Monday, April 9, 2012

Seun Kuti at Home in NYC: Live Review

Review and photos by Banning Eyre
Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 at Highline Ballroom, April 8, 2012

Seun Kuti digs New York.  In fact, he traces his career in music to the time he saw his iconic father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, performing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. "I can never forget that gig," he recalled in 2007. "I said to myself, 'When I grow up, this is exactly what I want to do.'" Flash ahead to the Highline Ballroom last night, and there he was, more than "grown up," two superb albums under his belt, leading Fela's band of veterans with confidence and verve that would surely have made the afrobeat icon proud. 

The set opened with an instrumental number, letting the brass players take solos, as they did throughout the show.  These are not world-class soloists.  Brass chops are one area where Seun's elder brother Femi and his band Positive Force have the edge.  Egypt 80s strength is its organic symbiosis and its untouchable command of classic afrobeat grooves.  When Seun hit the stage, he opened with a cover of Fela's "Zombie," its challenge to military subservience to power elites, and control over African populations, sadly still relevant decades after the song first riled the Nigerian scene in the late 70s.

From there, the set was all originals, mostly from Seun's brilliant 2011 CD, From Africa With Fury, Rise (Knitting Factory Records).  Seun paused for a generous shoutout to New York, praising the sold-out crowd for supporting African music, and rewarding them with a rare performance of one of his older song, "African Problems."

The energy in Seun's set built inexorably.  He paused just once for a slow song, "Rise," punctuated by a rap to the audience--a kind of afrobeat economics lesson in which the control governments exert over citizens, especially poor ones, is universal the world over, "the same thing, just in a different package."  Seun spoke to the audience with warmth and familiarity, an evolution beyond Fela's playful surliness.  But Seun is every bit his father's son, and his economics rap in no way let corporate America, which uses the evil tool of "credit" to ensnare the young, off the hook. 

From there, the pace of the music grew increasingly breathless, with the lashing grooves of "Slave Masters" and "Mr Big Thief."  The inevitable removal of the shirt moment arrived mid  set, and for a moment, Seun stood with his back to the audience, letting us savor the words "Fela Lives" tattooed across his shoulder blades.  Seun has exquisite stage charisma, arguably the most powerful of anyone in the Kuti clan so far.  A key element is his wiry, wriggly, writhing body convolutions, in which muscle and bone seem to turn to rubber before one's eyes, transformed by Seun's deep involvement in the music.  As he becomes possessed, more deeply song by song, it becomes impossible to take your eyes off the guy.  He is quite simply one of the most compelling stage presences in African music today.

Nowhere was Seun's winning theatricality more effectively on display than on his praise song to marijuana, "The Good Leaf," which closed the set proper.  Seun made a point of saying this is not a call for legalization.  Frankly, he doesn't care whether pot is legal or not.  It's a plant, and man doesn't get to control nature.  Otherwise, he quipped, they would make tsunamis illegal.  Seun fired up the faithful with an inside reference to the Broadway show Fela!  Taunting the crowd for responding with enthusiasm to Sahr [Ngaujah, who played Fela in the production], and only limply to his demands for vocal support, he threatened to pack up his sax and go to the hotel to catch some sleep.  With that, the crowd roared along with Seun's call to "plant the seed and make it grow."  Seun used a water bottle to water imagined weed seeds on the stage, playing the schtick to the hilt before launching into a long read of his lighthearted ganja praise song.   An encore was inevitable.

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