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Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Village Underground review - more than a homage to Fela | reviews, news & interviews

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Village Underground review - more than a homage to Fela

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Village Underground review - more than a homage to Fela

A feast of polyrhythms and a peerless Afro-Beat show

Sax appeal: Seun Kuti

The joy of Afro-Beat comes from the intricate play of polyrhythms, eloquently constructed around the subtle interplay of guitars, bass, backing vocals, percussion and horns: each voice follows a distinct path, and the combination of each in a rich and complex whole is both powerfully mind-blowing and irresistibly danceable.

Seun Kuti pays homage, as well he should, to the ancestral power of his father Fela, who with drummer Tony Allen and others created this extraordinary and unique sound. He does it very well: from the moment he dances onto the stage, his lithe body snaking around sensually to the crossfire of beats, he has the audience in the palm of his hand.  This is a well-polished show, with a perfectly synced horn section, grounded in the powerful deep notes of the baritone sax and with the power of two trumpets and a tenor sax. Seun is a live wire, oozing charisma and a kind of mischievousness, as if he were the incarnation of Elegba, the West African trickster god, a charm-filled messenger of the other gods, like the Greek Hermes.

The show's potency is distilled in this former East London coal shed

Afro-Beat grew out of the collision of African-American funk with its particular off-beat syncopation (a kind of measured disorder), the hypnotic shuffling of JuJu music, and the chilled swing of High Life. James Brown was admired: you can feel the echoes of the James Brown show - the drama of it - as well as the crucial role of a horn section that underpins the whole with great power and excitement in the manner of the JBs. Funk and African-American music are rooted in the aesthetics of Africa: in the rhythms, the call-and-response, the importance of the dance. What is wonderful, not just with Afro-Beat but with Congolese rumba, Mali’s vintage Salif Keita or the mbalax of Senegal, is how much these were forms were inspired by the arrival of American music, a profoundly familiar musical cousin that had been shaped in part by European and Native American sounds. Seun Kuti’s music - and Fela’s  -  is part of the glorious (and yet tragic) Afro-Atlantic conversation, the expression of a mongrel culture (to use the term of Bristol musician Tricky) that was rich in a way that only "cross-breeding" or métissage would allow.

Each song in the set bubbled slowly to a fantastic boil, Seun Kuti launching off into a kind of holy rant, sometimes as he sang with unbridled passion, and at other times when he played wildly on his alto sax (pictured above), or one of his trumpeters came up front and blew a jazzy solo that raised the energy up to the roof. The space in Village Underground is perfect for such music – better than the main stage at WOMAD, where I had last seen him perform. The show's potency is distilled in this former East London coal shed: spacious enough for the crowd to breathe and lighting to work wonders, but not cavernous as some venues can be. Something of the gig’s immediacy has been captured on vinyl, as part of a new direct-to-disc live recording with no overdubs, a project by the new label Night Dreamer. This has some of the quality of electric recordings made before the advent of magnetic tape, a tangible presence similar to what a Paris record collector once played me – 78s of early 1950s Chess sessions by Muddy Waters.

The Shoreditch set was enhanced by the presence of a few suitably excited and rowdy Nigerian expats, who called out to Seun, and responded to his political raps with characteristic calls, comments and jibes. By the end of the night, the whole place was shaking, the audience and band brought together in a celebration of freedom and dance.  

Seun is a live wire, oozing charisma and a kind of mischievousness

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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