Like many artistic iconoclasts, Fela Kuti was an innovator and an emblem in equal measure, his social contributions ultimately as significant as his musical ones. Functioning as an influential counter-culture icon, he butted heads with a repressive Nigerian regime in a way that makes most creative rebellion seem like self-indulgent posturing, climaxing with the murder of his mother by government soldiers, who then ransacked and burned his personal commune. Prevented from leaving the country and slapped with trumped-up charges for currency smuggling and eventually murder, Kuti was ultimately brought down by AIDS, leaving behind one of the most vibrant legacies in African music.
All this is both a blessing and a curse for Fela’s son, Seun, who seems insistent on taking up the mantle of resistance and complex musicianship that defined his father’s work. Most of his energy has gone toward cutting a similarly passionate figure, casting himself as an equivalent, or at least comparable, voice of energy and dissent, with fierce, accomplished albums like From Africa with Fury. But an essential part of the Kuti persona was a willingness to experiment, to recklessly crossbreed traditional West African sounds with American jazz and psychedelia. Seun realizes this, and A Long Way to the Beginning represents his first effort to push the Egypt 80 group in a new, modern direction, past mere reproduction of his father’s pulsing Afrobeat intensity. But too often these new choices, from softening the music’s jagged agitation to the introduction of some pretty dire guest rapping, point less toward a new paradigm than to mainstream expectations of how world music should sound, fundamentally safe and familiar, with only a touch of thorny exoticism.
Thankfully Seun has inherited his father’s anger, and his skill for distilling ire into rhythmic, captivating chants, which means that even if that rage is aestheticized, it still offers an on-the-ground reaction to Nigeria’s current unrest. This energy propels album opener “IMF,” a bristling anti-bank anthem that builds in intensity, equating the banking organization with an entire stable of “international motherfuckers.” The track’s best parts may still be Fela-inspired, particularly the concept of declamatory repetition integrated as another musical layer atop razor sharp horns, but the song also feels distinctively modern, tackling a contemporary issue with charismatic force.
This charisma enlivens songs like “Ohun Aiye,” which matches breezy polyrhythmic guitar against vigorous drumming, jaunty bugle calls, and heavy baritone sax. Other new additions are less successful, and long songs like “Higher Consciousness” often feel strained, since Seun still isn’t as magnetic, or capable of spinning long bouts of cycling repetition into hypnotic exhilaration, as his father. On the opposite side of the spectrum sits the tranquil “Black Woman,” an ode to the continent’s women that’s nice in theory, but a drag in execution; like his father, Seun is better at sloganeering than subtlety or sentiment. A Long Way to the Beginning thus finds the young upstart at a crossroads, between overt legacy mining and striking out on his own, a tentatively successful effort that at least demonstrates Seun’s innate skills as a bandleader and a radical.