In 2017 Nigerian musician Femi Kuti set the world record for longest sustained saxophone note: fifty-one minutes and thirty-five seconds.
Femi Kuti comes from an illustrious family: his father was Fela Kuti (who I’m going to write about another time), and his grandmother was Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (who I’m going to write about another time too!). From his father, Kuti learned the technique of circular breathing.
Circular breathing is one of those human superpowers that most people can pick up with a little practice. The technique works something like this: when you breathe out, you store some air in your cheeks. Then, breathe in through your nose while simultaneously using your cheek muscles to force the stored air out of your mouth. If you do this right, you can maintain a continuous stream of air for as long as you can concentrate.
Didgeridoo players use circular breathing to sustain their music for dozens of minutes without pausing. In fact, musicians of wind instruments around the world use this technique: the Egyptian mizmār, the Indonesian suling flute, and the Sardinian bagless bagpipe launeddas (I may write about that another time too). In Western music, circular breathing particularly helps to play certain oboe, clarinet, and saxophone pieces.
Back in 1997, Kenny G used circular breathing to play a single saxophone note for more than forty-seven minutes. Twenty years later, Femi Kuti played for longer: 51 minutes and 47 seconds, a new record. You can see some footage in the video below.
Guinness World Records, apparently, no longer keeps track of this record – but no-one else is claiming a longer note, giving Femi Kuti the title.