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Femi Kuti & Positive Force

Wednesday, Jul 26 2000
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Of all the assertions contained in Michael Veal's fine new Fela Anikulapo-Kuti biography Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, one of the most important and striking is that America's thinking about Fela's "authenticity" got it all wrong. Blame it on the persistent (and arguably racist) belief that somehow African music was supposedly "pure" and uninfluenced by outside forces, but Fela's bubbling, infectious, and controversial Afrobeat was not only infused with James Brown's revolution-of-the-mind political funk, but couldn't exist without it; it was only after seeing Brown live in Los Angeles that Fela found the inspiration that would make him put that British conservatory learning to good use and turn him into one of the few musicians who can legitimately be called a force of nature. Still, success in the U.S. was always a moot point; just as King Sunny Ade's shot at making America care about juju fell flat in the early '80s (even with an assist from Stevie Wonder), fellow Nigerian Fela got his cult but learned fast that the meanings and sensibilities of the brilliant No Agreement and Shuffering and Shmiling weren't going to survive a trip across the Atlantic.

Alas, America still looks at death as a brilliant career move, so Fela's demise in 1997 from AIDS has led to a reconsideration of his Afrobeat legacy that's resulted in Veal's book, a 10-CD reissue fusillade from MCA (though the two-disc The Best Best of Fela Kuti works just fine for dilettantes), and a son, Femi Kuti, who has benefited from Dad's legacy even while trying to creep away from it. In comparison, Femi's Shoki Shoki smacks of compromise -- the songs are leaner and lack much of the polyrhythmic sophistication of Dad's discography, which is bound to happen when you're lacking Fela's drummer, Tony Allen, a rhythmic genius in his own right. But "Truth Don Die" and "Blackman Know Yourself" aren't compromises -- they just get the point across faster, a message-driven approach the Roots were surely romanced by when they took on the remix duties for Shoki's stateside release. And if part of Fela's thrill was the slow, lush builds provided by his army of musicians, Femi's got quite the army himself. Onstage, it's all about Femi's energy level -- he's playing the sax, singing, and sweating madly while the musicians and dancers just try to keep up. The fact that they do makes this an event -- an excuse to remember Fela's legacy and ignore the business of trying to falsely revive it.

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Mark Athitakis

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