By Onome Amawhe
It’s past 6pm on this usual Thursday. I sauntered into the hall way leading to his office apartment. It’s a few hours to rehearsals and he is busy trying out notes on the trumpet. This is the routine for Femi Anikulapo-Kuti, the CEO of 12-piece Positive Force Band- arguably one of Africa’s greatest dance bands. It’s the same routine and discipline that has enabled him take the mantle from his father, Fela creator of afrobeat; one of Africa’s biggest musical exports. Founded 30 years ago on the cusp of him leaving his father’s band, the Positive Force Band has attained ample strength as a leading light in world music.
Since the band’s establishment bandleader Femi Anikulapo-Kuti finds that sustaining a hugely successful African band hasn’t been easy: “Like everything in life; keeping and running a band is quite difficult. To keep the group together is probably the most difficult. Retaining loyalty of band members whenever we are touring Europe and America is another aspect because I have experienced band members leaving me midway into tours. Those were very embarrassing moments for Africa. That said, a lot of them are very dedicated and sincere because they understand what I’m doing,” he said.
Starting out as an alto saxophonist member of his father’s band (Fela Kuti & The Egypt 80 Band) Femi was far from being virtuosic, but he made up for his technical limitations by emphasizing his strengths: Ear for ensemble sound, unique phrasing, and a distinctively fragile tone. During the band’s early years, he jettisoned the slow- tempoed afrobeat that characterized much of Egypt 80’s work for something more introspective culminating in an approach much different from that of his father:
“I knew I would be successful. It was just that I didn’t know how. But I was a young man determined to succeed and my mother greatly supported and financed my band till I ran her account dry. Then, I got my first break in 1988 when the French Cultural Center took me on a cultural exchange to France. That was the turning point of my career,recalled. In retrospect, he is quick to point out that the biggest decision for him was leaving his father’s band. “I just had to take that major step into the unknown…and win the trust of people around me. I just knew I had to leave,” he said.
In the early years of his solo career, critics generally lambasted what they considered the lukewarm afrobeat of Femi Kuti. But in the ensuing decades, the recordings he made advanced the afrobeat idea, making greater use of electronics and high-powered amplification, and deemphasizing solos in favor of ensemble funk. The music was fierce and rolling. By this time, the positive Force had reached new heights of popularity: Concerts selling out all over the world and recordings denting pop charts. His word: “That was a huge step for my music. Letting my music be remixed by many great DJs particularly Bang! Bang! Bang! Which went very far with various genres of remix spanning house, techno, reggae and Dance music. My collaborations with great American musicians on my 2001 album Fight to Win was a milestone project that took afrobeat to another level. Then of course, making myself available as guest artiste with many other great musicians also greatly helped push the boundaries.”
On this typical Thursday, the crowd starts to build inside the Africa Shrine. Onstage, though, Femi Kuti barely breaks a sweat. The afrobeat king, garbed T-shirt with Batik pants, gets his fans to do some of the work. They rhyme along with him during each song, finishing his verses with him. Four hours later he walks offstage, working his way through the backstage. His band members retire to the ground room to joke and probably pass around some drinks.
Femi enters his separate suite and commences banter with friends and family members. Femi usually repeats this ritual through-out the year on a much larger, more lucrative concert scale.The concert business has never been bigger, in dissonant contrast to the recorded-music business. While music sales have dropped, hurt by digital piracy and a lackluster flow of hot new acts, the tour business has since climbed, thus musicians increasingly rely on road shows for their income:
“Albums don’t sell like before anymore so we rely more on making sure that we’re constantly touring. I am a live oriented musician because my strength is in live performance. But the truth is that I hardly make money from my international tours because so many things come into doing a tour. I mean, whenever I’m on tour, I’m thinking of salary for the band, money for flight tickets, ground transportation (tour sleeper bus) which usually costs $20/30,000 depending on the duration of the tour.
‘’The cost to hire the tour bus excludes drivers feeding and fuelling. I then provide 3 square meals for 12-piece band members. I’m also paying my agents, manager and publicists who have to effectively put out words that the band in town. Even at that, you’re not guaranteed to fill all the venues. So, by the time you cut all these costs from a $200,000 tour and still be able to come back with $5,000; you’re quite lucky. And yet, nobody cares about your meager profit because what they think is that you’re worth $200,000 because you did cover all your costs.
‘’And if your name could generate $200,000 that’s how you’ll be rated in terms of market value. I’m going on tour of the United Kingdom this week for instance and flight tickets alone is nearly $40,000. How can I make profits? I play free at the Shrine on Thursdays and Charge N500 during my Sunday shows. The same amount I’ve been charging for nearly 16 years. The point is: My aim is not to make money but I’m glad that I’m able to pay my bills and maintain a modest lifestyle.
‘’I have one car and a bus that conveys my children to and from school. In Nigeria, I might have one or two big shows that can sustain me for the whole year. So, it’s really not about showing off; it’s about keeping the head above water which I can manage to do, he explained.
In spite of not making so much money during tours, he constantly keeps an eye on the budget because he finds that it’s very important in the running of bands. Responding to how he prioritizes his running budget, he says: “Anybody that’s with my band must understand that they are with me for the love of playing music. When you understand that then you can acclimatize to any situation: sometimes you’re playing for free; sometimes you’re playing and you make money. Any band member that’s not ready for that cannot play with me.’’
In terms of media promotion, Femi thinks that it’s important for bands to promote themselves on the internet especially with platforms like MySpace. “You can’t do without the internet. It’s a new age. There was a time journalists had the power to make or mar an artiste. Now, an artiste that has 100,000 followers doesn’t really need the press that much.
‘’They will only need specialized journalists if he/she is a well-respected and objective music journalist to review their work. And most of the time, journalists who’re worth their name go out of their way to find artiste with substance, assess and then write stories on them.
‘’There are many well respected journalists that artistes cannot do without. And these objective journalists will always be there without being sought. So, the game has changed because in the past, a bad story could ruin the career of an artiste. And it could either take nearly a lifetime for the artiste to do damage control or it must be that the artiste must really be loved by his/her fans to ignore bad press because people are very gullible with regard to what they read. Social media is indeed the game changer,” he explained.
Similarly, he finds that it’s always important for record labels, publishers and artiste managers to work together. He said: “An artiste needs a good management, record label and publisher. Most importantly, the artiste must always have the freedom to create because when the artiste does everything by themselves they lose focus because artistes cannot be business people. I like division of labor and so, the artiste must remain the musician and must be left alone to create. But they certainly must be part of the business because they are the business. And they must let the business manipulate itself.”