Musician Seun Kuti
Musician Vieux Farka Toure
Sons of the fathers
- Article by: BRITT ROBSON
- Special to the Star Tribune
- April 11, 2012 - 3:41 PM
When Vieux Farka Touré of Mali performs Monday at the Dakota Jazz Club, the fingerpicked phrases flowing from his acoustic guitar will contain the irresistible blend of agile delicacy and bottomless blues that conjures thoughts of another African music star -- his father, the late Ali Farka Touré.
Coincidentally, just 48 hours earlier, a different world-music heir will perform music inescapably intertwined with his iconic father. Seun Kuti, youngest son of Afrobeat creator Fela Kuti of Nigeria, will appear Saturday at Cedar Cultural Center.
Both sons have made peace with their legacies -- although Touré's father initially forbade him to take up a musical career.
Cheated by promoters, Ali Farka Touré decreed that his sons be soldiers, in accordance with the rest of the family lineage. But if he wanted obedience, he probably should have chosen a different middle name for his second son. In the Bambara language, "farka" means "donkey," an animal admired for its stubborn tenacity. Because Ali Touré was the only one of 10 children to survive past infancy, his parents gave him that nickname.
"He did not like what he saw in the business, and he wanted to protect me from that," Vieux wrote of his father in a recent e-mail exchange. "But he was stubborn in his life, and I inherited that quality from him, so he knew quickly that he would not stop me -- that it was my destiny to be a musician."
On a live album released in 2010, he wails on electric guitar in a manner that prompted one reviewer to dub him the "Hendrix of the Sahara." Yet on "The Tel Aviv Sessions," a new CD with Israeli keyboardist Idan Raichel that led to his current tour, he plays more like "the African John Lee Hooker," which is what his father was called.
Singing since age 8
Unlike Vieux -- or Fela's oldest son, musician Femi Kuti -- Seun Kuti has never felt the need to stake out musical turf distinct from his father's. He fronts Egypt 80, the horn-driven ensemble synonymous with Fela's legacy. And he opens shows with a couple of songs from his father's vast catalog.
Although he was just 15 at the time, it seemed natural that Seun would take control of the band when his father died in 1997. Since age 8, he had been opening shows (including a 1991 concert at First Avenue) by singing a couple of numbers.
During his 20s, Seun was said to be a good enough soccer player to have a successful career. Yet he has remained at the helm of Egypt 80, which still includes a dozen members who played with his father.
"Most people expect me to be playing this music because of my family," he said by phone. "But my father never said I had to do this or not do this -- he left it up to me. I never met a more understanding man. I play because I want to play."
While the Afrobeat style remains essentially the same, he has increasingly incorporated more of his own songs into Egypt 80's sets.
Political legacies, too
A theatrical rendition of Fela's life became a Broadway hit while Ali Farka Touré was a primary figure in a Martin Scorsese documentary.
Both fathers left daunting legacies as political activists, as well.
Ali Farka Touré was a humanitarian on behalf of Mali, and before his death in 2006 was elected mayor of his hometown, Niafunke, using his own money to provide roads, sewers and electrical generators.
Fela Kuti was such an outspoken opponent of colonial rule and its native supporters that the government killed his mother in a raid on his compound and harassed him throughout his life.
Both Vieux Farka Touré and Seun Kuti say it was not the fame, but the fundamental decency of their fathers that they are most inspired to emulate.
"As I get older, I gain more and more respect for him," says Vieux of Ali, who was carried into the recording studio to play on Vieux's debut album just before leaving to be treated for the bone cancer that would kill him a few months later. "He was an incredible musician, we all know that. But he was an incredible father and leader. Now that I have a family of my own I can see how much he worked and struggled not just for us but for Niafunke and all of Mali."
Seun is similarly effusive. "You know a true prophet or revolutionary is a true man by the influence they have on their kids."
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