As the eldest son of afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti carries the burden of his father's inheritance. None the less Femi has chosen not just to be a carbon copy of his father, but to steer his own musical course. Femi just released 'Day By Day', his first new album in about five years. We met up with him at Flagey in Brussels.
Femi, it's been a while since you presented us with a new album. Why did it take so long for 'Day By Day' to see the light?
Femi Kuti: "There were various reasons really. I was learning to play the trumpet and the piano for a while and I also wanted to spend some time with my son. Furthermore ran into problems with my former record company, so I had to look for another one to publish this record. I also wanted to spend more time in Lagos, both for political reasons as to get more involved in running The Shrine."
On the album there are two tracks, 'Day By Day' and 'Ask Yourself', containing quite a lot of religious references. Has that part of your life changed much over the past years?
Femi Kuti: "Not really, no. I've always been a spiritual person. I don't really like to call it religious, because to me religion is about followership while spirituality is about being in direct contact with what you believe in. What I'm trying to do is making people ask themselves questions, because if you ask yourself enough questions the answers can sometimes be surprising. But I don't think the new album is especially more spiritual."
Your previous album was a live recording done in The Shrine (Fela set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, named the Afro-Spot and later the Afrika Shrine, where he performed regularly. When The Shrine and his commune compound were destroyed, Fela took residence in the Crossroads Hotel. For his funeral at the old Shrine, more than a million people turned up. These days Fela's son, Femi, runs a new Africa Shrine in remembrance of his father in another part of Lagos, red.). For anyone who knows just a little about afrobeat that is an almost legendary location, but for those who might not know it, what is The Shrine all about?
Femi Kuti: "The Shrine was built in honour of my father (the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, red.), who never had his own club. When we licensed his back catalogue, my sister and I felt the best thing we could do was build a club in his honour and keep his legacy and philosophy alive. The walls of the club are adorned with pictures of great pan-African leaders; people like Malcolm X, Kwame Nkruma, Marcus Garvey, Thomas Sankara and so on, hence the name The Shrine."
Being the song of afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, you're continuously being compared to him. How do you deal with those kinds of questions or remarks?
Femi Kuti: "I don't understand them really. I love my father, so how can I deny him? We had our differences sometimes, but I've always loved him deep down. My son will probably have the same problem with people coming up to him saying: "Oh you are the son of Femi Kuti..." The thing is just trying to excel in what you do. When my father was still alive, he told me several times he was part of what I was doing and that was sufficient for me. People will always compare and that's ok, it doesn't bother me really."
You've been playing afrobeat more or less since the age of fifteen, when you started playing in your father's band. Has there ever been a moment when you contemplated playing something else?
Femi Kuti: "I played jazz for a while. We formed a quartet, but pretty soon people started booking that quartet to play afrobeat, because it was cheaper for them to have to pay just four people instead of a whole band. At that stage my band was really beginning to lose money, so I called the jazz thing quits and focused on my main priority again. Apart from that I've never really reflected on changing my style. I always knew the journey would be hard and I have no illusion it will ever get easy."
The music industry has been experiencing a general recession over the past few years, with revenues from album sales continuing to dwindle. Afrobeat bands are notorious for their size, thus making touring a more expensive matter. How is that for you and your band?
Femi Kuti: "It has definitely become more difficult, yes. Airlines have become more expensive... If I have to compare today's situation with ten years ago, the difference is huge. In situations like these you always reach a point where you have to ask yourself if you still believe in what you are doing or if you still love what you are doing. Making music to me is not about making money; it's about finding internal peace, happiness and joy and sharing those feelings with other people. When I die I won't be able to take material things with me, even the Shrine that I love so much I will have to leave behind, but what I can take with me is the knowledge and experience I have accumulated over the years, so that's what I strive for. Financial situations will never keep me from doing what I'm doing."
In 1997 you lost both your father and your sister in a very short time span. Afterwards you wrote down your feelings about that period in the song '97'. Is that a difficult song for you to perform live?
Femi Kuti: "It can be, yes, because there are days when it really takes me back. That usually happens when I'm very tired or when a tour is very demanding and I temporarily lose my defences. In normal circumstances though performing that song isn't too different to doing my other songs."
If we look at the history of afrobeat as a genre, two names always seem to pop up: your father's, Fela Kuti and that of James Brown. Who influenced who in your opinion?
Femi Kuti: "I think my father saw James Brown more as a competitor. The government in Nigeria used to promote James Brown because his music wasn't political like my father's. All of James Brown's musicians came to the Shrine in the seventies to see my father at work. I honestly think there's little comparison to be made between my father's music and James Brown's. I've listened to a lot of music in my life, but every time I listen to my father's music, it stands out. I think it's the fullness of the songs; there's something deep about them. When I listen to some of James Brown's song I can hear he was trying to emulate my father. I don't believe for a second the opposite is true as well. I think when my father heard James Brown's music; he just shrugged and said he could do better. (laughs)"