LIVE REPORT: Seun Kuti & Egypt 80
, December 10th, 2012 10:12
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 bring some of his father Fela Kuti's energy, exuberance and fervour to London's Forum, reports Jack Losh
Photos copyright: 2012 ventphoto.com/Jon Burton
Compared with Seun Kuti's other London gig earlier this year, this evening's performance is infinitely superior. With fans up on their feet in Stratford's Theatre Royal last July, bouncers swooped and demanded everyone sit down, claiming the Victorian building couldn't take the strain. But Seun - no stranger to propulsive hip gyrations himself, plus the occasional flailing arm - baited security, urging the audience to dance even harder before he eventually quit the stage: "If they are not going to be allowed to do this then I will not perform." Tonight however, the audience are safely planted on the ground floor in the spartan surroundings of The Forum in Kentish Town, which at least promises no interruptions by overzealous security folk.
The night starts lukewarm musically, with Matthew Halsall's disappointing set of 90s-era dinner party trip hop/jazz (in fairness, he's much better on record doing his Alice Coltrane thing), but icy in ambience, thanks to the outdoor smokers' bay exit plunging the auditorium into a deep chill. But within minutes of Seun and his Egypt 80 bounding on stage (well, more of an amble in the case of the original 1970s members), the mercury shoots up as the hall transforms into an increasingly grooving, sweaty mass. Spurring the hall on is the crowned king of afrobeat, Seun on vocals and alto sax, backed by a full set drummer, percussionists, a four-strong horn section, electric bass and guitar and female singer/dancers.
Seun's father, afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, was frequently in conflict with the military powers that presided over 70s Nigeria, thanks to his politically charged songs, wild antics, fondness for ganja and boisterously cocky demeanour. A measure of this irreverence and political engagement has transferred to his son, with an added update for the modern day. A high point of the Forum gig was always going to be a rendition of 'Rise', the title track of Seun's latest record. No longer targeted at the white colonial oppressor, this is protest music for modern times: "We must rise against the petroleum companies", "We must rise against the diamond companies", "We must rise up against companies like Monsanto and Halliburton", he hollers with fervour, pointing his fingers like an indictment.
Beyond the music's message though, equally crucial are its infectious rhythms, driving groove and explosive musical power. Seun began playing sax with Egypt 80, originally his father’s band, when he was just 9 years old, and was only 14 when his father died of AIDS. Now he fronts the veteran group with aplomb, switching between vocals and alto sax. With the same middleweight boxer’s build and exaggerated dance moves as his father, he delivers some strong, incendiary soloing during the gig, and his self-assured and occasionally manic frontmanship is exceptional. Chatting at length to the audience about legalising marijuana and indulging in his well-rehearsed spiel that London is now just an annex of Lagos, he rarely sounds as genuinely angry as his lyrics might suggest.
It's testament to what his father began 40 years ago that the audience is notably mixed, both in terms of age and nationality. The song's punchy arrangements are excellent and provide ample space for some strong solos from the horn players, especially baritone saxophonist Abidemi Adebiyi Adekunle and trumpeter Emmanuel Kunnuji. The gig runs for almost two hours, well sustained by the spry and irrepressibly energetic Seun, built more like an athlete than musician. His own original tracks are excellent live, but the highlights admittedly arrive when he delves into his father's back catalogue, not least with show-stopping classics 'Zombie' and 'Expensive Shit'. His own full-tilt songs contain fewer musical surprises. But overall the performance does much to affirm Brian Eno's bold statement last year, that Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 are the continent-hopping purveyors of some of the “biggest, wildest, livest music on the planet”.