Name: Made Kuti
Occupation: Composer, performer, trumpet player
Current release: Made Kuti's debut album For(e)ward is out now on Partisan.
Recommendation: The Black Man of The Nile and His Family by Yosef Ben-Jochannan; Shoki Shoki by Femi Kuti
If you enjoyed this interview with Made Kuti, his personal website is the best point of departure to dive deeper into his world of music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My father has always been my earliest and most influential point of reference musically. I lived in the New Africa Shrine in a Lagos for a while and watched him perform 4 times a week, every week, all year. I can only imagine the amount of music absorbed all those years. I also used to watch him experiment with new sounds with his band and follow him to the studio quite often when he recorded in Paris.
I was intentionally writing music from when I was about 10 years old. I still remember a few funny songs I wrote around that time.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I’ve listened to such a wide variety of music to date I can’t even begin to describe. I grew up with Afrobeat, studied and am still studying jazz, studied classical piano and did a 4 year course in composition at Trinity Laban. I grew up listening to a lot of Japanese rock music as well.
I’ve always been very conscious of the type of music I listen to, then intentionally test my interests by listening experimentally. I’ve transcribed Miles, Bird, Sonny Stitt, Hank Mobley and other greats.
I think I just feel music is as versatile as life itself, so I try less to consciously emulate specific sounds or musicians but more to freely explore my interests having learned and listened to all those different kinds of music.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
A lot - if not totally. Because I either intentionally reflect it through my music or intentionally deviate from it.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I think my biggest challenge might have been flexibility. I’ve only learned recently how to sort of let a sound be a sound without think too strictly of its purpose or complexity. But I’ve grown out of that, through my father’s guidance really!
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My father’s band has definitely influenced the instruments I chose to pick up. The bass, sax, trumpet, drums, piano were all instruments I saw him use in his band. So I naturally grew a childish interest in all of them and asked to learn how they all worked!
My first time recording in a studio would probably be in Studio Zarma where my dad recorded the Day by Day album. Since then there have been various set ups in various settings.
I understand technology develops very fast, and I try to adapt to it as it does. But I try not to think too hard on all the many achievable possibilities. Instead, I spend time on the things that interest me most.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Definitely DAWs! And notation software like Sibelius. It really makes so many things easier.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
On my recently released album For(e)ward I played every instrument myself. Now I’m playing all those songs with a 14 piece band and I can feel the beauty of each person's character in my bones as we play. Live music is really a different experience, especially when there’s room for improvisation and flexibility in structure. It feels transcendent.
I’ve been featured on a couple of pop tracks as well which have been nice and interesting experiences.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I was practicing all day from 10am to 11pm preparing for this album. Now I’m swamped with so much miscellaneous work I’m lucky if I can squeezer in 3 hours of practice lately!
But my day always has music in it one way or another. Sometimes there is a divide between the required business side of music and the creative side. But when I’m lucky they do blend in seamlessly.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
My first time performing with my band on stage. There was a point I really managed to let go and let the music take the wheel. I try to reach that state every time I play now. It's what I imagine nirvana must be like.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I don’t think there’s a particularly ideal state of mind for me. I’ve been inspired in many different situations. Sometimes the quietude and serenity of midnight and sometimes the car ride from one venue to another. I think it's really my job to always keep an open creative mind to always allow inspirations and ideas through - no matter the environment or situation.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I agree that music is such a powerful force that it can indeed be used positively and negatively.
I recently mentioned to someone how I believe every musicians and creative has the potential to contribute something challenging and new to every listener and consumer by letting their art speak from a source of truth and intent. And when they choose to deviate from the truth in them they in turn create something that might potentially do more harm than good. But what definitely happens is their truth will not come through the sound. And when that happens, the people who might have had their lives inspired or changed by the creatives' truth never get that experience.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I’m honestly not too sure where I stand on this. What is too much and what is just okay are pretty grey areas. And the technological age has really made the world far more connected than it's ever been.
What I do know is I felt a huge amount of joy and happiness when I found out there were Afrobeat bands in Japan, Chile, and so many other places. It's awesome!
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I’ve not had too many of these personally. But I can remember the sound of a shrine if I taste something from a shrine. I believe everything is connected, biologically and universally.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I believe my art must always express my truth. Because I believe creativity always comes from a source intentionally or unintentionally and I would like for what I communicate to be honest just because I know how powerful music is and what it has meant to me all my life.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I think words can’t describe what music can truly express even in an attempt to explain what those differences might be!