Live review: Seun Anikulapo Kuti & Egypt 80 at California Plaza
Seun Kuti may be in only his late 20s, but when he stood on the outdoor stage at Grand Performances in downtown Los Angeles on Friday night, his alto sax held tight against his body, surrounded by 13 remarkable musicians delivering pointillist punches of brass, bass, electric guitar and percussion, he brought with him not only the obvious inspiration, his late father, the legendary Afrobeat bandleader Fela Kuti, but also a legacy, a belief system and a strength of will that stretches across time and continents.
The youngest son of Nigerian legend Fela proved not only an inheritor to that profound history but also a musical voice able to deftly levitate a heavy-duty mess of funk, soul, African high life and defiance that would have buckled the knees of lesser artists.
To fully appreciate the story, look back generations to the foundations upon which Seun and his band, Egypt 80, are constructed. His great grandfather, Canon J.J. Ransome-Kuti, was a Christian pastor whose liturgical music was drawn not only from the influence of European hymns but also supported by hypnotic Yoruba rhythms. Seun's grandmother (Fela's mother) was an early, loud voice for women's rights in Nigeria. Her husband, and Fela's father, was the first president of the Nigerian teachers union and Seun's poet-uncle is Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.
Fela transformed Nigerian music. After studying in England, touring America and landing in Los Angeles for a six-month stint in 1969, he returned to Lagos to upend politics and music with thoughts informed by the nascent Black Panther movement and sounds influenced by James Brown, jazz and funk. Since his death in 1997 because of complications from AIDS, his spirit has continued to be a cultural and political force (as evidenced by the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Fela!”). Fela's elder son Femi, 49, travels with his own Afrobeat group.
It's a quite a history for Seun to live up to, but he learned early: By age 8, he was performing onstage with Fela and Egypt 80; it showed quickly Friday at California Plaza in the confident, defiant burst of his saxophone and bark of his voice within a burning version of “Zombie,” one of Fela's best known songs.
But then, he had a lot of help. Egypt 80 was Fela's last group, and it still features as bandleader-keyboardist Lekan Animasahun, who served the same role in the father's band. Many of the members played with Fela too; among the baker's dozen (and two magnetic dancers) were a brass section featuring trumpet and baritone and tenor saxophones; four percussionists; two electric guitarists; and deep, intense basslines, which guided the whole creation through seven original songs from Seun's blistering new album, “From Africa With Fury: Rise.”
The highlight was “Rise,” from Seun's new record, is an urgent but languid cry against the forces of power and money that have long plagued the African continent. “I cry for Africa when I see them in the hands of these people,” he sang, calling out not only the despots within Africa but also the Western regimes and multinational corporations from outside. Musically, “Rise” swirled with motion; the sound suggested a Venn diagram with a dozen melodic circles whose central intersection was the groove.
Seun's alto solos — and entire approach to sonics — are more tightly wound than brother Femi's work. You could hear it on the other Fela song that Seun did Friday, “Upside Down.”
Drawing on the frantic combination of funk and West African highlife, juju and Yorumba music, Seun was firmly in control when singer-activist Sandra Izsadore, in a resplendent blue dress and massive afro, came out to sing. Izsadore is best known as Fela's Los Angeles muse, and her role in his L.A. life as a conduit into the Black Panther's philosophies in '69 was given great weight in the “Fela!” musical. As she came onstage, those who understood that past acknowledged the connection.
For those who didn't, Seun helped, talking between songs about Fela's time here and how it affected his father's music: “The inspiration came in Los Angeles,” he said. Which was only partly true; he and Egypt 80 were tapped into a source way richer, one that echoed in every perfect beat.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 perform at California Plaza on Friday evening as part of the ongoing Grand Performances concert series. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times.