Nine Songs: Femi and Made Kuti
Ten albums deep, Femi Kuti is poised to release his eleventh, this time in collaboration with his eldest son and multi-instrumentalist, Made Kuti. As he reveals details of the conception of Legacy +, Femi exudes a touching pride at what he and Made have achieved together, our conversation punctuated by the symphony of car horns from the streets of Lagos below.
For the Kutis, music is an intrinsic element of their DNA. "It's probably one of the best things I've done in my life, a collaboration with my son. I don't think anyone has made a joint father and son album before", Femi beams through the crackly Zoom call. "In Africa you don't speak about death, we are very taboo about it, but when I see how Made has turned out, to have my son play on all my tracks and to see him grow into such an awesome person, I tell him I will look down with a smile."
Made's insatiable love of music radiates from the level of dedication applied to his first record; he performs on all of Femi's tracks, composed his own side of the double record For(e)ward, and also plays every instrument on his album. He tells me, "It was very fun, very passionate and very personal, that the first body of work I could do was with the human being and the man that I respect the most on this planet. There were a lot of things that were technically difficult and playing with a live band would have honestly been a lot easier. But I made sure to put in the work so I wasn't worried, even if everybody else was!"
Femi adds with a laugh, "In the studio he only had ten days to record everything. I didn't doubt him, but I told him not to embarrass me. I was amazed!" Made grins as he explains, "I honestly can't wait for that moment to be made in history, and no matter what happens. I know we're both going to look back and remember this moment. Musically, personally, politically, socially, in every direction it's just everything for me."
Legacy + encapsulates the politically-charged and positive force of the Kutis' efforts to date, once again focusing on the social inequalities which so desperately need addressing, and floods vivacious rhythm and radiance into dark times. Since Fela's day, the nature of protest music has ebbed and flowed through various forms, and Femi reflects on its morphing silhouette and prevalence.
"In my father's time it was probably just Gil Scott-Heron and James Brown, people were just too afraid to speak out. I mean, you could count protest musicians with your fingers, so you could say Fela was a lone ranger then. In Nigeria nobody dared venture into opposition to the military or the government. People loved my father, he was a leader, but other musicians would never challenge the status quo like he did."
"We use Naira to measure how bad it is here. In my father's generation it was two dollars to one Naira. Now, it's 400 Naira to one dollar, so it feels like we are almost 400 times worse than we were then. The young people are worried, where are we going to end up? Now I think more people are very conscious about their surroundings and they might have reasons because of endorsements, or they're friends with political groups, but people are more vocal”, Femi explains.
“With the SARS group in Nigeria, everyone knew there was police brutality here, so even if you were singing love songs, everyone was involved. There are many opportunities to speak out, but economically, socially, politically, everything is just so bad. But we have a very vibrant young population, who are ready to fight for a better country and understand that we have to fix Africa. So this is a very good sign for me. I don't believe that it will happen in my lifetime, but it's a good sign."
Femi tells me about the severity of COVID and its impact on African daily life. For many people in Nigeria, daily freedom is essential to feed families, support livelihoods and survive in an already corrupt system. "I think staying at home and shutting down the economy is not possible anymore, but the coronavirus situation is getting worse, so we are treading in very difficult territory. We're in a very depressing state, the Shrine is closed, musicians have families and children to look after. So what now? There is no government support at all. Food was donated internationally, but during the SARS protests, huge warehouses for the people were raided. People are desperate."
Made brims with positivity about his ambitions for their upcoming record. "I hope everyone that listens to the album can somehow connect to, or appreciate the message that both sides of the album tell. It's two separate albums and eight different songs, but at the end of the day everything is about one idea. It's about truth and progress, it's about love and unity. It's about fundamentally moving forward."
The Kutis' monumental Nine Songs are a testament to both their ancestry and passion for instrumentally-complex, densely-arranged and socially aware music. Their love for each other is palpable, Made ribs his father about his supposed aversion to rock music, they chip into each of the others choices, yet they both share a common cause, a belief in the power of song, founded upon the musical melting pot of the Shrine, created by Fela, and now in the hands of Femi. Reflecting on their song choices, Made gets to the heart of what makes his relationship with his father tick.
"With a lot of these songs, and for me, it's about complexity versus simplicity, logic versus emotion, and the balance of all of those elements. In many ways I think that balance can only be properly achieved through a certain level of dedication and passion. Where you can actually mix them into a melting pot and deliver it from your own perspective. But what we have today in Nigeria is a lot of musicians who have not been given any opportunity to learn anything about music, so 99% of Nigerian musicians are self-taught. A lot of them are also totally lacking in music theory, because they don't have the opportunity to learn.”
Femi: "I think it's one of Fela's best songs. The arrangement is just awesome, he incorporates a lot of his compositions, and the melody and rhythm are very powerful. It's one of my favourites of his, and one of his best compositions musically and politically, it touches on everything. I always recommend this to everyone.
"We used to go to the Shrine to listen to this track before it was recorded, and we all loved it. This song was composed at one of his best times mentally, he seemed very happy and he had a lot to say too. Fela had seen a lot of the world at that time, having just come out of prison not too long ago, and so I think he was feeling good with himself.
"Made and I didn't grow up in the same Shrine, it moved about four times before my father passed, but he never owned any of the venues. The last one was in Ikeja, in Lagos. He thought he'd bought the land but he was tricked, so he had this battle for a decade. When he tried to buy the land from the owners and they refused, we built a new one. This is the same Shrine my son Made grew up in. The old Shrine seated about 500 people maximum, but it was always jam-packed. In his latter years he gave me the Sunday job, and he only played on Fridays and Saturdays. A lot of police would wait at the very last Shrine, and tried to stop Fela from speaking out, but we were always there to defend from intruders who spoiled the concerts.
"My father had a very powerful fan base. One of the later Shrines, Empire, was just a stone's throw from his house, about two minutes walk. So as he walked over to play, hundreds of people would walk over with him. It was just crazy, he was so popular and loved. His music was always very lovely and political, he would call out the government and speak his mind. His exchange with the audience was so interesting as well."
Made: "My experience was at the new Shrine, the one my dad built, again in Lagos. Unlike the old Shrine with the 500 capacity, this one has 3,000 or more. It's more than just a venue, it's an event centre for lots of people - it's a restaurant, it's a bar, and it becomes a disco on Fridays. When I was growing up my dad used to play on Tuesday and Thursday, Friday and Sunday - four times a week. On Thursdays he would play for about eight hours straight! I'd wake up for school and watch him in the morning still playing, with the same amount of energy that he'd started with. I told him recently that I don't have any plans of playing for that long!
"I grew up watching my father, but also watching someone who had the level of integrity in music that I wasn't seeing anywhere else - certainly not in the pop industry - and I wasn't seeing that level of dedication to sound anywhere else around me. What I eventually discovered was how little opportunity my dad actually had to learn the instruments that he was playing. My dad is self taught - the sax, trumpet, keyboard, and a self taught composer as well, who writes all of his parts, the drums, guitar, bass - just like Fela. Whereas Fela had an education, my dad didn't. Being inquisitive allowed me to stay informed about a lot of things that usually would pass me by, in particular my dad's upbringing, his success and level of dedication, which changed the way that I viewed music, the world and police brutality.
"So today, in many ways I'm an educated musician, but I also wanted to pursue the same level of dedication my father had, and still has. He still practices six to eight hours a day. He's 58, and I'm 25, so if I wake up in the morning and my dad is practising before me, what am I doing? From the Shrine, my father, and grandfather, I learnt the level of dedication and integrity to sound, and also the political message that the Shrine was passing on. There were posters of many kinds of black male and female artists and activists. The questions were always asked, of, ‘Who are these people?’ Knowledge always starts from a particular point and that point for me was my dad and the Shrine, musically and politically.
"If we truly believe that music has the power to influence the way people think, the way people feel, and how they act, the message in music is so powerful it can influence a generation, and the generation after, the way Fela's, my father's, Bob Marley's, James Brown's or Charlie Parker's music did. The lesson is that we have to really introspect and look at the quality of music we're making. If we're making sex a product, and young children are consuming this product and we're using their sexuality for marketing, what kind of message are we delivering to the generation that's following after us? A lot of things I hear terrify me, if I'm very honest with you. My sister is 12, and she consumes a lot of social media, especially on TikTok. Suddenly she started knowing some words she was too young to know. It just wasn't the right time for her to be consuming that level of sexuality.
"So I worry, who are our role models? Because they used to be Angela Davis, Malcom X, Fela, Martin Luther King. Our experience as human beings should influence our sound as human beings, and the intellectual approach is very important, because we have to know the power of this music. We're delivering a message, we have to care about that message, and we have to do the right thing.
"I don't think music has to be the most complex jazz or afrobeat arrangement, but you have to approach your sound with purpose. Otherwise, in the same way that music is powerful for good and for progress, it's powerful for the opposite as well."
Femi: "This was my first jazz song that I got involved with, and I didn't like it at all. My father convinced me to listen to it again, I was amazed! What a great musician. Jazz at the beginning sounded very bitter to me, so I thought ‘Wow!’ I started to research why this was.
"I think that music has a level of frequency in the mind - if your mind is not operational enough to get to that frequency, or appreciate jazz, the lower your intellect is, the less you appreciate a very hard working musician. So I set out to understand how hard a jazz musician works.
“What impressed me about Charlie Parker was his sax playing, I couldn't believe him and his dexterity. Then it gave me an in to look for, not Charlie Parker, but Femi Kuti. It was the same mathematical thought I used to say that I could never be my father, and so then I set out to look for who Femi Kuti was in this chaotic life I was living at the time. The song has very complicated strings, and at that time it was my introduction into loving jazz."
Made: (laughs) “It's one of the few rock tracks that he likes!”
Femi: "It's one of my favourite rock tunes. For me it's hard to appreciate rock as much as jazz and afro, because it's hard to find rock at that level. So when I do find rock tracks at that level I say, ‘Wow, I love this!’ And this is one of those tracks. The melody is sweet, I mean, just everything - the sound, it had integrity, and I loved the attitude of the music too."
Femi: “When people ask me my favourite songs, I'm very bad at memorising names of tunes, so thankfully my son is there to help me these days. When I give interviews I move more in a jazz direction and I never talk about some of the rock or funk tunes I like, like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. I always remember songs like "Things to Come" or tracks by Fela, and then after the interview I always say, ‘Oh, I should have said this!’
“I thought ‘One day I'll get the opportunity’, so when this [interview] came I had to mention this song. But I never remember the name, it's just the words or the melody. Sometimes it's embarrassing, so sometimes I just keep my mouth shut!
“I love the melody and the very strong beat it has. I saw this in concert when it was played in Wembley Stadium, and it was very powerful. It's one of these tunes that's an all rounder. As much as it's commercial, it [doesn't sound] commercial, because I don't think that was the focus of the composition. It just cuts into everybody, it's one of those tunes that - I will not say that the composer gets lucky, because composition is a lot of hard work - but it's just one of those tunes that I would say touches all of the frequencies possible.
"It's not as complicated as jazz, but everyone still loves it. It's very simple, very catchy, it's forward, and it's enlightening. It's good music."
Femi: "I like a lot of Michael Jackson's work, but this one stood out to me with that melody: "Dun dun dun dun dun." It has that kind of rock feeling as well, I really loved the time when rock was in that direction, that distorted sound, that powerful melody, and the power I found in that: 'beat it!'
“I think for me, out of all Michael Jackson's songs it's easily one of my top five. It has the kind of "Another Brick in the Wall" or "Another One Bites the Dust" feel, I love it and Michael Jackson also [captured] the funk element in this song, and his voice. I love the message too, so it is an all rounder for me."
Made: "I just love poetry music, and what caught me with this particular track is the meaning behind the composition. I thought about it and he's saying that things are happening so fast that the media won't catch it and it'll be so violent, the media won't be able to. But the one that I thought resonates deepest was that it wouldn't be able to be caught on TV, because it's the kind of revolution that happens at home, in your mind.
"For a whole generation of Africans, we're trying to be more conscious about Africa and the history of Africa. Why people are the way they are, why things are the way they are. We have a colonial history which we're not taught, and a pre-colonial history which we're not taught. We need to learn more about the slave trade, which again, we're not taught. So, the revolution happens at home, and as we grow and free our minds, and develop that higher level of consciousness, that is the strongest form of revolution. Because only then we become capable of carrying out what we are fighting for. We become equipped to fix the country, and fix the world ourselves.
"It raises a very simple question - ‘Why aren't we taught these basic things at school?’ We're taught about Western colonial history, so not in Africa, we even go as far as making English a significantly more important subject than any of our native tongues. In these institutions, we don't learn how corrupt past governments have been. I've always wondered why with the most obvious criminals in Nigerian history - who are still alive today - we aren't taught about to this day, as my siblings are still in school and they still don't get taught about everything that they did. It's because they're still in power, they're still capable of manipulating the education system.
“I watched an interview with Gil Scott-Heron, and he said the revolution would happen with the individual, so that's what struck me about that song. I just love how it still had a lot of humour about it, alongside the seriousness."
Made: "That was probably the third or fourth track deep I'd got into jazz. Miles Davis was different from what I'd thought jazz was about. I always expected it to be fast, more complex, and all about pushing boundaries.
“This guy just plays two notes in three bars, and it just sounds like the perfect level of expression, the perfect level of delivery. That was my introduction to Miles Davis. I started learning a few of his solos on the trumpet, and it was what made me feel comfortable, knowing that you can express yourself in many different ways, and those ways can be much slower than what I first thought."
Made: "It's the arrangement for me. I wanted to pick two songs by Nina Simone, “Sinnerman” and “Mississippi Goddam”, but we ran out of songs! With those two it was the arrangement that I love. Again, it's not extremely complex, a lot of the time the songs just stay on a two-chord progression, but it sounds perfect. The orchestration is really nice, it's played live and the musicians are all top notch.
“The first few times I heard it I wasn't quite sure what the message was, I just liked the music. Her solo was really great, she only said like seven words in the solo, but I thought it was perfect."
Made: "I think I should take this one, because of my reaction after [Femi] told me about it. My dad told me about “Things to Come”, and I only started listening to it when I was about 14 or 15. I remember my first album, I think was The Best of Miles Davis & John Coltrane, so I was working my way through milestone tracks. One day somewhere down the line, my dad said 'Ah, you have to listen to this track, “Things to Come”, it's the best.’ I don't know if I listened to it immediately at that time, but I remember the day that I did.
"As a musician, you know how much work you do day in day out practising one or two instruments, and then you listen to what is potentially the peak of that instrumental expression, of dexterity, of tonality, of articulation, and just freedom itself. I remember my dad playing it to the whole band as well. We were all so taken aback by just how perfect sound can be. This is what takes me back to a lot of the things that my dad said, and it's one of the greatest discoveries of my life. I played it to one of my friends, and they replied, ‘Oh, what's this? It's just a bunch of noise, what's happening? I don't really understand the purpose of it.’ Yes, it's fast, but everything is important in that sound. It's really difficult to play that fast and that clearly.
"What an informed person can appreciate is very different from what others can appreciate. We've gone from so many past experiences of not being able to discover music by ourselves, [finding it] through radio and media, to now, when we have the chance to search for music ourselves. We're so accustomed to being told what to listen to that a lot of us don't actually go and make those discoveries ourselves. I have not yet met one person other than myself around my small circle who has told me to listen to "Things to Come”. It's just amazing!"
Femi: "Fifteen horn players! Five trombones, five tenor saxes, five trumpeters - incredible! Woah! Probably one of the best compositions ever. You cannot even imagine the work that would have been put into that, to all sound as one. Amazing, it's just perfect. It was played at the Philharmonic and the crowd did not stop clapping for about ten minutes.
[Femi impersonates the sax] "Wow, it blew me completely out of this world, but so many people don't appreciate it. They've got me thinking that there is a frequency in our minds, and that if you can't open that door, you'll never appreciate things like this - that frequency level is too high. It's because education doesn't let us open these doors, education is just so materialistic and nonchalant to real spiritual development. Those sensitive topics, like climate change? The world doesn't understand that we have to move closer to nature, not industry. It's because we've been brought up in this industrial revolution, a world of pollution, and we don't see the harm it brings to us as human beings. We'll kill ourselves, and it's the same thing with music."