Seun Kuti & Fela’s Egypt 80 Live @ Summerstage

7 07 2008

Seun Kuti

By Derek Beres

If there were anyone who could be forgiven for stealing Fela Kuti’s patented dance style—a slow, patient step with ass facing crowd, his elbows tucked in and face puckered up—it would be his son. While the world has become accustomed to the name Femi, there is another owning this title: Seun. As someone remarked to me after his performance last year at SOB’s, “He’s more Fela than Femi.” This esoteric analogy is quite obvious to any fan of Afrobeat, a musical genre that Seun has not evolved as much as his brother, but that he has mastered nonetheless.

Femi has fought hard at updating Afrobeat in the 20th century, doing duets with Rai singer Rachid Taha and hip-hoppers Mos Def and Common, allowing endless remixes of his catalog, and creating four-minute Afrobeat-influenced pop songs that are more palatable to the radio-dominated American ear than the ten+ minute renditions the form is accustomed to. Seun has nothing to do with this—he’s even using his father’s last band, Egypt 80, on both his debut album and in concert. As one friend remarked during his performance at Central Park’s Summerstage yesterday, “They really sound like Fela’s band.”

I understood what he meant. While it is, in fact, his band, there is no guarantee that they would relight the torch the elder Kuti had blazed. Former drummer/bandleader Tony Allen went in a million different directions until he finally found the groove that Afrobeaters crave on Lagos No Shaking a few years back. By contrast Egypt 80 is still the same industrious machine, playing polyrhythms so subtle and dynamic it’s near impossible not to be drawn in and seduced. This is a craft of quietness, a seeming contrast to the blaring saxophones normally associated with the genre. Yet what’s crucial in Afrobeat is to hear the shakers, not the horns and guitars. Everything blends down so the subtle can be larger-than-life. This is Fela’s legacy, and Seun, as much a showman and politically charged performer as his father, owns up to it.

He is not wont to go off on tangents like Papa, at least not yesterday. He seems a bit more reserved, not so overly sexual. Like Femi and Fela, the need to rip off his shirt halfway through the show would not be denied; like them both, his toned body flexed while his hands gripped his saxophone sent ladies into a frenzy. (While leaving the venue, I heard one woman confide to her friends, “When he took off his shirt and the sweat glistened on his back, I just wanted to lick it right off!” Then she made a sound like a dog gnawing at a bone.)

Just as his recent record (for some reason #48 on the Amazon New Age charts—who categorizes these things???), Seun Kuti & Fela’s Egypt 80, is as hypnotizing as any of his father’s records, the live show proved equally ambitious. When he launched into extended editions of “Many Things” and “The Mosquito Song,” at one point screaming “Fire!” while the crowd pumped fists and chanted along, I realized that sometimes to evolve is to stay the same; that is, keeping it as honest and realistic as possible. His lyrics reflect his society and what we’re going through today; in that, he has taken a step into the present. Overall, people love Afrobeat so they can dance; they love the political and social meaning inherently embedded in the music; they form in large groups (another friend commented that the 5,500-person capacity was, at the very least, filled) to commune, to share, and find one another in the context of song. From Nigeria to New York, these messages live on.

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2 responses

7 07 2008
Pepe Le Pep

It was a sick show! When Seun walked on stage I thought I was fainting – did Fela come back from the grave??? Seun is our generation’s Fela and he did show that by style and grace as he sang, played, danced & hopped around as if leading Egypt 80 for decades. Amazing audience interaction, firey energy, and superb coordination with his 12-piece band in front of 5,000 people from someone only 26 years old. Fascinating stuff!

12 07 2008
noelle

The central park concert on June 6 was the most amazing concert ever! This guy is so talented and I wish him all the best. I am a fan!

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