Fela recently became the subject of a Broadway musical, and while we never had the chance to see Fela onstage, we suspect Femi's concerts are about as close as one can get to that experience now. His shows challenge the urge to blink and miss a moment of exalted saxophone playing, furious rump-shaking from his female dancers, or his own lean, muscular, and often shirtless body dripping with the sweat of furious funk. The good kind of funk. We conversed with Kuti about his extraordinary dedication to his art and his forthcoming album, Africa for Africa, due out later this year, songs from which will be on display during a lengthy live set this Saturday, July 3, at the Fillmore.
You've played here many times over the past decade. Do you have any experiences that you can recall about San Francisco?
Yes, the Fillmore is definitely one of my favorite places. Over the years, we have built a good following there. I've been there several times now, and it's always been great.Have you had any opportunity to eat out in any local restaurants, or are you always just moving on to your next destination?
No, but that's not my purpose, being in the States. [laughs] My purpose is to bring Africa to the States and let them see what's going on in Africa. My purpose is to always talk about the corruption that continues in Africa. My purpose is to show the culture. I know America is a great country, I know so much about America. I know the great food, but I can just sit in my hotel room and eat food. I am not amazed about the skyscrapers and everything.
My aim is to talk about Africa and see how Africa can be a great continent. Bringing great African music and bringing out the problems of Africa so that American people can see Africa in the true light, not in the corrupt way our leaders have portrayed for years. So my focus is not to have a good time, yeah?
I understand and absolutely respect that, but had just wondered if you had been shown anything of our local cultures in exchange or been shown love through food or a meal here. But it's understandable that it isn't your mission.
I think what I'm trying to discuss with people doesn't allow me to have a good time right now. I'd feel too guilty. Especially right now, as we speak, there is an election in Nigeria and so much suffering that I couldn't sit down in a restaurant and have a good time. I prefer to just sit in my room, watch TV, practice, and focus.
How do you prepare physically for the demands and the mental demands of your show? There's so much energy you put out physically, but also emotionally. How do you keep healthy and on track?
I pray [laughs], I hope. I think my body is already tuned to understanding the stress and the strain, so I don't do that much exercising. I am getting quite old; I am closing in on 50. In my 20s, I could easily do 500 press-ups, 500 sit-ups a day; that was easy. Now, it's very hard to do. I think my body has grown accustomed to the strain and stress.
When we have like six shows in a row to keep my voice at its best, sometimes that's difficult. But I pull through. It's very strenuous, and that's why I don't go to parties or meet friends because I could get carried away and then who would I have to blame for it? I could meet friends and start screaming, shouting, having a ball, and then I forget, "Oh! Tomorrow I'm supposed to perform in Los Angeles!" Did I come to have a good time or did I come to present my music?
So it's a sacrifice I have to make. It's a very painful one sometimes. Yes, I would like to take my children to Disneyland or go to a ball game or blah blah blah. But, in the meantime, I believe I should try and be as focused as possible.
Are you in the process of working on a new album?
Yes, and it's another thing we are trying to do because we don't have good studios in Nigeria, so I convinced my producer that we should try and record in Nigeria. So we found a guy who rents a studio and we tried to record all the tracks there. It was so difficult, we freaked out so many times! But just to create a good impression and give some money to the studio so they can improve the place for the future [was good]. We laid all the tracks down there and about three weeks ago we finished it. So now I will move to Paris and finish it hopefully in between this tour and the next. I hope by the end of September the album will be ready, and will be out by the end of the year.
I hope it's going to be much better than the last one. I hope they will prefer it to all my other works, so I'm working very hard on that.
What makes you think it is better than your previous work?
I don't know how to explain it right now; it's hard when we're only 90 percent in the completion work of it. But I think with age, you improve. And now the guy who works with me [engineer] knows me, knows my politics, and knows the kind of sound I'm looking for in mixing, so I think this one will probably have more horn parts that are very complicated but sweet and then [the lyrics are] very political. It's going to be very dynamic and hard.
Will you perform any of the new songs?
Yes, in San Francisco we usually play for two and a half to three hours, so if I can keep up my energy before we get to San Francisco, definitely.
Is the album titled yet?
Yes, it's going to be called Africa for Africa. The single has just been released and it is the title track to the album. If Africans can't learn to love Africa, then there is no point. As Africans, we need to love Africa, we need to care for Africa, and be sympathetic to the issues of Africa. Africa has to be concerned about Africa to generate a positive note on that topic.