It has not escaped Femi Kuti’s notice that the world is currently a big mess.
“It’s scary times,” says the Afrobeat bandleader, speaking by phone from a tour stop in Madison, Wis. “I’m watching the news, and I’m very concerned.”
He’s alluding as much to the tense social climate in this US election year, and the onslaught of violence from St. Paul and Baton Rouge to Dallas, as he is to the situation back home in Nigeria. There, a government elected last year has gotten mired in conflict, recession, and the corruption it was voted in to defeat. Add Brexit, the refugee crisis, terrorism, and the woes of the world weigh heavy, even on an artist whose music – and the legacy of his father, the great Fela Kuti – are about facing politics, not avoiding it.
Do not call Femi an activist, however. “I hate the word activist,” he says. “It sounds like a negative word, like something you’re called just because you don’t agree with conventional issues. I’ve been called a rebel, an activist, God knows what else. I’m just a musician, one who’s very frightened about the future, especially for my children.”
None of this is new for Femi. Afrobeat engages with the world, and calls out the abuses of power and the consequences of inequality. His last album, released in 2013, was called “No Place for My Dream,” with titles like “Nothing to Show for It,” “Carry On Pushing On,” and “No Work, No Job, No Money.” The beauty of Afrobeat is that it delivers these messages in the most exhilarating way, with its large-band symphonic feel, its glorious horn arrangements, and its never-not-danceable rhythms and syncopation.
Femi’s style, evolved over two decades as a bandleader, is to play shorter songs than the long, sprawling numbers Fela favored. He has collaborated with numerous international singers and rappers and, recently, stars from Nigeria’s hyperactive beats-and-backing-tracks pop scene. Some of his own songs have seen electronic remixes. His method is less orthodox than that of his much-younger brother (by some 20 years) Seun Kuti, whose band includes many of Fela’s old players. But it remains well within the tradition.
Femi’s next album is due for release around the end of the year, he says, after delays that occurred when his manager fell ill and died from cancer. He’s playing many of the new songs on his current tour, which brings him to Brighton Music Hall on July 26.
“It’s still going to be very political, talking about world issues,” he says of the new record.” One of the songs is called ‘One People One World.’ It’s going very well in the venues we’ve played, and it goes well in Nigeria too. The album doesn’t have a name yet. It’s my 10th album, and naming it is giving me some complications.
“Composition-wise, I think I’ve matured gracefully,” Femi adds. “I believe that musically speaking, it will be my best work. If I start going backward, then it’s time to retire.”
That doesn’t seem in the cards. At 54, Femi is a perfectionist who practices daily and switches instruments when his main one, the saxophone, feels boring. About 15 years ago he took up the trumpet, at a time, he explains, when his life was in a difficult place: His label had dropped him, his marriage had collapsed, and Nigeria had a president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who had tormented Fela when Obasanjo was military ruler in the 1970s.
“I was very angry at that point in my life, and I wanted to get angrier,” Femi says. “I thought that the trumpet, being a martial instrument, would do that. But fortunately, in reverse, it made me very calm. Very cool and more of a thinker. It brought a lot of calm into my life. I can just sit someplace for six hours, playing the trumpet.”
This pursuit of inner calm carries over into Femi’s lifestyle in Lagos, Nigeria’s enormous mega-city where the opportunities to party and schmooze are endless. The Kuti family is prominent, too, with relatives in important civic and cultural roles. Femi’s sister Yeni, a dancer and businesswoman, is a regular at social occasions. “I’m the quietest one,” says Femi. “I stay at home with my kids. People call me a hermit.”
Yet he comes out, religiously, twice a week – to the New Afrika Shrine, a hangar-like music venue that he opened in the spirit of the Shrine, Fela’s old club, in Ikeja, the family’s longtime neighborhood. His band, the Positive Force, rehearses in public every Thursday, free of charge, and performs on Sundays for a tiny fee. Femi does it as much for himself as for the audience. “My musical life is really based on performance,” he says. “I’m very live oriented, and I try to put this in my albums as well.”
Femi doesn’t hesitate to call music his therapy. He recommends to the young Nigerian pop stars he’s befriended that they work on learning an instrument and perfecting their craft, as a bulwark against future anxieties.
After all, the troubles of Nigeria and the world at large aren’t going away anytime soon, he says. “We just have to keep fighting for positive change.”
Femi Kuti & The Positive Force
At Brighton Music Hall, July 26 at 8 p.m. Tickets $22. 617-653-8000, www.ticketmaster.comSiddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.