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Groove Nations


Seun  Kuti and Egypt 80

 

1

 


+ Geraldo Pino and The Heartbeats


Barbican Hall


May 28, 2008

 

 

 

THE IMPOSTERSary Couzens

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

Singer, song-writer, saxophonist Oluwaseun Anikulapo-Kuti, a.k.a. Seun Kuti is the youngest son of the late founder of Afrobeat, renowned performer and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and as such, it would seem that he has much to live up to. However, the instantaneous, multi-dimensional assault on the senses Egypt 80 provided in lieu of their lead singer’s appearance onstage bode well for the latest bearer of that legacy.

Geraldo Pino and The Heartbeats did not fare as well, though there was nothing wrong with the band itself, whom front-man Pino kept boasting had ‘only been rehearsing for two days.’ Apparently the self-professed star singer had been in semi-retirement in Nigeria for many years, and if his performance here was anything to go by, that may have been something of a blessing in disguise for his former band. Pino strutted, shouted and grunted, but said very little, musically or otherwise in the course of his self-satisfied performance, and the frustration of his trumpet player, Claude Deppa, was visible on more than one occasion.  A gig at the Barbican Centre in London may have presented a golden opportunity to regroup for a band that has been out of action for as long as this one has, (at least with Pino as frontman) but, for the most part, this singular chance was effectively blown by the crotch thrusting, limp-funking Pino, who, with his tall, lanky frame and thick dark rimmed glasses, sat back in his chair like a burnt out, African version of Bo Diddley. Although the semi-retired singer more or less got down to the vocal challenges the band’s own good-natured songs, written in the seventies, presented, when it came time to help keep the momentum going on the last two numbers, both of which were covers, he went into, what appeared to be, deliberately apathetic mode.  This may be somewhat understandable, in light of the fact that they were not the band’s original songs, however, as a member of a musical unit, a front-man is still responsible for maintaining his share of the collective responsibility. On the James Brown number, ‘I Feel Good,’ which the band and back up singers threw themselves into, he growled feebly, citing the fact that he is sixty-eight as an obstacle to deeper expression. The interference of age had not been apparent from Pino’s earlier performing, during which his OAP status was viewed (aloud) as a matter of pride. A vocally botched version of Ray Charles’ classic, ‘What I Say?’ ended the set on an even fainter whimper as Pino lapped up a half-hearted, possibly mocking, somewhat slumped ovation from those of a similarly dispassionate stance and/or the drunker amongst us.  As a band, The Heartbeats and their back-up vocalists would do just fine, provided they leave their proudly cantankerous ex front man behind.

The house was ready for Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 before they arrived and the by the time his band hit the stage, the hall itself seemed to be vibrating in anticipation. From my seat in the stalls, I watched as one of several men in loose gold outfits, this one sporting a shiny green, insect-inspired hat, stepped up to the mike, saxophone in hand. The ensuing sounds were clear and striking, and the accompanying percussion was so multi-layered that it soon became impossible to determine who was responsible for which sound, so, it seemed that the best thing to do would be to just to sit back and enjoy it. But sitting, it turns out, is not Seun Kuti’s thing, for when he arrived on stage, and took the microphone in hand, there was no turning back to la-la land! Most audience members rose to their feet, and never sat again, myself among them. I’d never had the privilege of seeing Fela live and I have yet to see his other son, Femi in action, so it was my intention to make the most of Seun Kuti and Egypt 80!

As the frontman of his late father’s legendary band, Egypt 80, Kuti was dynamic and ritualistic, chant- singing hypnotically and dancing as though he was, progressively, deepening his own trance like state with each and every number. The excitement of the crowd seemed to intermingle with his own intensity and that of the band, heightening the proceedings on stage, as every song elevated the vibrant vibes in the hall. Fela classics such as Suffering and Smiling, Army Arrangement and B.B.C. (Big Blind Country) inspired applause and increasingly joyous dancing from fans of the late advocate of the Nigerian people, and his son’s spell-binding interpretations of his own, unrelentingly infectious, politically empowered songs maintained the electrifying flow.

In between songs, Kuti spoke of injustices at home in Nigeria, where ‘they’re arresting people,’ going on to warn us that ‘they (those in charge) only let us see what they want us to see’, as political content was just as prominent in his own songs, as in those his father had made famous.  In moments of high drama and/or tension, one of the percussionists sat astride a large drum, striking it with two heavy clubs, adding a forcefully ominous undercurrent to the already mesmerising beats. Twelve of the musicians in the present incarnation of Egypt 80 were also part of the original, fifteen piece band, whose name Fela Kuti derived from the fact that in 1980, it was acknowledged that the cultural origins of the black people come from Egypt. During the course of one powerful number, many of the black males in the audience could be seen raising their hands in a gesture of African pride, something both Kuti patriarch Fela and sons Femi and Seun have always welcomed and inspired.  Kuti’s remarks to the audience that he ‘studied in England, if it counts for anything,’ and ‘the French clap louder than you,’ may have been designed to help elevate pride among the locals.

Back-up vocals were performed by two soulful women with painted faces, long strings of beads and leaf printed shifts, whose spectacular dancing often competed with their chant like vocals for pride of place. It has to be said that never have I witnessed any dancers with more control over, among other things, their derriere muscles than these two ladies, even though I watched the late James Brown and band getting down from the second row of the Barbican Hall when they made their last appearance there.

It is Seun Kuti’s goal to bring his paternal legacy up to date, and, as such, he professes to prefer ‘thinking’ over fighting. The show’s songs were an 80/20 ratio of his own material, to that of his late father and his determination to ‘give respect to the man,’ was accomplished with genuine passion and originality.

If this concert, the first of the ‘Groove Nations’ series is anything to go on, you’d be ill advised to miss a single one.

 

www.barbican.org/groove-nations
28 May – 3 Jul 08

 

 

 

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