WOMAD 2009 Featured Artist: Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 (Nigeria)
Brooklands Park & TSB Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth
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Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 are more than a funk orchestra; they’re a musical family who have been united for more than 20 years.
Seun Kuti inherited his father Fela’s charisma, energy and booming voice along with his orchestra - Egypt 80. But Seun’s orchestra isn’t a clone of his fathers, even if we do see as much frenetic movement on stage and even if two thirds of the orchestra’s members were already there in Fela’s time.
Seun has added his own raging rhythm to Egypt 80 and is clearly influenced by rap; he cites Chuck D, Dr Dre and Eminem among his musical heroes. Seun’s songs are veritable treasures blossoming out of the ills that ravage contemporary Africa. Above all Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 are they are the best funk group today.
“You gave me your mud and I made gold from it” this famous Baudelaire quote could be the Kuti family motto, employed by father and son alike. Their songs, filled with the corruption, ignorance, malady, sadness, pollution and the many others ill that ravage contemporary Africa, are veritable musical treasures, flamboyant, jubilatory songs that make you want to get up and dance.
As a child Seun was his father’s orchestra’s mascot travelling everywhere with them as his mother (who has since passed away) danced and sang in the chorus of Egypt 80.
Eygpt 80 is legendary in the true sense of the word. It is Africa’s equivalent of what Duke Ellington’s jungle music did for the Afro-American Diaspora and boasts some remarkable resemblances. For the last 25 years they’ve played and rehearsed daily in Lagos at the Shrine Club. This cohesion and longevity alone explains the absolutely terrifying precision of the rhythmic reflexes down to the thousandth of a second that makes their ultra-syncopated polyphony the perfect ‘swing’ model.
It could seem passé to use a word like swing, but it’s difficult to find a better way to characterise Afrobeat at this level of expression. Let’s not forget that in the 1930s and 40s, Ghana and then neighbouring Nigeria adopted and adapted jazz to create “highlife”, the direct ancestor of Afrobeat, which Fela himself practised in the early days.
Today Seun too makes the most of this long musical tradition. Aged eight, Seun would find himself back stage at the Harlem Apollo, the place where, little did he know, all the Afro-American musical greats from Aretha Franklin to James Brown, had begun. He watched his father sing and said to himself, “I want to sing too.” Fela laughed but let him try anyway... with success.
From that moment on Seun never quit the orchestra, taking control after his father’s death from AIDS in 1997. He briefly studied music, as his father had long ago, in England.
So, ten years after Fela’s death, the orchestra of which he was so proud continues, and there’s no doubt that he would be happy with what his son is doing and proud of the singer that he has become.
His first American tour in 2007 was certainly on everybody’s lips. The Egypt 80 musicians only got their visas after Barack Obama intervened and their concert in Chicago practically became a riot as hundreds of spectators leapt onto the stage, much to the distaste of the security services. The festival organiser declared it the best concert of his life!
All you have to do now is see Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 live and understand why all other dance music seems so desperately mechanical, static and dull when compared to the incredible Afrobeat of Seun Kuti and Egypt 80.