to which Seun Kuti is heir. Fela Kuti (1938-1997) was a Nigerian singer, bandleader, and composer who virtually invented Afrobeat in the 1960s. The elder Kuti hit upon a fusion of traditional West African sounds with aspects of jazz and American rhythm and blues. In the late '60s, he became radicalized in global black nationalism. He christened his band Africa 70, and declared his studio "compound" to be the independent Republic of Kalakuta. His music became the soundtrack for the Nigerian underclass. Not recognizing the sovereignty of Kalakuta, in 1977 soldiers busted up the place, killing Fela's mother. He spent the next decade surviving exile and jail time, finally reaching musical stardom toward the end of his life. He passed away in 1997 due to complications from AIDS.

Seun Kuti took over his father's last band, dubbed Egypt 80, shortly after Fela's death. While older brother Femi entered the family business with his own Afrobeat combo circa 1989, it's Seun who is directly building upon his family's legacy. Seun has the specific pledge of support from the musicians who worked with his dad. In the June issue of Canadian magazine The Walrus, Femi and Seun give their versions of the Egypt 80 inheritance, with Femi claiming the "white blood" of his mother (she was of West Indian heritage) incited Fela's group to back Seun. (Fela sired the two siblings with different women.)

The hallmarks of Fela's sound — urgent horn sections, percolating electric guitars, chanted choruses, deep grooves, and semi-rapped vocals — continue to thrive under Seun's leadership. Egypt 80 recently released its first disc with Seun as its leader, Seun Kuti & Fela's Egypt 80, which exudes the ebullient energy and righteous indignation of Fela's best work while bearing Seun's stamp. "Mosquito Song" (about Nigeria's malaria plague claiming more lives than AIDS while the government drags its feet) includes a wailing jazz-charged trumpet solo. Its organic rhythm is almost as rapid as drum 'n' bass, and Seun rides it vocally with all the class of the Godfather of Soul. "Fire Dance" also highlights the jazz influence with an acidic, speaking-in-tongues alto sax solo, while the subtlety-free "Don't Bring That Shit to Me" reflects the influence of Public Enemy.

While some Westerners may imagine Fela's complicated legacy a burden, Africa has a time-honored custom of sons building on the tradition of their fathers. (Griots, the West African traveling poet/singers, are often succeeded by their offspring.) Seun Kuti's brand of Afrobeat is committed but above all passionate, with fury and joy in equal measure, perpetuating the fires ignited by father Fela.

 
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