Frequency: Seun Kuti & Egypt 80

TORCH BEARERInheriting the Family Legacy, Seun Kuti Continues the Fight for Africa and Afrobeat
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Seun Kuti
Photo: Courtesy Motormouth Media

Afrobeat just ain't what it used to be. Thankfully, it's become much, much more. With a legacy carried forth by such players as Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Brian Eno and even James Brown, one man and his band made the biggest international mark in the genre's history: musical, cultural and political revolutionary Fela Kuti. After all, it was he who coined the term and the style — one characterized by African percussion and vocal styles layered upon jazz and funk rhythms spiritually fueled by the corruption and other problems plaguing Africa.

Following Fela's passing in 1997, his oldest son Femi Kuti continued the mission and toured the world with his father's band and orchestra, Egypt 80, spreading the Afrobeat sound and political ideals.

But while many encouraging strides have been accomplished in the past couple decades, many of the situations are the same, and in some cases even worse, and thus, it was necessary that the message continued to be spread to the masses. Fela's youngest son, Seun, realized it was he who was destined to be the conduit for the new generation.

Eerily prophetic, his full name Oluseun means, “God has done great things.” Seun knew it was his calling and duty to further his father's causes and bring attention to the world's injustices through the international language of music.

Appropriately, he got together with Egypt 80 to record the seven magical tracks that make up Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 (Disorient, 2008), his self-titled debut album. “We coexist as one unit powered by music,” Kuti says. “It's like family because everybody in the band I've known since I was a kid,” he humbly explains. “[But] we need organization, so in terms of doing all the work, they are happy to say, ‘You are the leader…do the paperwork.’ Ha!”

As de facto leader, Seun enlisted Martin Meissonnier, the legendary Afrobeat producer who not only worked with Fela during his heyday, but also boasts credits with artists as diverse as Khaled, Afrika Bambaataa, Don Cherry and even Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. “He has a great ear for African music,” Kuti says. “It was a no-brainer, really.”

“In 1980, I went to meet Fela Kuti in Italy, as I read in the paper he was in trouble with justice there,” Meissonnier explains. “I offered to do his first European tour. That is how it started.” For the Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 album, Martin and the band recorded three tracks in Lagos (Nigeria) and the remaining four at his studio in Paris.

“In Lagos, we did the best we could in the conditions we had,” Meissonnier recalls. “There are not that many studios there that can accommodate a big band like this, so we used a radio studio with an old Soundcraft concert desk and economic microphones. We recorded the guitars and bass through DI boxes directly into the desk. There was no compressor and no effects, just a Tascam digital recorder, which allowed me 24-bit sound. For Seun's vocal, we used a Focusrite Voicemaster preamp and a Neumann TLM 103 microphone.”

“For the guide vocal, Seun was standing between two doors and playing sax so he could cue everybody,” Meissonnier says. “I always ask artists to be standing to feel free. And although I don't have a rule about it, for Seun I felt he sounded better close to the mic.

“We just captured the raw energy, recording always all night long, in between the electricity cuts of the Nigerian national electricity company, NEPA,” Meissonnier continues. “Then we transferred everything to my Pro Tools in Paris,” where they recorded the other four tracks.

After recording was finished, mixing engineer Matthias Weber edited and tightened all the tracks. While the entire album was recorded in about four days, it took about two months to mix. “We mixed the whole album in my studio, which is very acoustically accurate, especially in the bass end,” says Meissonnier, who, along with Weber, used Digidesign EQ III, Dynamic III, Smack!, ReVibe and Pultec EQP-1A plug-ins. “We did a lot of editing in order to empower the sounds.”

“I try to enhance the ethnic sound rather than change it,” Meissonnier divulges. “I care most about the energies of the artists in the sessions and the spirit of the music. When it sounds good, it sounds good.”

“We are all from the same school of thought: Fela's,” Seun adds. “So we share the same groove!”