Fight for the Future: Seun Kuti of Egypt 80 finds the sweet spot for reinventing the liberal revolution

Talk about being at the wrong place at the right time. Just as the crumbling vibe of liberal democracy was revealing itself the week after the election of Donald Trump as president-elect, Seun Kuti, the youngest son of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, had armed himself with a new single, "Gimme My Vote Back." Anticipating events, or at least picking up on the signals of the truly disturbing election year in America in 2016, Kuti and his large band entourage arrived in the country in San Francisco and headed into the Southwest for the first time, finding himself with a willing receiver of a political rant over the telephone as his tour bus crossed the desert for a show in Phoenix.

"Yeah man," he laughs. "I'm the middle of nowhere."

Asked about his impression of the states during his first days here, he needed little more than a simple question about how it felt for him to be in the U.S. just as history had been made. On the phone he was more than ready to answer the bell of global activism Egypt 80 is known for.

"We liberals need to look at ourselves, not complain about the results," he says. "The democratic establishment was not able to inspire the people's will. With a progressive candidate we wouldn't be where we are today. We are no longer revolutionary. We are reactionary, and we have to stop that. The liberals have to fight. We have to stand for something."

The single "Gimme My Vote Back" was influenced by Kuti's observance of the political season.

"The hate speech. The lack of trust. Once there was civility. In Africa we have had bad rulers, but we always knew where America was coming from," he says. "With this song I saw this relationship, but the goal of it was more than just about the election. When we vote for a candidate we give them our destiny. But now we need to take it back and give it to the people."

Such talk is in keeping the with message and music of Egypt 80. Seun Kuti became the lead singer for the group after his father died in 1997, taking on the mantle of human rights activist and charismatic performer just as his father had, at the age of 14, as if he were a young royal.

"I played with the band when I was eight years old," he says. "By the time my dad died, the band Egypt 80 had become a musical institution. Most of them had been in this band longer than I was alive. We all believed in the message and the music we made, and that's why we kept on doing it. It was a love with what we do."

An Egypt 80 concert is a relentless celebration, with long-distance pieces running into the double figures in minutes, beginning with extended intros as Kuti whirls around the stage, or unleashes spine-tingling jazz riffs on sax, always the center of attention, and the evolution of the Yoruban tradition with each completely aerobic action launching the audience into a dancing frenzy. Then comes the call and response of the background singers, two females in somewhat modernized traditional outfits, shaking it, and the rest of the song constantly punctuated by an apocalyptic horn section.

Shows consist of new material and older material dating back to the days his father led the band. Many of those older dancing raves have had a larger impact on Western rock than many people might realize, especially progressive rock as it moved out of the classical, renaissance and Elizabethan folk of the early 1970s into a kind of pan-African appropriation, much in the same way the blues had invigorated pop in England a decade before. It was the music of Fela Kuti going back the 1970s, who also inspired the Broadway show, "Fela," that impacted such art rock bands as the Talking Heads, Roxy Music and the reformed King Crimson. During that time, Peter Gabriel stated Fela Kuti was one of the most progressive rockers he'd ever heard. Such albums as the Talking Heads "Remain in Light" and King Crimson's "Discipline" showed how Kuti's Afrobeat sound had brought new energy to post-prog rock, and it would be hard to imagine Gabriel finding his voice in the 1980s without adopting Africa's humanistic world music appeal.

Most of the current Egypt 80 lineup played with Fela Kuti and still carry the scars of years of persecution, having been arrested and harassed by governments in Nigeria.

One example of the kind of tribulations band members experienced occurred in 1977, after Kuti had created a commune called the Kalakuta Republic with his dozens of wives, family members and followers of the singer's mystical brand of Yoruban religion. According to Wikipedia, "In 1977, Fela and the Afrika '70 released the album 'Zombie,' a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of the Nigerian military. The album was a smash hit and infuriated the government, setting off a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic, during which one thousand soldiers attacked (Kuti's) commune. Fela was severely beaten, and his elderly mother (whose house was located opposite the commune) was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Fela's studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Fela claimed that he would have been killed had it not been for the intervention of a commanding officer as he was being beaten. Fela's response to the attack was to deliver his mother's coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo's residence, and to write two songs, 'Coffin for Head of State' and 'Unknown Soldier', referencing the official inquiry that claimed the commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier."
Seun Kuti's politically charged new three-song EP, “Struggle Sounds,” stays on the revolutionary road first paved by his father. It includes the explosive song “Gimme My Vote Back (C.P.C.D.)” (short for Corporate Public Control Department).

“More than ever we are convinced of our mission and the purpose of our music,” Seun recently stated. “The ‘Struggle Sounds’ EP is a true reflection of my social and political beliefs. I give honor to my parents and every revolutionary who made this possible even before I was born.”

On the song he sings "“Every few years politicians come. They come from the left and come from the right ... They come with their party and their media. With their same lies and promises … they come with their politics of hate and them take and divide us.”

As the interview neared its end, with Kuti barely taking a breath, he still barely needed any questions to keep on going.

"We are more than just what we do," he says. "I am a father, a son, a musician. So I want to be relevant as a musician. We want everyone to have a good opportunity. Which was what the elite doesn't understand because they are so greedy.

"Sometimes it makes me so crazy in the world, you just need to speak out. Changes are taking too long. What Africa needs is a different situation. By 2060 sixty-five percent of my country will be under the age of 35. Youth will be a part of the world's natural resource. So we need to sacrifice now so the children can enjoy the future."


And now for a few notes from an eastbound train ...

Kansas City, the color of barbecue sauce, as the red lights of the tall buildings indicate at 7:30 a.m. as I step off the train after more than 24 hours after Flagstaff, Arizona, on the Southwest Chief. Why write this? All of the keeping track. Over the years the notebooks have piled up. All of it rarely rendered into anything anybody can read.
     But here I am, and the performance is on again, as I re-acquaint myself with the hand-spacing of the keyboard, very light to my touch, which must be more fragile than even I am willing to admit. But hey, I'm the connoisseur of chaos, and this doesn't feel like disaster to me. This feels like a re-awakening. Got just enough caffeine and nicotine in the pre-dawn light on the Kansas City train to this point to get me to firing up the old computer and getting me back to the words, the words, the words ... I have a sense that stream of consciousness isn't in style anymore. Political hacks keep it simple for the masses. I am no man for the masses ... crossing the Mississippi now,

     I am a solitary figure. Things I say to strangers must seem odd to them, since I can't get much of a response. Like when I got off the train in the early morning light and I said, with a bearded Mennonite man in front of me, facing his back, "Hmmm, Kansas City, must be,since everything looks like barbecue sauce." He didn't laugh. Maybe he got scared of hearing something so odd so early in his day. Definitely not my target market, Mennonites. But he's my people, my ancestors, who worshiped lightning or some shit in colonial Pennsylvania. Someone not of this world, separate. But I feel fully in this world, and the light of rebirth is no trick. Just can't be overwhelmed by it, the rush.
     The first half of the trip has been a visitation of ghosts. Triggers I did not expect. In New Mexico, as the train moved slowly through the mountains between Albuquerque and Las Vegas, New Mexico, and then northward to Raton Pass, into Colorado to Trinidad, all of the memories of the last time I had covered that ground sent me into moodiness, despair, sadness. Not sure how to explain it. Six years before the recession had just begun and we were flying across the arid lands of creosotes and buttes and hobbled sorta adobe homesteads, in both directions over the course of what might have been more than a year, optimistic one way and desperate going back, finally breaking down in Las Vegas, what seemed like a quiet little hippie-fied ranching town, as J. decided she needed to be institutionalized. I remember her slumped in the seat of the moving van. We, enlisted in the U-haul Army criss-crossing America in those days of desolation and economic depression, came to a sad halt on the rolling brown plains of northwestern New Mexico, on the flatland side of the nation.

     She slumped in her seat. Shapely but shaken. Almost unable to speak anymore, she muttered that she needed to go in for an immediate psych evaluation. So we pulled into Las Vegas, like it might be our final destination, and had her in the state mental institution there by late afternoon and I stayed in a motel, trying to keep the expenses in check as the meter ran by the day for the van, for what nest egg we had left from her mother's inheritance after she had committed suicide earlier that year, as the winds blew hard and once a sign blew off the motel signage up front and I ducked before it took my head off. Trying negotiate an escape for J., who decided she didn't like being institutionalized, while at the same time going around Las Vegas, which was in itself in the midst of a re-birth or a decline in uneven distributions, going buy on granola and sell on beef, I suppose, and me going around collecting business cards and meeting with a local radical, Lee Einer, who gave me an earful about the social and political battles going on there.

     The liberal insurgency in the age of Obama and me going around the world, wondering where everybody went, as if my industry, journalism, had been hit by a neutron bomb, with the buildings all still there but the people vaporized.


James McMurtry casts a literary eye on life on the road

To listen to a song by James McMurtry is to follow a miniature novel. It's the way he looks at people. They pass through his life and he constructs a narrative based on a bit of speech, a street-tough setting, and with an hornery, razor-sharp wit he brings them alive. He finds the smaller corners of American life and paints a poem. Life on the road is what does it. That's where many of McMurtry, singer, songwriter and storyteller, finds his songs. He's a consumate observer, a fly on the wall as he travels.

"With the character sketches I start with a couple of lines and I melody and I think, 'Who said that?' " he says during a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Texas. "I live a somewhat transient lifestyle and so I'm kind of a little bit on the outside ... it's a good place to write from."

McMurtry has made a name for himself as a songwriter of literary merit. His vignettes seem to come from the off-the-track communities, from the neon streets to the corners of desperation in the rural areas. He's a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to Walmart and in general sings about the larger forces challenging the everyman.

"That's the common theme for everybody," he says. "David versus Goliath is just one of we always sing about. I sing about relationships and carrying on in the cage of staleness. I like to use occasional bits of anachronistic speech so that the language doesn't disappear."

His lyrics are loaded with concrete details and a protest singer's venom. In 2005 he got some attention for the political quality of "We Can't Make It Here," a tune that after more than 10 years still rings true:

That big ol' building was the textile mill
It fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can't make it here anymore

See all those pallets piled up on the loading dock
They're just gonna set there till they rot
'Cause there's nothing to ship, nothing to pack
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks
Empty storefronts around the square
There's a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere
You don't come down here 'less you're looking to score
We can't make it here anymore

McMurtry says people thought the song was about President George W. Bush, but really he started writing it during the Bill Clinton administration in the late 1980s. The lyrics evolved with the passage of time. He has managed to avoid writing a song specifically about the current election year, despite the attraction of writing about Donald Trump. The closest he came, he says, was writing a song about despots. But in this case it was about the World War II era Spanish dictator, Generalissmo Francisco Franco.

"I wrote one protest song ("Can't Make it Here")and it got a lot of attention," he says. "You tend to get branded for what you get noticed for."

One of the mandatory songs he does during his performances, "Choctaw Bingo," had an interesting history. The song rolls along like Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues" or Elvis Costello's "Tokyo Storm Warning," hitting the listener's ears with a torrent of images.

"There was a bingo parlor in Oklahoma and I decided to use it as a writing exercise," he says. "I put it upon myself to include everything I could take in and put it in a song. Within a year of writing that almost everything I had written in the song had disappeared, and so I wrote about other stuff that took place there. They had something called Red River Rehab and so I wrote about that, gave it a new verse. In the time since then I've written another new verse. Now it's 13 minutes long."

McMurtry was destined to be someone of literary merit. He is the son of Larry McMurtry, author of "Lonesome Dove" and "Breakback Mountain," and his mother is a professor of English (now retired). She taught her son the rudiments of guitar at the age of seven, but didn't really consider music as a profession until he was studying English at the University of Arizona, getting into the local club scene during an age of new wave and punk. His first paying gig was in Benson, Arizona, playing "old time fiddle tunes" in a movie theater and at the local golf club.

"My mother taught me three chords and the rest I just stole as I went along. I learned everything by ear or by watching people," he says.

After spending much of the 1980s doing odd jobs and moving around the country, including a spell in Alaska, he entered a songwriting contest at the Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival, and was one of six to win. His connections with his father's film projects led him to meeting John Mellencamp, who co-produced his first album. That landed him right in the heartland sound of the late 1980s, with ringing guitars washing over country-folk, just as what's now known as Americana was gathering force. The 1989 debut, "Too Long in the Wasteland" provided enough notoriety that he joined a super group for a short time, called the Buzzin' Cousins, which included Mellencamp, John Prine, Joe Ely, and Dwight Yoakam.

He now tours with his own band, the Heartless Bastards, and also does numerous strictly acoustic shows.

In more recent years, his recording pace has slowed, but the critical acclaim has not. "Complicated Game," released last year, was his first studio release in six years, but followed a period where he won numerous awards, winning album of the year at the 5th Annual Americana Music Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2006. His 2008 release, "Just Us Kids," gained the highest Billboard 200 chart position in his career, topping the Americana Music Radio list for six weeks.

He says the whole business of making albums has changed. When he started out, the release of a CD would eventually lead to a tour if it was successful. But now the tour is what sells the records. The days of "mailbox" money, in terms of royalties in the age of internet downloads, are long gone.
"I probably will have to start to work on one pretty soon," he says. "All of the money comes off the road nowadays."

McMurtry is a keen documentarian of the changes that have taken place in the country over the past several decades. In the song "Fuller Brush Man," he laments the passing of the door-to-door salesmen that, like the honky tonks of old, have come and gone. Like his songs, he interprets all of this without sentimentality.

"I don't know if those things need to exist anymore," he says.