THE FEDERAL Republic of Nigeria was established in 1963 after gaining its independence from Britain. As with many countries under colonial rule it had been divided with no due consideration for linguistic, religious, or ethnic differences and thus a bloody civil war dominated much of the post-colonial period.
In times of adversity the peoples of Africa’s most populous country turned to cultural pursuits to keep their spirits up and over the past 30 years Nigeria has become famous for its literature and popular music.
In the 1970s multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti combined traditional Yoruba music, jazz, and funk to create the sound of Afrobeat. Unfortunately Fela passed away in 1997 after a long battle with illness but his son Femi Kuti continues on his legacy in hugely impressive style.
Femi Kuti and The Positive Force play the Galway Arts Festival Big Top on Wednesday July 22 at 7pm with support from rising band Emmet Scanlan and What The Good Thought.
Femi Kuti was born in London in 1962 and grew up in the former Nigerian capital of Lagos. Throughout much of Femi’s childhood his father was on tour spreading the sound of Afrobeat and speaking about Nigeria’s political situation. The Kuti family are noted for their contributions to music and politics and had a tremendous influence on young Femi.
“I am so proud that I am from such a family,” he tells me. “My grandmother Funme [Fela’s mother] was such a fantastic woman. She was an early organiser against British colonialism and a suffragette campaigner. She was also the first woman to hold a driver’s licence in Nigeria.
“My uncle Beko was amazing and really fought for the medical profession in our country. The main thing that both my father and I learned from our relatives was that if you really believe in something then it is worth fighting for to the bitter end.”
After turning his back on a career in medicine, in favour of music and political activism, Fela Kuti returned to his homeland and set up a nightclub called The Shrine. The music played at the venue became increasingly politically motivated and gained a captive audience throughout Africa. In 1977 Femi joined his father on tour as part of his backing band.
“My father played music all the time,” says Femi. “I used to go to his gigs at The Shrine and then later I toured with him. He wasn’t really a hands-on dad so I actually learned the sax and trumpet myself.
“I used to listen to him listening to jazz albums and at the time I didn’t take much notice but recently I’ve gone back to his collection and have listened to fantastic musicians like Dizzie Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. It’s great to go back to the roots of Afrobeat and understand how my father got his inspiration.”
Through the medium of Afrobeat and political speeches Fela Kuti voiced his concerns about the social issues affecting the African continent. His views did not sit comfortably with the government at that time and as a result he came into conflict with the military on many occasions.
In Giants Stadium in America in 1986 Fela Kuti shared a bill with The Neville Brothers, Carlos Santana, and Bono as part of the Amnesty International Conspiracy Of Hope concert in order to highlight military brutality in his native Nigeria. Unfortunately very little has changed since then.
“Nigeria has not got better since Fela’s time and, in fact, it has got worse,” says his son. “We have little electricity, poor sanitation, and poor roads for the average Nigerian. The money from oil goes into a few pockets and does not help the majority.
“We as people can’t be looking for charity but look at ourselves to make a difference. My ancestors fought to make a difference I am doing the same. Fela said ‘music is the weapon’ and how right he was. If only one person listens to what I say then I have achieved my goal.”
In recent years Femi Kuti has criticised the methods used by Bono, Bob Geldof, and others to generate aid for Africa. He has questioned just how effective concerts such as Live Aid and Live 8 have been in helping to solve the systematic problems that afflict everyday life. He has suggested that much of the money collected falls into the hands of corrupt military regimes.
“Yes, we need to make a change,” he says. “Bono doesn’t need to tell us that we are poor. We know we are poor. Africans can’t keep expecting handouts and they need to start helping themselves. We need to stop accepting corruption in our governments as a norm and start working together for a wealthier nation. Concerts come and go and nothing changes.”
Of all the concerts that come and go over the next two weeks during Galway Arts Festival it may well be Femi Kuti and The Positive Force that makes the most impact. The African star has returned to the roots that his late father first nurtured in him and is keen to pass on the music and the message to the next generation.
“With my latest album Day And Night I decided to go back to the roots of Afrobeat,” says Femi. “I enjoy the vibrancy that this music can give to not only me but to lots of other people. I live for music and I can’t imagine my life with it. In the next year I would like to take some time to play a bit of music with my eldest son Made.
“I am really looking forward to the concert in Galway. I love the countryside and how lovely and friendly the people are.”
For tickets contact the festival box office, Merchants Road, 091 - 566577. Tickets are also available through www.galwayartsfestival.com