Seun Kuti & Egypt 80
Wednesday, July 27
Better than: FELA! on Broadway.
It’s not hard to see why Oluseun Anikulapo Kuti—”Seun” (SHAY-oon) for short—was asked to star in the musical about his bandleader father that, after a stint on Broadway that ended this year, is now playing in London’s West End. The idea wasn’t the cold exercise in marketing its obviousness might’ve led one to believe; when Fela Kuti’s youngest son strutted onstage at S.O.B.’s in a disco-era open-shirt and creased trousers, brandishing an alto sax last night, his swagger and charisma mirrored the images that leap from so many of his father’s LP covers. Seun was 14 when Fela, the outspoken activist-innovator who created Afrobeat, Nigeria’s modern-world answer to new-world soul and rumba, passed away in 1997. By then he’d been making random appearances with Egypt 80, Kuti père‘s last band, since he was eight.
Which explains, in part, why Seun turned down the potentially lucrative gig in theater. He has said he wasn’t interested in feeding further comparisons between himself and Fela, but that seems a bit overstated once you consider that Seun currently leads a 15-piece version of Egypt 80; two-thirds of its lineup toured the world with his dad. The more likely explanation arrived at the very beginning of last night’s set, in the 10 minutes of dynamic foreplay that worked the S.O.B.’s crowd into a fever before the young Kuti even stepped onstage. One after another, the horn players revealed themselves to be superlative soloists while the smoothest hypeman on earth danced an improvised reverie upfront armed with a shekere (a percussion gourd outfitted with tiny shells), his steps drawing sinuous connections from Lagos and Havana to stateside funk bastions like Memphis and the Motor City. The opening arrangement had all the hallmarks of Fela, but it was Seun’s own, as much from future-shock as inheritance.
Futurism was still in evidence when the singer mounted the stage and offered the crowd the equivalent of red meat: “Zombie,” the soldier-mocking hit that brought the full weight of Nigeria’s military regime down on Fela in 1978, years before Seun was born. Let’s just say he had the audience at the tune’s iconic bassline. The four percussionists holding down the groove (on congas, wood-block, shekere and trap drums) were doubled up by the twin guitar attack, and the punchy roar of the horns was a far cry from the stoner lilt that passes for Afrobeat ubiquity this side of the Atlantic. For his part, Seun contorted his body in mock simulation of the lyric’s military “Simon Says.” No wrath has been visited upon him back home thus far, but his topical and generally hilarious stage patter still points plenty of fingers, locally as well as globally.
Once the historic part of the show was over, Seun and Egypt 80 could set about spreading their new message. The sound quality at S.O.B.’s both helped and hurt matters. On the one hand, keyboardist (and onetime saxist) Lekan Animashaun’s contributions were almost inaudible; on the other, the limited vocal mix hid the shortcomings of Seun’s voice, which are much more apparent on his new Brian Eno-produced album From Africa With Fury: Rise (Knitting Factory). However, if Eno’s strength in the studio is enhancing music’s hypnotic qualities, the two sets of groove that followed were evidence that Egypt 80 gave him more than enough raw material. In one sweaty marathon after another, Seun mixed enough beat with Nigerian slang (for weed, horny women, and Nigerian corruption) to make everyone believe in the second coming of an icon.
Critical bias: …oh no, not another Afrobeat band.
Random notebook dump: This band should give clinics in how to get Afrobeat right.
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