Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Jun 24th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
It's rather a contrast from how he seemed a scant 30 minutes or so earlier: shirtless, specs-less and sweaty and shaking his tail feather with quite a fury in front of what is certainly the funkiest, most powerful Afrobeat ensemble in the known universe -- while discoursing on the persistent, oppressive colonial impact on Africa revolving around oil, trade deals and imposed religion.
It's a fittingly hot Summer Solstice eve, if not quite Lagos-level swelter, on which Kuti and the band Egypt '80 -- the band that played with his ultra-iconic father Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late warrior king of Afrobeat and, not randomly, the subject of the very first Around the World column in April 2007 -- are kicking off their first full U.S. tour, coinciding with the release of Kuti's debut album. The setting is the California Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, home of the annual, global-minded summer series of free Grand Performances events. The stage is nestled among hotel, apartment and office towers with a shallow concrete pond between the band and the pack-in crowd and a dancing-waters fountain behind the group shooting spurts 30 ... 40 ... 50 feet high, in time with the heavily rhythmic music as a backdrop.
What a sight and sound it is, veteran baritone sax man Adedimeji "Showboy" Fagbemi and trumpeter Emmanuel Kunnuji (both electrifying soloists) leading the dozen-strong musicians and three shimmying female singer-dancers. And Kuti, though not quite to their level when he plays sax, more than holds his own as a dynamic presence, in a manner familiar to anyone who saw his father perform but hardly imitative.
It's a bit of an odd mix, though, the Yoruban fire of staccato guitars, blaring horns and burbling drums amid opulent California cool. Long, seductive instrumental vamps give way to lyrics about cultural and economic imperialism in a town built on cultural and economic imperialism. As the title of one of his songs says, he sings this night of 'Many Things.' There's 'Na Oil,' the malaria-fight anthem 'Mosquito Song,' a chanted 'Fire Dance' with a smoldering sensuality bordering on James Brown's 'Hot Pants,' all complemented with a few of his father's pointed pieces, most notably the indictment of religious oppression 'Shuffering and Shmiling.' The latter in particular is delivered with righteous fervor over the kind of extended, tight jam that via Fela's vision became a signature of modern African music.
And the crowd is swept up in it all, shimmering to the simmering, even translating the steel-eyed activism into contemporary American political consciousness terms. At the end of 'Shuffering and Shmiling,' they even break out into a spontaneous but hearty chant of "Obama! Obama!"
Kuti declares, "You make me feel like home." And then he smiles. A big broad smile. A smile that's all his own. And that is incalculably important.
See, Kuti is dancing here in some pretty big shoes. Fela ranks as the giant of modern African music and probably second only to Bob Marley in terms of global impact of a non-European or -American musical artist.
But you didn't see Fela smile in public, at least not the warm, glowing smile that Seun flashes regularly this night. A sardonic smile maybe, the result of Fela's status as an embattled rebel, a visible political dissident regularly jailed and attacked by Nigerian governmental forces right up to his 1997 death from AIDS complications, when Seun was just 14. Seun didn't have the same life, so he couldn't pull off the exact same attitude. The smile gives him a distinct identity. Of course, it also accompanies a wicked, incisive sense of humor.
"Put your mobiles up," he implores the crowd at one point, trying to spur the post-cigarette-lighter concert ritual of waving cell phones. "Come on, it's not Nigeria. No one will rob you."
He shows off the droll wit a few more times, thanking the fans for spending money on gas to come see him play for free, encouraging audience members to get louder on a call-and-response exchange so that the "rich people" in the building rising at his back could hear them, never quite betraying how much his comments are just in good fun and how much they are barbed jabs. (He was totally sincere, though, when he commiserated with the locals about the Lakers' recent loss to the Celtics in the NBA finals.)
Told after the show that this humor was a particularly winning feature, Kuti beams. "That's the humor I grew up with," he says. "Dad was very witty. I love sarcastic humor."
Just as impressive is the balance of confidence and perspective he shows onstage and in conversation. Remarkably, he shows none of the defensiveness about comparisons to his father that one has gotten at times from others of such rarefied heritage who have attempted to follow along -- you know, Julian Lennon, Jakob Dylan, various Marley children and, in fact, his own older half-brother Femi Kuti, who has been recording and touring with his brand of Fela-rooted Afrobeat for nearly two decades now (and started playing in his father's band when he was just 15 in 1977). Seun's approach is more arguably conservative than Femi's, which has seen him collaborating with hip-hop figures such as Common and dance-music remixers in attempts to broaden the reach of his music. Yet it also seems more current and relevant, and more natural -- which speaks both to the timelessness of Fela's music and, sadly, the continuing need to address the issues he tackled.
Sure, Seun (pronounced, it seems, somewhere between "she-oon" and "shay-oon") bristles at mention of him using his father's band but only due to a too-literal interpretation of the term "using." After all, he first played with them when he was only nine. "Not using them," he corrects. "We are collaborators."
No, he doesn't merely tolerate the comparisons, he practically invites them.
"From a very young age, I was always taught to accept who I am," he says. "It's easier to understand when you're in looking out than out looking in. For me I have no problems at all. Music matters to me. Ideology matters to me. Even if I wasn't my father's son it would be a privilege to sing these songs and to try to change things for Africa. The kind of world we're living in now -- in the '60s and '70s, artists worked for social improvement. Today they talk about irrelevant things. We have the power to influence the world, talk about humanity."
And they can dance -- and get thousands to dance with them -- while doing it. Now that's a birthright.