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Seun Kuti extends his famous father’s Afrobeat legacy

World Music/CRASHarts

The baritone saxophonist quit sometime during Seun Kuti’s current world tour. He had other opportunities, and took off. Seun admits he panicked. The bari sax is crucial in Afrobeat: Fela Kuti himself, Seun’s father, often had two baritones in his band, Egypt 80. Seun now leads the same band, and found the solution in its most-grizzled veteran.

“Baba Ani stepped in and played baritone,” Seun says. At 78, Lekan Animashaun, a.k.a. Baba Ani, is still part of every tour, usually playing the keyboards. As Fela’s band director, he handled far worse crises. “He told me to take it easy,” Seun says.

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Seventeen years after Fela’s death, a revival is under way, with the Broadway play “Fela!,” a documentary, “Finding Fela,” the reissue of his catalog, and a planned biopic by Steve McQueen. Fela’s older son Femi has a long-established career. But it is Seun, 31, who inherited Egypt 80 and most embodies his father’s energy. He plays Brighton Music Hall on Sept. 7.

A visit to Fela’s home last year in Ikeja, Lagos, found Seun rehearsing, and offered a glimpse of Fela’s legacy on home ground. The house has been renovated since its days as Kalakuta Republic, when Fela declared it a sovereign state, defying the government with his oppositional lifestyle. Fela’s tomb is on the grounds; his bedroom is preserved upstairs, his shirts on their racks, and a saxophone perched on its stand.

While Seun — lean like Fela, with the same keen eyes — led a rehearsal on the ground floor, people with ties to the family milled about. One gentleman, a former Fela band member, sat on a bench. Seun’s large brown dog, Vibes, sprawled on the tile floor. Around the side of the house rose the aroma of weed.

“The place is a museum, no longer a republic,” Seun says now, by phone from a tour stop in France. “But the idea of Kalakuta is more than a building. So many people come through that house who carry the history and the teachings.”

Seun, who recently became father to a baby girl, lives a few minutes away in this middle-class area of sprawling Lagos. “I’m tied to my neighborhood,” he says. To move to shady Ikoyi, where old money lurks, or Lekki, with its McMansions, would violate both habit and ideology.

‘I asked him when we met, I said, “You’re the son of a legend, how do you not get caught in criticism that you just inherited his sound?” He views it as a legacy to continue, but he’s expanding the palette.’

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With its extended grooves and sharp horn arrangements that draw on classic funk and West African highlife, Afrobeat took shape in Fela’s bands from the late 1960s on. Today it is an international subculture: In Europe and America, many big cities and college towns have their own Afrobeat act, sitting on a spectrum that ranges from multicultural jam-band to hard-edged purveyor of anti-colonial message music.

In this world, Seun bears converse burdens of authenticity and innovation. “I asked him when we met,” says Ghanaian rapper Blitz the Ambassador. “I said, ‘You’re the son of a legend, how do you not get caught in criticism that you just inherited his sound?’ He views it as a legacy to continue, but he’s expanding the palette.”

Blitz guests on Seun’s new album, “A Long Way to the Beginning,” along with American rapper M1 and Nigerian singer Nneka. Their presence underscores a diasporic, millennial vibe, but the album also has a deep throwback in “Ohun Aiye,” a highlife tune in Yoruba written by Baba Ani. And the geopolitical broadside “I.M.F.,” with its rude variation on the last two initials, channels pure political Fela, urgent and acerbic.

Seun is outspoken, especially on Nigeria’s busy social-media scene, where he chats with thousands of fans in messages laced with pidgin, the colloquial street English. Corruption and crises like the Boko Haram insurgency expose, in his view, the entire political establishment.

“They are all the same,” he says. “One group of extractors is trying to dislodge another group of extractors with their teeth dug deeply into the animal.” He urges youth to not get distracted by party politics. He also faces criticism, though nothing like the arrests and violence Fela endured.

“The press vilifies me, they say I’m crazy, or that I’m not a Christian because I gave my daughter a traditional name. I’ve been on tour 24 weeks, maybe a million people have seen me this year, but they won’t put that in the news.”

Seun’s commitment to Lagos and fighting in the political trenches contrasts with the artsy internationalism of the Fela revival, which has unfolded from Broadway to Sundance and countless hip parties behind the musical and documentary.

American investors have funded these projects, the Fela social-media brands are run out of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and a curated version of Fela’s life, minus much of the Pan-African radicalism, has resulted. Still, Seun says, the family approved these projects in the belief they advance Fela’s legacy.

“The story is being told from an American point of view, but what matters is that it’s being told,” he says. “Now, it’s up to Africans to come forward and tell the story.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@
gmail.com
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