KUKU, the American born and Nigerian raised singer-songwriter, has released an album of his observations after questioning his faith in organized religion, politics and authoritarian regimes. He used to be a practicing Muslim who kept his doubts and questions to himself until he let ethics decide his fate. After realizing religion often caused endless wars, he adopted an agnostic view and believes morality and religion aren’t necessarily connected. Aware that many may disagree with his ideas, he decided to entitle his sixth release Ballads & Blasphemy.
With his acoustic guitar, expressive voice, and backing band, KUKU brings a nice dose of highlife, blues, soul and gospel to the record, channeled by influences like Cat Stevens, Fela Kuti, Pierre Akendengué and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. He delivers his own style of acoustic roots music full of heart and texture, sung in Yoruba, English, Pidgin and French. Tony Allen adds his effortless grace on drums to a couple of tracks and even helps with some of the arrangements on the album.
The opening cut, “Wáya,” features a laid-back Tony Allen driven highlife groove about parental pressure on marriage. “Evil Doers” is a swinging gospel tune which mentions living “in a world where evil doers do their worst.”
KUKU offers cautious advice on “Open Your Eyes,” a soulful tune which features Cyril Atef on drums. He tells listeners to keep a look out for backstabbers, oppressors and false prophets. Mongenzi Ntaka adds some nice electric guitar to compliment KUKU’s vocals.
“Ekò (Lagos State)” is a heartfelt acoustic tribute to Lagos, where the lyrics claim “only the strong will survive.” “Owó” is another highlife tune featuring Tony Allen where KUKU sings of corruption and how money has become the God of Man.
The question of human existence is the subject of “Is It All a Game (Séré Ni Ilé Ayé)?” KUKU asks if life is just a game over a bouncy, two-chord change with some subtle but sweet bass playing from Hilaire Penda. “La Dernière Fois” is a funky, percussive interpretation of “This May Be the Last Time.”
KUKU sings his praise for indigenous Africa, admiring the Africa of Oduduwa, Obatala and Eledumare, on the upbeat “Africa Jomí Lojú.” The central theme of the album is driven home on “If There Is a Heaven” featuring Misja Fitzgerald Michel on acoustic guitar. It’s easily the most tender and captivating song on the record. Two acoustic guitars, some bowed double bass and KUKU’s aching yet heartwarming voice close the album in style.
Ballads & Blasphemy is a cohesive production that strikes an honest tone. In the liner notes KUKU quotes Irish playwright and writer George Bernard Shaw who said, “all great truths begin as blasphemies.” While not everyone will agree with KUKU’s opinions, he presents a compelling argument and a contrast to unchallenged overzealous religious devotion. The message of the album is strong, but KUKU’s music speaks for itself.
Originally published in RootsWorld Magazine.