On the last day of the Whitsun Holidays the population of the Netherlands will be found at three places. Those that don’t love music will be found at the beach. Lovers of mainstream pop music will be found at Pinkpop to listen to the likes of Madness, The Killers and Bruce Springsteen. Lovers of World Music can be found at Music Meeting in Nijmegen to see bands from all over the world topped by Afrobeat sensation Seun Kuti and Fela’s Egypt 80.
MUSIC MEETING NIJMEGEN
The festival, which was held on the grounds of the local university and celebrated its 25th anniversary, consisted of several tents for live music, including classical music, and a fare.
The entrance to the festival was free, but people had to pay for the gigs. When I arrived, Seun and following hadn’t arrived yet, so I had ample time to look around. Walking around the fair it seemed as if the train had transported me back to the Sixties instead of to the city of Nijmegen. White people with dreadlocks walking around on their bare feet in brightly coloured handmade garbs as if it wasWoodstock and they had come to see Jimi Hendrix. There was a camping close by for people that wanted to attend the entire festival and I saw a brightly coloured Volkswagen bus with “love” painted all over it. I would have thought that things like that belonged to the long lost past now. The fare had some interesting stuff for sale: CD’s with World Music, all kinds of African carvings, more brightly coloured garbs and different snacks and beverages from all over the world. I got to see some bits and pieces of other bands. Jovino Santon Netto Quarteto had a good flutist and Anthony Joseph and the Spasm band gave a hot show. Their music is clearly Afrobeat related.
I checked a couple of times backstage but the tour buss from Düsseldorf hadn’t arrived yet. Some time before 19.00, 30 minutes before the scheduled start of the gig, I saw Seun walking on the festival grounds with some people of the organisation. He immediately recognized my Fela Kuti t-shirt and we shook hands. He told me that we could do our interview after the show.
Towards 19.15 people were already lining up for the last concert of the festival. One lady came all the way from Germany to attend the festival. Like me she had seen both Seun’s brother and late father. At 19.30 there was a colossal crowd of people waiting to get in. In the meanwhile we could listen to a swinging sound check that already got some people in the crowd in a dancing mood. At 19.45 we could go inside. Some people, including the lady from Germany, rushed to the stage. Luckily we didn’t have to wait for long. Five minutes later Adedimeji Fagbemi, who I now noticed is blind in one eye, introduced the Egypt 80 band. One for one the members appeared, adding their particular instrument to the mix. “Don’t Give That Shit to Me”, is apparently the band’s opening tune. Adedimeji Fagbemi or “Showboy”, the composer of this song, filled in the vocals. It really rocked and all members improvised with their partiuclar instruments.
When the band started their next song “Showboy” introduced Seun Anikulapo Kuti. Seun appeared in a classy African suit with a black and white pattern and ditto shoes. He welcomed the crowd and before long he was singing “One day maybe one day, those say they stealy money for government”. I thought it was fantastic that the crown prince of Afrobeat immediately treated us to one of his father’s classics.
The song Army Arrangement, probably Fela Kuti’s most militant song, was featured on both the Music is the Weapon documentary and the Fela in Concert DVD, though neither versions gave us the song in its entirety. In 1984 I was given the album Army Arrangement by my uncle, who worked for a record company. Because Fela was serving a five year prison sentence at the time, the album was mixed by the infamous Bill Laswell from New York and released on his Celluloid Label. Laswell got several of his inner circle musicians to play on the album, including Bernie Worrell of Parliament and Talking Heads fame, and even enlisted reggae music’s most famous drummer Sly Dunbar (of Sly and Robbie) to fill in on the drums. I thought it was an interesting album at the time, partly because it was a departure from Fela’s regular Afrobeat format. I later read that some guys managed to smuggle a tape recorder into the prison where Fela was incarcerated and when Fela heard Laswell’s version of the song he was beside himself with rage. However, the album did stir up interest in Fela’s case and might have played a role in bringing about his release. Luckily, we now have Fela’s original version of the song available from Wrasse Records.
Now back to the present where a young and fiery General was leading his musical soldiers into an all-out verbal war against what might well be Africa’s biggest problem: government corruption! Seun left out the instrumental solos from Army Arrangement, but aside from that it was a very close rendering of his father’s original. It even included the pornographic rap that was cut out of Bill Laswell’s version!
MOSQUITO SONG AND THE DANCING HIPPIE
The next thing in store for us was a new song that will be on the new album. Like his father, Seun doesn’t seem to depart much with his basic formula and any progression is gradual. So all I can say is that there’s more straightforward, rocking, classic Afrobeat for us in store.
Subsequently Seun led us through several songs of his current selftitled album. It’s a pity that Seun’s English neighs very much to the Pidgin side. This would be no problem on a Saturday night in The Shrine, but for the average Dutchman and even for an Englishman like me, it was hard to understand the explanations of the songs. On “Na Oil”, however, the crowd understood his plea for “musical participation” in a call and answer session. Seun asked us to sing so hard that it could be heard in Africa. I doubt it was, but I think Seun was satisfied with our contribution. After this song Seun demonstrated a new dance. I forgot what it was called but it consisted of a military looking movement walking forwards and backwards. At the end Seun grabbed his crotch and once again I recognized his father in the 26 year old band leader.
After a few more songs the temperature had risen and so had the intensity of the gig. Seun took of his shirt and played his best song Many Things for us. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: this song is a true classic and we can only be thankful that it has come so early in Seun’s recording career.
Next thing up was a hot version of Mosquito Song. During the song one of the hippies I spoke about earlier leapt onto the stage and started dancing like mad on his bare feet. The band members laughed and watched. After a couple of minutes Seun put his towel around him, thanked him and the hippie jumped back into the crowd. Mosquito Song turned into the horn blowing sound that Fela always used to conclude his gigs. With a black power salute to the front, left, right and back Seun concluded the gig. The organizer appeared on stage and asked us “Was that good or not?” the crowd roared. An even greater roar ensued when he asked us “Would you like to hear some more music?” “OK, I’ll see what I can do” he told us.
He was apparently successful because within minutes Seun and his soldiers were back on the stage for an exhilarating version of his only party song, Fire Dance. We finally got to see one of the dancers up close. It was a pity both girls had to dance in near darkness almost the entire evening at the back of the stage, because the looseness and rhythm they displayed were unique. Again Seun got almost the entire crowd to participate, singing “Fire” after every line from his saxophone. When the song ended the musicians bid the crowd goodbye. There was a couple next to me that had taken their daughter, a little black girl, with them. The girl had been drumming along to the music the entire gig and the percussionist picked her up and held her up in the air. That was something she won’t forget soon!
That was the end of a fabulous summer night in which the musicians seemed to have just as much fun as the spectators. With performances like this we can be assured that the future of Afrobeat Music is in good hands. When Fela Kuti said: “I can’t die. They can’t kill me. Because my name in Anikulapo. I carry death in my pouch.” many would have dismissed the statement as an example of his typical arrogance. But the statement holds a truth in a way that even he himself might not have foreseen at the time. His political and musical tradition is upheld in a grand way by his descendants. What more could he have asked for?
Part two: Backstage interview.
Text and pictures, copyright, Julio Punch, 2009.