Femi Kuti – Africa For Africa [LP Review]

Review by: Ben Connolly

Buy the CD here
  I’ve always been fascinated by the anthropology of musical styles – the evolution of a distinctive style and sound based on many factors, but often described easiest by geographic boundaries. Take, for example, Memphis blues with its jug-band country feel, as opposed to the Detroit blues and it’s altogether grubby and gritty undertones. While both evolved from the same musical stirrings (and both served as underpinning styles of modern blues and rock n roll), their sounds are geographically distinct and unmistakable. You can hear the swamps and sandflies in Memphis blues, and you can almost sense the grease under the fingernails plucking the Detroit blues guitars.

Heck, there’s no musical style so underpinned by geography than slow, languid, feisty and hot reggae which, no matter where it’s played, evokes the Jamaican countryside to a tee.

And so with that fascination established, I was mildly excited when modern African music started making head roads in the Western world, lead by Malian supergroup Tinariwen and Beninese worldbeat songstress Angelique Kidjo. Delving into the continent’s modern music throws up some true moments of exoticism – forefront of that would have to be Nigerian Femi Kuti and his charged, urgent music attempting in some part to live up to and perhaps eclipse the legacy of his father Fela Kuti (who was widely recognised as the Godfather of Afrobeat and a political force in his own right until his untimely death in the late 90s). Femi’s latest offering, his eighth album Africa for Africa, cements his position atop the African cross-over movement, and for good reason. It solidifies the work he started a decade back while working with modern Western luminaries Mos Def, Jaguar Wright and Common for his seminal work Fight To Win.

Urgency and furious indignation permeates the opening quartet of tracks, with “Politics In Africa” and “Bad Government” leaving no doubt that lyrically this album is resolute. There is nothing left to the imagination, with the heavily accented call-and-response lyrics name-checking some of the life-and-death struggles emanating from his homeland. At once it’s enticing and alienating: its anger and righteous is what music should be about, but the subject matter is altogether part of a different reality to these ears. When he sings: “When the politicians go, the soldiers stay / When the soldiers go, the politicians stay” I instantly get the ‘fuck yeah’ moment, but there’s no way I can empathise with the seemingly stark reality which has lead to such proclamations. Likewise, much of the album not devoted to protestations are parochial ministrations of Africa’s ability to look after itself, with often somewhat pointed criticism of the West’s view of the diverse problems besetting many of the continent’s individual issues. Lyrics such as: “Given the opportunity, African man will excel / Given the opportunity, the African man will succeed” speak volumes of the proud Nigerian’s devout protectionist views.

Despite the multiple layers (at times upwards of 10 different instruments in most songs, lead primarily by alto- and tenor-sax brass sections), the sound is seemingly less cluttered than previous albums. Where Fight To Win and 2008’s Day by Day were brimming with ideas all crammed into a thin space, this album seems to clear the junk and maintains a solid musical theme throughout. The brass section plays off against light keyboard highlights, all backed by syncopated percussive instrumentation and a body-shaking vibe. It’s this instrumentation which pits this album as a solid African offering – while it incorporates so many Western elements, the telling lack of a clean guitar sound and even a solid drum kit positions it as a distinct mark of difference between it and its contemporaries. The incorporation of what could be considered indigenous styles – the high-tempo, off-kilter and layered percussive elements, for example – is paramount to connecting this back to its roots and it once again fuels the fire of discovery of this continent’s rich modern musical offerings. It’s an exciting album, no doubt, and it’s an exciting musical continent to be be discovering.

Other article by Ben Connolly…
* Cold War Kids “Mine Is Yours” – Album Review
* Gareth Liddiard “Strange Tourist” Album Review
* Nicholas Roy “In A Shoebox Under The Bed” – LP Review
* Blame Ringo “In A Hurricane” – Single Review
* Jeff Lang @ East Brunswick Club, Melbourne – 11 September 2010 – Live Review
* Live Review: Ball Park Music, Blame Ringo, Tin Can Radio @ The Zoo, Brisbane 21 May 2010
* Search for Ben Connolly article here…