Playing Paradiso is in many ways a crucial test for any pop musician. Any group or artist that has had only the slightest significance in the history of popular music has played Paradiso, Amsterdam’s premier music temple. 25 years ago a man named Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938-1997) filled the interior of this former church with an exotic sounding concoction of African and Afro-American music forms. It was unique that an artist who never got any TV and hardly any radio exposure was able to fill such a big (and famous) hall.
Now, a quarter of a century later, Fela’s backing band Egypt 80 is now fronted by Seun Kuti, Fela’s youngest son. Seun is already a full-fledged band member at the age of 25. At this age Fela was still toying around with Highlife Jazz in Koola Lobitos and Seun’s older brother Femi was getting The Positive Force together. Seun is managed by Martin Meissonier from France. I remember Meissonier as the man responsible for the high tech synth element in the Juju music of King Sunny Adé, another famous Nigerian musician of the 1980’s.
At 20.30 Paradiso’s main hall seemed about half-filled. The DJ was playing some funky instrumental Afrobeat that got us in the right mood. Most of the crowd seemed to be forty- something and looked like they might have seen Fela play there in the 1980’s. When the assistant band leader of Egypt 80, Adedimeji Fagbemi, appeared on stage the venue suddenly seemed filled with people, shouts and whistles. In true Afrobeat fashion the band leader was last to appear on stage. The guys and girls of Egypt 80 performed an entire song lasting 10 minutes with Adedimeji Fagbemi filling in on vocals. Don’t give That Shit To Me is an excellent example of Seun’s style of Afrobeat, that stays very close to the original style of his father.
Egypt 80 currently consists of three horn players, three percussionists, one regular drummer, one keyboard player who plays a Korg (as did Fela), two guitar players, one bass player, and last but not least, two female back-up singers/dancers. Egypt 80 was a lot bigger in Fela’s days, but it was always a coming and going of musicians and dancers. There was a drum lying on the ground that would reach to my chin and was covered with goat skin. I have never seen this instrument before and never saw it at Fela’s or Femi’s gigs.
When Adedimeji Fagbemi announced that the youngest son of the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti would appear on stage, cries filled the air. When Seun appeared on stage I suddenly got a shock: it seemed like a 25 year old Fela had just appeared before my eyes. I had to blink my eyes several times before seeing that Seun is slightly darker in complexion and perhaps more energetic than his father. That being said, Seun displays an uncanny resemblance to his late father that exceeds even that of his older brother Femi. Seun guided us through several songs from his own repertoire. Sometimes monotone, but always exciting and impossible not to groove to with those fantastic eruptions from the horn guys. These are the primordial yet contemporary rhythms from the beautiful continent of Africa, the birthplace of humanity.
Every song lasted around 10 minutes, often there was no break between songs. The horn players got to play one solo after the other. Especially the trumpet player knew his trade like few others. The interaction with the public in a “call and answer” session was also part of the show. The percussion guys were right on track and never missed a single (afro)beat the entire show. While not as authoritarian as his father, Seun is very much a band leader. Interacting with the percussionists, quieting down the band when needed and telling them when to stop by his arm movements or jumping into the air and landing on the ground.
Not being too busy, there was lots of room to dance in Paradiso’s main hall and that opportunity was grasped by many. Especially a group of guys from the Netherlands’ West-African community were partying their asses off. In the meanwhile the two dancing queens at the back of the stage were dancing incredibly fluidly. Instead of moving to the rhythm they were moved by the rhythm. I just wished Paradiso’s light guys had put a bit more light on them, they certainly deserved a bit more exposure.
One of the new songs blended into what would be the high point of the evening for me: the performance one of Fela’s original songs. Shuffering and Shmiling is one of the lesser know Egypt 80 songs and was featured in the documentary Music is The Weapon. I was amazed at the reaction of the crowd that apparently knew the lyrics by heart from a random song out of a catalogue of 77 albums! They knew when to sing “Amen” after every line. This tells us the legacy of “The Black President” will not be forgotten anytime soon. Seun’s dance antics were just as amazing. Whirling around the stage and imitating the movements of a fool while singing “Dem go follow Popo/Dem go follow Imam”. The use of Fela’s line “out of any goddamn church” was somewhat ironic, as the song was in fact performed in a church!
Then it was time for three more new songs by a profusely sweating Seun displaying his naked torso with “Fela Lives” tattooed on his back. These included the album opener of the new eponymous album, Many Things, which is already an Afrobeat classic in its own right. Then, the dancers and Seun lined up on the front of the stage and made the Black Power salute to the front, right and left. In the meanwhile the entire band played their instruments full throttle. Its musicality might be debated, but it certainly made my hairs stand up. To the disappointment of the public there was no encore. Egypt 80’s musicians are getting older now and apparently can no longer keep up with the Afrobeat marathons of its founder.
Some music critics criticize Seun for playbacking his father’s songs, but they are entirely missing the point. Yes, he shares the same dance antics, physique (or maybe the same gym), and, if you will, arrogance of his father. But it’s all in the genes. It’s Fela’s blood running through his veins, no more no less. Fela’s lyrics are just as relevant today as they were in his lifetime. Obassanjo and Yar’adua, the two major culprits targeted in Fela’s lyrics, are still pulling the strings of the corrupt Nigerian society.
I never thought I would see Egypt 80 again after Fela’s sad death in 1997. This just proves that nothing is impossible in this life. Afrobeat lives and Afrobeat rules!
Part two: video’s.
Text and pictures, copyright, Julio Punch, 2008.