Seun Kuti performs with immense, African energy
July 19, 2011
First things first, a Seun Kuti show will wear you out. At the end of his concert, before the encore, if you haven’t sweated out your cool, then you must not truly be alive and able to sense pure, original, African energy in and coming out the music. The band, comprised of some serious sax and trumpet players, hypnotic dancers with memorable voices, and surrounded by elders—members of the Egypt 80 who played with Seun’s father Fela on percussions and guitars, is simply a body rocking and mind opening experience, not just a concert.
I first saw Seun live at Stern Grove in San Francisco, where he not only came out of his shirt and embodied a reincarnation of his dad in dance and, in fiery lyrics, blew the San Francisco crowd away with songs from his first critically acclaimed album, Many Things. The sound, the charisma, the rebel-in-your-face stance, the tight pocket that is undeniable Afro-Beat (which I am more convinced is a blend of everything that is African and James Brown), hit me in a unique place because I knew at that moment I was hearing the closest to Fela I was every going to hear live. For the record, I’ve been listening to Fela since 1991. I first heard him through my mentor at the time Mwatabu Okantah, on his radio show Windwords which came on Sundays on Cleveland State’s Radio WCSB 89.3fm. “Upside Down”, “Center of The World”, and “Mr. Grammart (Calogylisationalism Is The Boss)” are songs I was playing next to X-Clan and Poor Righteous teachers in the early 90’s.
After Stern Grove, I immediately went out and purchased Many Things and been watching the moves being made, including the new deal with Knitting Factory Records, From Africa with Fury: Rise the new video, and the various interviews online, one which includes Seun saying his music is for “African people to wake up and solve their own problems.” His latest album and live set at The Regency Ballroom on a cool Saturday night in San Francisco is a clear indicator that Seun is just getting warmed up, he’s concerned about the same issues his ancestors were with, he’s as cold on the sax as he is in orchestrating his band and vocals, and truly, along with artists like Nneka and Blitz The Ambassador, is setting a new tone for music and politics from an African point of view.
Seun started his set, as always, by opening with a song by his dad Fela. For this occasion, Seun and The Egypt 80 chose “Zombie” to come out to. Incredibly hot from the onset, Seun spoke first with his horn, then with his voice, which is raspy, strong, and rich. The band is so solid that it seems almost effortless to the players, especially the two “timekeepers”, one controlling the claves and the other a shaker with serious dance moves all night which didn’t mess up his crisp white shirt. Seun came out in a fresh grey shirt and pants to match, but I knew it, and the shirt knew it too, that it was about to get sweated out because Seun moves about the whole stage with the same fervor as his dad in dance and expression. Also, I’m convinced that there is more than a performance going on because Fela’s presence was felt in the atmosphere.
Seun wasted no time and really gave a strong showcase of the music on From Africa with Fury: Rise, produced by Brian Eno, John Reynolds, and Seun Kuti, with additional production by Godwin Logie, and mixed by John Reynolds and Tim Oliver. “Slavemasters”, with lines like, “Till them tire for the cheating for many many years”, shows that Seun has been in tune to global politics today and his ancestral past, with a rhythm that doesn’t just makes you dance but feel the sentiment, and the title song “Rise” should be the anthem for new Africa and freedom and not just used for soccer stadiums and sporting events. My favorite line of “Rise” have to be when he admonishes petroleum and diamond companies “wey dey use our brothers as slaves for the stones”. Other strong songs of the night were “Mr. Big Thief” and “The Good Leaf”.
Seun must’ve known he was in Northern California (maybe not after telling the crowd he was tired from the jetlag from Europe), but by the colorful smell of cannabis that hovered over the ceiling of the Regency Ballroom, the good leaf was definitely in the house. The crowd, blended with San Fran hipsters who many have just jumped on the Fela bandwagon, Africans in button ups, and everyday people who clearly knew of Fela and Seun’s musical and historical background all had the place mostly packed (mostly, as the back towards the bar was light and there was room to dance). I can’t understand for the life of me how a few people were sitting in the balcony during this electric performance, but they even looked worn out at the end of the night because of the constant original, African music.
Do yourself a favor and pick up Seun’s latest album, From Africa with Fury: Rise, and when you see Seun listed as coming to your city to perform, wear your dancing shoes, open your ears and be inspired, and open your eyes and witness the continuing of a family legacy of strength, power, and politics and music. His album is out on Knitting Factory Records.
Jahi, a hip-hop artist and educator, writes a bi-weekly column on the music industry, politics, technology and education for Hip-Hop.com. He is the CEO of Microphone Mechanics, and an avid reader, chess player, and birdwatcher.