The musical generation game can be a tricky one to master. Families become interwoven with the genre they stem from. Sometimes the DNA gets filtered down through generations (reggae continues through the Marleys, jazz continues through the Coltranes) but sometimes the spread is not so diverse or enduring. And sometimes the progeny outshines or equals the elder, as with Jeff Buckley, Alice Coltrane and Baxter Dury.
Life under the shadow of an iconic relative has to be hard to break free from, but Femi and Made Kuti manage this with a sleek updating of the legendary Fela Kuti’s sound into an accessible and relevant meld of musical politics that engages with its energy. Fela was a Nigerian cultural, musical and political legend who came to global acclaim in the ’70s with his pioneering Afrobeat movement, meshing together Afro-Cuban, traditional Yoruba, Ghanian highlife, psychedelic rock, funk, jazz and a sprinkling of soul music into a hypnotic mélange that could move feet, minds and social mountains.
Legacy+ is a double-handed affair seeing Fela’s eldest son, Femi, pairing his 11th album Stop The Hate with his son Made’s debut For(e)ward. Such a release format was always going to invite comparisons between the two. Both share the Kuti legacy, but presented side by side they take two different paths in continuing it.
Perhaps their differences come from the musical education each received. Femi was refused any formal music training, with Fela preferring to throw him into his live band and have him learn through experience. Conversely, Made was allowed by Femi to study music in London before serving an apprenticeship in Femi’s Positive Force band.
First up, Femi’s Stop The Hate. It is a perfunctory and competent Afrobeat album that continues the Kuti lineage, without rocking the boat. Vocally, Femi has a light, wavering lilt that doesn’t pack the punch needed for political motivation through slightly clunky lyrics. Thankfully, when they are backed by uplifting stabs of soul horns, set to shuffling polyrhythms, fierce backing singers and clipped funk guitars, the words can be forgiven. Stop The Hate’s title track delivers solid Kuti vibes of interweaving joyous melodies that contrast to the downright urban funk of Na Bigmanism Spoil Government.
Made takes a different route with his music, performing every note of For(e)ward himself in much the same way that Stevie Wonder did on his classic albums. Musically adept at whatever instrument he turns to, his skill makes for a dense and frenetic album full of tunes that allow space and light to flood in. For(e)ward has slightly sharper teeth in its urgency, delivery and musicality than Stop The Hate. From the opening salvo of Free Your Mind’s hypnotic, funky shuffle urging one to “free your mind and set your soul free” to the last notes of the staccato rhythms of We Are Strong, the message is clear: here is an urging to think, question and use your mind. It’s a marked update of Funkadelic’s booty-shaking “free your mind and your ass will follow” manifesto.
Whereas Femi plays it fairly straight in terms of production, sometimes tipping the scales of excess and making a dense tapestry, Made uses cut-up techniques that keep things fresh and fizzing, as on the mainly instrumental Higher You’ll Find, where he blends highlife guitars, discordant keys, rubbery bass into a relentless stomper. Made takes something familiar and gives it an inventive modernist makeover. For(e)ward has a reflective and considered quality to its message and methods. Taking on board his own message to “free your mind”, Made shares his wide horizon of influences and filters them into something idiosyncratic, while giving the impression that his talent will serve the Kuti canon for years to come.
Legacy+ shows two sides of the Kuti coin that, while inevitably reflecting and respecting the history of Fela, also show his restless quest for the future and what that holds carries on with subsequent generations.