Seun Kuti, son of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late, legendary king of Nigerian Afrobeat and revolutionary politics, brings the sound of Lagos to the shores of Lake Mendota. It's a walloping kickoff for summer's Union Terrace nights.
If you're young enough you won't remember Fela, who called himself the Black President. He died of AIDS in 1997, at the age of 59. During his lifetime he forged a new music, melding West African highlife, New York jazz and James Brown funk with the warrior vibes of pan-African liberationist Kwame Nkrumah and America's Black Panthers. Fela's own immense personality spiked this alchemy with ultimate edge.
Fela, famed for his sweeping eccentricities, often performed in his underwear and once married all 27 backup dancers in his big band, in a defiant tribal act of anticolonialist resistance. One of the dancers was Seun Kuti's mother.
Femi Kuti, another of Fela's sons, also followed the Afrobeat footsteps, but critics call the younger, less-known Seun the Black President's true musical heir. In anticipation of his debut U.S. tour I called Seun Kuti at his Lagos home. Over a crackling phone line he talked about playing in Fela's band, Egypt 80, from the age of 8 or 9.
Today the young Kuti - he's just 24 - leads Egypt 80. He sees himself mostly as a live performing artist, so he hasn't recorded much yet - his first album in international release comes out on this tour. A YouTube performance clip shows the brass-rich band rippin' up a funky mosquito song at a 2005 Roll Back Malaria concert in Dakar, Senegal. Kuti, shirtless, alternately wields his alto sax and growls out lyrics, doing a back-bending, bite-scratching dance while stilt-walkers in mosquito regalia weave through the audience.
Malaria's a huge problem, Kuti says. He wrote the song for his African brothers who are dying from it. But it's just one issue in the overwhelming sea of African crises.
"I was brought up to play music and to keep up the political struggle," he says. "I'm still trying to create a black nation, but it's not like it was in my father's day. I'm disappointed. He worked so hard to make change, and Africa's still the same. If you hear any different, it's a lie. The foreign press tells a lot of lies about Africa."
Is Afrobeat like it was in Fela's day? Music is timeless, Kuti says. "I'm not going to be a hypocrite and say Afrobeat is changing. What I can say is that when my father was alive it was just him and my brother [Femi]. There are more bands now, and bigger audiences. That's very positive."
Is Kuti wild like his father was? "Well, I leave that for you to judge. I play Afrobeat like him, yes. He was wild and intelligent. Yeah, I'm wild, but he was larger than life, you know?"
Seun Kuti's not the Black President, but he's gonna conjure up Fela's refulgent spirits, and together they'll rule the Union Terrace mightily for a night. "I'm looking forward to this tour," Seun says. "I hope the States are looking forward to me!"