I’m in Little Five Points on a Wednesday night, congregating on the sidewalk with a motley crew of folks who draw stares and raised eyebrows from more than a few OTP day-trippers who pass by. One couple could very well be a Nigerian warlord and his wife out for a night on the town — she in a lavishly patterned kaba and elaborate microbraids, and he in a buba-sokoto ensemble accentuated with gaudy gold aviator sunglasses and a fake Rolex. Ahead of us slouches an earthy-looking ponytailed youngster who I fully expect to break out a hackysack at any moment. A grey-templed guy in batik and khakis paces nervously, waving a piece of paper in the air. “You need ticket? Ticket??” he barks at random passersby, challenging them with his stare, as if he’s not really sure how to do this whole scalping thing. What could possibly be going on here?
Naturally, we’re all anxiously awaiting the Atlanta debut of afrobeat sensation Seun Kuti and his band, Egypt 80. We’ve been lined up down the block next to the Variety Playhouse for over half an hour now. The doors were supposed to open at 7PM, but it is now nearly 8PM, and people are getting antsy. Somebody at the front of the line start murmuring something about the opening band being late. Then the line starts moving.
Once I’m inside, I find myself marvelling at the venue’s recent upgrades: new carpet, fresh paint, and a gargantuan modernist ceiling fan that actually does a good job cooling the place! Then I get a closer look at the concertgoers. The odd mixed bag of a crowd is composed of ageing ex-Peace Corps types, granola-hippie ethnic studies students, blipsters on dates, and (of course) an array of African diasporals, including a sizeable proportion from Seun’s home country of Nigeria. I’m instantly struck that everybody’s sitting down–unusual for a show like this, where you can’t help but dance. (The floor might seem deserted now, but within an hour’s time, everyone in the place will be on their feet.)
Seun Kuti (born Oluseun Anikulapo Kuti) is the son and musical heir of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the world-famous Nigerian musician widely credited with establishing the afrobeat genre. (He’s so famous, in fact, that there is now a Broadway musical about his life!) Seun’s older brother Femi has also had a successful career producing an electronics-enhanced interpretation of his father’s musical tradition — a smartly updated and tricked-out version of afrobeat.
What is afrobeat? In short, it’s a style of music that takes traditional African musical elements (polyrhythms, call-and-response vocals, hand drumming, native instruments) and fuses them with modern jazz sensibilities like improvised jam sessions with multiple intertwining and repeating melodies, sexy horn sections, throbbing basslines, and funk-influenced electric guitar.
I have seen Femi Kuti twice before, once at the Variety a few years back. It was my first ever experience of being at a show where the performer actually tired out the audience members before the show ended. After nearly three hours of dancing to Femi’s nonstop high-energy performance, people (myself included) started leaning against walls and sitting down out of sheer exhaustion. Femi just kept on going, like the Energizer Bunny at an all-night afrobeat dance-a-thon. My legs hurt for days afterwards. Fo realz.
Lesson learned? This family knows how to rock!
It goes without saying that I was totally pumped to be seeing Seun in concert for the first time, not least because his backing band, Egypt 80, is a reincarnation of the same group his father Fela put together back in the early 1980s, with many of the original members still playing with the band. As a result, Seun’s sound is very true to the afrobeat tradition Fela started. Although Seun started performing with his father as a teenager, he did not produce his own material until after his father’s death in 1997. His debut album “Many Things” came out in 2008, and he has been touring extensively over the last year or so, releasing his second album “Rise: From Africa with Fury” in 2011.
As it turns out, the opening band whose tardiness delayed doors by an hour aren’t half bad! Brand New Life, a seven-piece act from Greensboro NC, redeem themselves with an entertaining set of funktastic world grooves. I’m a little skeptical at first when six dreadlocked white kids and an African hand drummer saunter onstage and pick up their instruments, but my doubts are quickly laid to rest as the music transports me to thrilling exotic places, with influences so far-flung, it makes your head spin .
The opening number is a droopy, swoozy horn-laden jam session that owes just as much allegiance to free jazz and funk a la The Meters as it does to African music. Then we are treated to a highlife-tinged Middle Eastern psychedelic noise jam that captures the spaciness of Sun Ra while maintaining the whimsy of Funkadelic. The next tune combines African polyrhythms with spacey wah-wah reverb and a “Spy vs. Spy” vibe — this could be the soundtrack for “Inspector Clouseau in the Sahel.” I feel like I’ve just walked into the cantina in Star Wars, only this time it’s on the edge of the Sahara, and some local hand drummers have crashed the party. The closing number takes us on a spooky Egyptian odyssey with a melody fit for a snake charmer, and showcasing a thrillingly incongruous bow-played upright bass. Mamadou from Senegal (who mentions that he has been in the U.S. for just two years) plays the talking drum like a mofo and totally steals the show with his effervescent stage presence.
After a brief intermission and a much-needed beer refill, I’m back up front and ready to rock again. Egypt 80 takes the stage, sans Seun, and the requisite dancing girls come out to catcalls and cheering. (Every real afrobeat band has to have dancing girls, you see. It’s just the thing to do.) The girls wear coordinating teensy-weensy batik outfits (skirt and top) with ethnic headdresses and jewelry, and their faces are painted with tribal designs, with some glitter thrown in for good measure.
The band’s opener features vocals and a spirited trumpet solo from Muyiwa Kunnuji, all enveloped in 10+ minutes’ worth of repeating guitar loops that never get old. Then the sprightly 70-something keyboardist, bandleader, and longtime Fela collaborator known as Baba Ani steps forward and introduces the second song (“African Soldier”), explaining its political meaning. Mind you, these are musicians who have been persecuted, beaten, tortured, and jailed for daring to play their politicized brand of music in their home country.
As the second song launches, the crowd is becoming visibly anxious, with those of us up front standing on tiptoe to try and see backstage. Where’s Seun? When will he be coming out? The anticipatory tension in the air is thicker than fufu.
Suddenly Seun is onstage, looking splendidly suave and dashing in a custom embroidered suit with shoes to match. He smiles beatifically as he raises his saxophone to join in to the song. Everybody goes crazy, and the frantically gyrating backsides of the dancers signal to us that this party’s about to get started.
Seun owns the sax with his effortless playing, cranking out smooth, easy riffs like hot butter. His vocals are even smoother than expected. He plays a few of his father’s songs (Fela’s breakthrough hit “Zombie” and his lesser-known “Kalakuta Show”), and the undeniable resemblance gives me goosebumps. While slightly less flamboyant than his father, Seun’s stage presence is unassuming yet still just as hypnotizing.
Egypt 80 also dazzles with its flawless performance. The horn section stays on point throughout the show, and the individual players comfortably solo and riff off one another with a practiced cool that’s thrilling to watch. The guitarist and bassist, who have clearly worked together for a long time, play their high-slung axes like it ain’t no thang, so the occasional glimpse of their indifferent expressions cracking ever so slightly into sheepish grins is nothing short of priceless. The percussionists manage to keep time while still sounding spontaneous and organic. My favorite member has to be the shekere player, who shakes away with such unabashed joy that I can’t help but assault him with compliments and a fist-bump at the end of the show. The mesmerizing dancers chug some Red Bull and keep on truckin’. Zumba, my ass! This is all the workout I need.
While every last song rocked my sandals off, there were some memorable standouts. The unfettered protest vibe of the midtempo shuffling groove “Rise” has me raising my fist in solidarity. (I say this with zero irony, you jaded hipsters.) “Mr. Big Thief,” another overtly political ditty, begins as a manic foot-stomper punctuated with sexy sax riffs. Then they pull Senegalese Mamadou (from the opening band, have you already forgotten?!) onstage to play with them, and he and his talking drum jump right in, the elated disbelief on his face making him look like a kid at Christmas. Things reach a fever pitch with “You Can Run,” with Seun scampering back and forth across the stage, drenched in sweat and doing bizarre little chicken dances. The band encored with “Mosquito Song,” providing a fitting denouement for this mindblowing, exhilarating, and pleasantly exhausting musical experience. Complete setlist follows:
• Giant of Africa
• African Soldier
• Kalakuta Show [Fela Kuti]
• Zombie [Fela Kuti]
• African Problems
• Mr. Big Thief
• The Good Leaf
• You Can Run
• Mosquito Song [encore]
As a longtime Fela fan and an afrobeat enthusiast, I can say without exaggeration that the show was a near-spiritual experience for me. Seun channels Fela so uncannily that you can’t help feeling like his spirit is in the room. The oldest band members are surely on a nostalgia trip, shooting sideways glances and half-smiles to each other throughout the show. Like his father before him, Seun’s electrifying stage presence energizes the crowd, whipping them into a frenzy. His mastery of the sax even parallels Fela’s. Still, Seun manages to keep something of himself at front and center at all times. He’s his own artist forging his own unique style, not simply rehashing what his father started.
Fela himself was a very political artist, and Seun carries this torch brilliantly. While Fela tended to aim his musical critiques squarely at Nigeria’s string of repressive military regimes that endlessly harassed and jailed him throughout the ‘70s and 80s, Seun’s subject matter appropriately reflects the globalized world we live in today. It’s particularly gratifying to hear familiar protest themes revamped and made current with clued-up references to 21st-century transnational villains like Monsanto and Big Oil (“Rise”). He even threw in the obligatory weed legalization spiel (“The Good Leaf”), complete with a crass sexualized display of a spewing water bottle. (Maybe you had to be there?) Despite some cheeky moments, Seun also managed to get the crowd a little misty-eyed with earnest declarations of our shared humanity and music’s role in emphasizing that. Scoff if you wanna, but there’s no doubt that his father would be very, very proud. The “FELA LIVES” tattoo across Seun’s upper back says it all.
To sum it up, I will disclose that I not only danced ‘til I had blisters on my feet, but I kept on dancing until they burst. (Yep, I went there.) I just need to communicate how amazingly hard this show rocked me, and how you, too, should aspire to have such a visceral musical experience the next time these guys come to town.
If you’re headed to Coachella in a few days, definitely do not miss Seun Kuti & Egypt 80!
Photo Credit: Andrew Forbes