[MUSIC: Interview] Seun Kuti
Oleseun Anikulapo Kuti wants me to get off the phone so he can cuddle his puppy. The youngest son of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti has been leading his father’s band, Egypt 80, since Fela died in 1997 when Seun was 14 years old, and when we speak he’s enjoying a brief period of respite at home in Lagos. There’s widespread demand for the dynamic progenitors of the genre, as festival favourites and guaranteed party starters, and Seun subsequently spends a huge amount of time on the road. “The perks of this life are amazing, but I do miss my dog all the time when I’m touring. I miss being in Lagos, and I do miss my cats, but my dog is the greatest friend. He has a very sweet nature, and I trained him myself so I can see myself in him. He’s started howling along when I’m working on instrumentals at home, which is fun. Sometimes we go outside and howl at the moon together. We’re in a pack, howling under the stars.”
Egypt 80 make use of their time on the road and the opportunities it avails by connecting with the local communities. In 2011 the group recorded their album From Africa With Fury: Rise at various locations in Nigeria, Brazil and Great Britain, with Kuti collaborating with a number of local artists and producers in each location. Despite working in London with innovators like Brian Eno, it was the experience of working alongside musicians from Rio De Janeiro’s Cia dos Tecnicos Studios that held the most significance for Kuti. “I am always writing, and looking to record one or two tracks whenever I can,” he explains. “Some people don’t like to write [when touring], but I like to make the most of wherever I am, and I find that the road is always a good time. A lot of our last album was recorded in Brazil, which was wonderful because there are so many different styles going on there. It’s really very inspiring to be around that kind of spirit and life, and to be learning from it and contributing where we can.”
The Kuti name is synonymous with contribution. Throughout the 1970s, Fela Kuti waged a cultural war on the corruption that dominated the administrations of many African nations. The battle was hardest at home in the Nigerian city of Lagos, where the President General Olusegun Obasanjo was determined to silence Kuti’s vocal attacks on his government’s policies. In 1977, following the breakout international success of Egypt 80’s Zombie LP, a thousand soldiers descended on Kalakuta Republic, which was the commune and recording studio that housed them. Fela Kuti was beaten, but survived to bury his own mother who was killed in the same attack after being thrown from a window.
Although the family has suffered great loss, they have maintained a notable social presence and continue to use music as an effective tool for protest. Seun actively participated in the Occupy Nigeria movement earlier this year, protesting against the fuel subsidy removal policy of President Goodluck Jonathan. It was a natural move for him to make. “How can I not be involved?” he asks. “This is my country, and it’s very hard not to be passionate about such a wonderful place. Believe me, I get bored very easily, but there is too much that is too important going on right now.
“It’s an exciting time to be in Lagos making music, and excitement is important to me, because if I lose the excitement then I’m not interested anymore,” he continues. “I like each of my albums to be different from the last, but I also want them to be an improvement from the first one. I can’t have any of them sounding the same… Just because of my friends.” Are his friends his harshest critics? “No, no, no – it’s not that!” he laughs. “It’s just that when I go over to their houses – and this is not by my choosing – but sometimes they are playing my songs and it’s really annoying. I always say to them, ‘You know what we sound like live’, or ‘Wait until you hear our new songs!’ I really don’t like listening to my old songs, [because you can’t control a recording anymore]. When we do it live, it’s all about what we can control.
“There’s no limit to what we can do live,” he continues enthusiastically. “A lot of people can sing a few lines for a radio show, but what we do is a campaign. We’ll sing over and over and over again until we like what we’re doing and there can be no doubt that we’re doing it right. We prove ourselves, without any radio or DJ helping us; every night and every show is a new experience. The people join with us in the moment, and it doesn’t matter how good we were ten years ago… All that matters is what happens right now.”
What: Seun Kuti & Egypt 80
Where: The Metro Theatre
When: Saturday November 10