The Afrobeat band leader Seun Kuti speaks to Saeed Saeed at Morocco's Mawazine Festival held earlier this year about preserving his legendary father's legacy
The Mawazine Sessions – Part 6: Seun Kuti
He inherited one of world music’s most celebrated bands.
After the death in 1997 of his father, the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, a 14-year-old Seun Kuti found himself as the band leader of Egypt 80. The big band, which had up to 70 members in their heyday, toured with Fela for nearly 50 years and broke barriers with a sound that fused the percussions of Yoruba music and the horns of high-life, in addition to funk and jazz.
At the time of his father’s death, the younger Kuti was already making a name for himself, backing his father on saxophone as part of the band.
Kuti, who performed at Morocco’s Mawazine Festival earlier this year, states the transition was relatively smooth; the band took to the new leader once assured that the younger Kuti was continuing his father’s legacy. “The guys know I didn’t get involved in music just so I can be the leader or so they can call me boss,” explains the 30-year-old.
“Throughout the years they have seen me time and time again always put the band first. I think that gave me a certain amount of respect that others in my position wouldn’t have.”
Despite the responsibility on his shoulders, Kuti decided to strike out on his own and forge his own sound. After touring sporadically for a few years, Kuti, then 19, put the band on hiatus and enrolled himself in the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts to study popular music and sound technology.
Kuti credits the experience for building his confidence as a musician. “It was something I had to do,” he says. “All my life I have been playing with veterans and trying to teach myself. I always doubted myself and told myself: ‘Look at how these guys are and what they are playing, and look at how are you doing it.’ So going to the institute was the first time I played with musicians at my level and who were also developing. That experience made me realise that I was not that bad after all.”
After graduating, Kuti returned to Egypt 80 – whittled down to a 15-piece touring band – and began touring in earnest and headlining world music festivals including Mawazine and Womad.
He says the resulting three albums, the last of which is 2011’s From Africa with Fury, were a result of the live shows.
Following his father’s policy, Kuti goes against the industry norm of premiering new material with each recording. Instead, the live shows are used to showcase new songs, with audience favourites finding their way on to the record.
“My music is best enjoyed live. So I want the album to be an extension from my live shows. This is why when I am in the studio I want it to be in a big space and bring the band together like they are playing to the audience,” he says.
“The albums don’t capture the spirit of the live show exactly, but it’s more about the spirit of the band. It’s a document of the almost spiritual bond that the band and I have with music when we are recording at the moment. We aim to transcend the studio.”
Such lofty goals require steely determination. Fela Kuti ensured tight musicianship under his reign by fining band members for each false note played live.
Kuti says he takes a gentler approach. “I always hand out fines but I never get the money,” he says, then laughs. “I always forget. We toured the US last year for three months and there was only one fight. Performing and living together on that tour bus with only one fight – it shows our mutual respect for each other.”
This sense of community, Kuti believes, stems from his childhood growing up in his father’s self-branded Kalkuta Republic.
Based in Lagos, the large sprawling compound housed up to 300 people including Kuti’s family, band members and dancers. It was also open to visitors. Kuti recalls the experience as instilling a sense of fairness that he attempts to apply to his business practices. “It was like a little school of life. Most of the people who passed through my father’s house would say it was an education for them. There is hardly any place in the world like that, you know, where everyone is equal,” he says.
“I try to instil those qualities into the band, especially in the pay structure. They were not really my father’s equals but, with me, everybody gets paid.”
With a new album to be released next year, Kuti and Egypt 80 want to go on another global trek that would hopefully include Abu Dhabi.
He recalls being approached to perform in Womad Abu Dhabi last year before the event was indefinitely postponed.
“The UAE has such an international audience,” he says. “If it can be arranged for us to come down there then I would consider it. It will be a great experience – our show has lots of energy.”
• Next week: we explore Gnawa music through the classical artist Hamid Kassri and the young band Gnawa Diffusion
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