fri 20/10/2017

Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, Royal Festival Hall

Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, Royal Festival Hall

The son of Fela takes no prisoners

Afrobeat needs a star, and Seun's the man for the jobMartin Meissonnier

Given that Seun Kuti and Egypt 80’s new album nearly blew my speaker covers off with its focused punch and irrepressible energy, the band really shouldn’t have had a problem making an impression on Tuesday night’s lacklustre Later… with Jools Holland. But bafflingly, they chugged awkwardly into life but never got up a proper head of steam. A frustratingly bass-light sound mix obviously didn't help, but nevertheless it somewhat dampened my previously high expectations for last night’s Royal Festival Hall gig.

But this muted TV performance must have been down to the fact that a good Afrobeat groove needs to have time to settle into itself: it’s never about the destination; it’s about the moment, the forward momentum, the funk. Seun’s father, the late, great Fela Kuti, used to go with the flow for whole LP sides, so perhaps it would be unreasonable to expect his son to prove his worth in a mere four minutes. And as it turned out, when Seun eventually arrived on stage after keeping the audience waiting through the whole of the first number, it was one of his father’s songs, the organ-driven “Original Suffer Head”, that he nailed with considerable aplomb.

Afrobeat is generally an immersive, involving groove, particularly if played by a big band such as, for example, another one-time Fela collaborator, Dele Sosimi. However, everything moves up to a whole other level when that band is fronted by a charismatic showman and raconteur such as Seun Anikuulapo Kuti. The man didn’t just talk between numbers, he talked during numbers, rattling on about everything from the joys of marijuana to the current situation in Libya, daring anyone to challenge or contradict him. “When you use bombs to protect people, that’s wrong: you use love to protect people.” Every song lyric was marked with a frenetic hand gesture or a twist of the torso, every statement rounded off with a wide and knowing grin. Then he’d snake off across the stage, or grab his sax before blasting away on it with (dare I say it) more technical flair and concision than his father ever did.

By the time the relatively laidback “Rise” from the new album started to unfurl, the back of the Nigerian star's bright-blue shirt was dotted with a dozen small islands of sweat. As this tense epic about corrupt multinationals and government exploitation came to a close, those islands had become one large continent, so the sopping shirt was removed for the final stretch. Simultaneously, a rush of people headed down the isles to dance in front of the stage. Up next was "You Can Run”, the song played on Later..., except now it was a ferocious beast rather than a damp squib, all James Brown attitude and nervy Afrobeat flow, and easily the equal of the Brian Eno-produced version on the album.

The backing vocalists shimmied and shook, the brass section interjected with military precision, and I found myself down the front too, dividing my time between watching this well-oiled machine of a band, and being extremely impressed by the calibre of beautifully dressed supermodel-lithe women Fela’s youngest had completely under his spell – his polygamous father would have been proud.

One thing was cemented in my mind last night: surely it’s only a matter of time before the vital and powerful sound of Afrobeat has as high a profile as, say, reggae, and therefore gets to escape the sometimes stultifying effect that being labelled "world music" can have. And if anyone can further this end it’s the man who had at least half of last night’s Royal Festival Hall crowd up on their feet and dancing. As the final number drew to a close, breaks screeching, our stripped-to-the-waist hero raised both fists high in the air, looking, rather spookily, every inch his father’s son.

Oh, and another reason you've got to love Seun Anikuulapo Kuti is that when The Guardian’s John Lewis recently asked him if he believed in God, he replied, “Of course not! Don't be stupid!" And you can bet he was grinning from ear to ear when he said it.

Listen to Seun Kuti's "Rise"

 

‘The man didn’t just talk between numbers, he talked during numbers, rattling on about everything from the joys of marijuana to the current situation in Libya’

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