Radio Dreyeckland Freiburg - Jazz Department

Interview with Femi Anikulapo Kuti
by Markus Kurz & Till Maragnoli

Femi Anikulapo Kuti and his band had a gig in the Jazzhaus Freiburg on December 1st, 1999, 9 p.m. For the purpose of a radio broadcast special, the Radio DJs Till Maragnoli and Markus Kurz from Radio Dreyeckland interviewed him before the concert. The interview has three parts: the first is about Afro-Beat and its origins, the second part about politics, especially the political situation in Nigeria, and the third part is about his name and future projects.

Part 1 - Afro Beat and its Origins

Is there a basic message of Afro-Beat? How would you describe it? Did it change since the death of your father?

I think before my father, Afro-Beat on my part had been changing. I don’t think I was doing exactly the same thing as my father. I drew my inspiration from him, but I don’t think I’m doing exactly the same thing. I have my own feelings, I have my own inspiration, I have other inspirations and I have personal opinions to emphasize with my music. So, with his death, I think the music will take a new turn, probably directing in this style.

For example what other inspirations would you count as a major influence?

In the beginning it was Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, traditional music in Nigeria, folk songs, I tried listening to classic once, twice, trying to see on the stand what was going on there. But mainly Salsa, Jazz, the music of my father, then Funk, James Brown, Michael Jackson, the music of the early 70s, Rhythm and Blues, all these styles. I just grew up listening. We were young, going to school parties.

People ask me what’s defining Afro-Beat and I say “That’s a difficult question“. I could define my father’s music better, define it by saying “His music comes from traditional African Root Music and high life and jazz, and a little bit of Funk, Salsa probably, or Calypso. That was (the origin of) Afro-Beat. Now my Afro-Beat was probably all these combinations, but during the 70s more American Songs came in and listening to more things. My music is not that I am trying to appeal to the European or American ear, it’s already in-borne, because I grew up like that, so there is no way I’m going to want to compose or not, have that feeling on the dance floor is to have listening to my father, to have the excitement of a child. All that is in my music. It is not trying to convince Europeans to listen to African Music. I call my music “Universal Music“ right now. It has its African origin base, you can feel it. But you can hear so many influences in my music.

Your father had contact with American jazz musicians, for example Max Roach or Art Blakey. How would you reckon the “back influence“ of jazz people like these in the development of Afro-Beat?

I think it’s very prominent. Jazz is playing a very prominent role in the development of Afro-Beat. My father was very into jazz right from the beginning. So jazz plays a very significant part in Afro-Beat. And I think I know, for in fact Miles Davis listened to my father, because in his autobiography I read there in a line saying “Afro-Beat will be the music of the future.“ What’s happening to Afro-Beat I see now is that it’s taking a lot of place on the Dance Floors in Europe now and a lot of people are making remixes. But I believe that the Jazz influence will still come up, and maybe should I say, without biassed or any disrespect to anybody, maybe a more intellectual side of the music will still evolve, which is where I would like to see it go more, because that is the root of Afro-Beat.

But I think in your earlier recordings there are more jazz influences than now. Now it’s more the Afro-Beat-House-Feeling. The first recording I know from you is “No Cause for Alarm“, was this your first record?

Yes, this was my very first recording, then the Motown release, it was called “Femi Kuti“, and then this one (Shoki Shoki). I think what I have done with this album is to bring out more of the dance feeling of Afro-Beat for the “Live“ aspect. Then what I have done is to win people by letting them dance and see the excitement of Africa, and just feel the heat of Africa, that’s what I’ve tried to do with this album and my live performances now, cause when you go too intellectual you could bore the younger generation, a generation you have to be very careful of what you are doing, because the younger generation, young children, they want to play, they don’t want to take live seriously, we make them take life seriously. Kids want to play, they want to have fun. So I’ve tried not to loose that. As you get older, you want to take life seriously. Maybe we are the ones who are losing focus. So what I’ve tried to do is to maintain the dance. But if you listen to the album you still hear some riffs, you still hear some breaks in the music, you still see me trying to so something jazzy with my sax. You will still feel that, because you can still feel the pattern of Afro-Beat. But then you can still feel that if a kid listens to this, it goes “Oh, Mami, what’s that“? The excitement for the younger generation is still there.

Recently, your fathers early works were reissued in Europe. Today, his music seems to have even more impact in Europe than some years ago. How do you think about this?

I’m very proud. I’ve always known that will happen. And I don’t know, I think after his death what my sister and I did was quickly get his bootleggers off the market, trying to get a serious company behind it, get people to “Oh, I believe in the music“, market it properly and give him his true respect as a musician. What you see in the market now is Fela packaged properly on a serious level. And I think now people are seeing the intellectual side of the music, not just the seriousness of the words: what he stood for, what he fought for, his musical side, his artistic side. I’m very proud, I wished I saw this a long time ago. He is to Afro-Beat like Bob Marley is to the Jamaican Reggae Music or Miles Davis is to Jazz.

He was the greatest Afro-Musician?

No African will ever doubt. You could not go to Africa and say “Do you know Fela?“ and they say “No!“. It’s impossible. You could go to the most hotel room areas and you will find Fela there. I’m happy he’s been packaged and Europe is accepting it. I find it’s even selling very well. The good thing is, even the younger generation, and that caught my attention on this store. A very young audience, and that shows that Europe is open in its mind, to its surroundings and that’s great, that’s really great. I’m not just accepting any kind of bare listening. I see the audience is listening and that impresses me. Listening, really listening. And even when they hear a wrong note, they know. I love that, and it makes me strong. When I won’t make a wrong note, I know you’re sensed. So there’s tense, pressure on everybody. It’s great in the halls now and that’s what I’m happy about.

What about The Shrine as an Afro-Beat institution. Will it be rebuilt? In its original shape?

Of course. Yes, I think I have the approval as of yesterday, or today. The government should have given me the approval to build because I bought land. My sister and I bought land, and my mother. We waited for a long time to get the approval to build. We fascinated the government to approve the land to us. That took several months. And now they had to approve the building. I heard they have approved the building now. But nobody wants to start building as soon as I have arrived because it’s against them. They believe it’s important I’m there for the first brick to be laid. That’s my main power; it’s in Lagos now to build The Shrine.

So it will be legalised?

It is. Yes, because what I want to do is, The Shrine should for me - if the family who owned the land had any sense at all - should have been like a tourist attraction or have used that as an institution to invite great bands from Europe and America to play there. It will be the base for foreign artists to come. It’s art. Everybody knows The Shrine in Europe. All journalists know about The Shrine. When you kill it - can you imagine we kill everything in Africa - we kill our souls and we do not even know. Now known, Europe will help preserve that building. “Where did Fela sit, where was his chair, where did he stand, oooh you mean this great man, this is where he stood?“ They could not even see that vision, they killed it. You see, it’s sad.

The Shrine will probably have a strong symbolic meaning for the so-called “Positive Force“

Of course. It’s my life now. I told you. I’m going to turn the place back to a ball. I’m going to invite everybody: Branford, Wynton, and anybody who wants to come. My people have to see what music is. They have to see what entertainment is. They have to be exposed. People have to be exposed. So they have to understand what a concert is. I want to show them what it is. They don’t even know what concert halls look like. They have to see all this. That’s what I believe The Shrine should be. That’s my dream, and that’s what I’m going to spend my life to.

Is there no location in Nigeria for a jazz band or a great rock band to play. Do they come to Nigeria to play?

No, they try once in a while. Shabba Ranks came once, and Josef Cotton. Many of the big concerts have been flops because they overbeat the artists. And Nigerians are very funny. It’s the only country in the world when the national team is playing football and the crowd will give it 15 minutes to score a goal and if they do not score, they start to support the visiting team. Then the visiting team might even go home beating us. They only support good football. Now if their team is not playing well, they will support the others. On many occasions the players in Nigeria have to go through so much pain to win that match, because you go away, you have enemies, you come back home, you are playing against enemies. Who else wants to be supporting you? Maybe that’s why we have great footballers. They are under so much pressure at home to be excellent.

> Part 2 - Political Situation in Nigeria > Part 3 - Origin and Meaning of Name, New Projects >

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© markus kurz 99.12.01