Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80. El Rey Theater. June 21.

A man once said that musicians and dancers respond differently to music, that rarely is one both a dancer and a musician. I think it was Jason Moss of Cherry Poppin' Daddies. That's not important. The relevance of the comment lies in how well it embodies American response to music. We're used to guitars, and our dances are often choreographed to some degree rather than a spontaneous, natural response. We're not quick to shed our inhibitions, and we're afraid to make vocal rhythms that don't say anything significant, or move as we'd like, so we're a culture of abundant musicians and few dancers. At least, in the indie, rock and pop worlds.

Nigerian brass, then, is a welcome break and a much-needed exception to the rule we've set in place. The youngest son of the late Fela Kuti, Seun Kuti inherited Dad's leadership role in Egypt 80 at fifteen years old; now in his mid-20s, he's already primed to be a lifelong bandleader – a bold speaker, blunt lyricist, presence that completely fills a stage. The El Rey was Egypt 80's second American stop on a tour promoting the freshly-released Many Things, and already Kuti was reminding us of our shortcomings. You're in Africa right now, don't be afraid to dance. This is Los Angeles, everyone has a cell phone. Wave it in the air. Were it not a sick reminder of how heavily we rely on our gadgets, it would have been strangely beautiful to see over a hundred glowing cell phones swaying in unison like lighters.

Our own identities aside, it was a privilege to share a room with Seun Kuti & Egypt 80. To watch Kuti dance is like watching footage of his father on stage, right down to his dancer's build and now-retro, high-waisted yellow pants. He can quiver with speed, flail and contort until every individual muscle is visibly dancing with him. His eyes are piercing and expressive, and his hands play a large part in his every move. Were he still alive, I doubt Fela would have instructed a crowd in booming Pidgin English to check them out at “MySpace dot com,” but Seun maintains a lot of Fela's style and big band tradition, even as an apparent hip hop fan and as someone nearly fifty years younger than the oldest member of his inherited band.

Prior to introducing Kuti, baritone saxophonist and emcee Showboy (Adedimeji Fagbemi) brought the group well up to standard in singing “Don't Give that Shit to Me,” a song whose “don't bring bullshit to Africa” chorus was one of many reminders that simplicity and peace are to be relished. This home pride would come out again in Kuti, who stated simply, “we hate fighting in Africa.”

Established on Saturday night was the idea of music as a communal activity; Kuti was leader, sure, but half the group – trumpet to gourd to quivering hips – got to stand front and center to play virtuoso for a bit. Even 72-year old keyboardist and former bandleader Baba Ani, hiding behind his keyboard and quietly donning pants patched with the outline of Africa, shot large smiles to the audience members who sent him loud doses of attention. The “Afrobeat Rules” t-shirts worn by half the band may have been a bit gimmicky, but groups like Egypt 80 could teach us indie brats a thing or two about music as a social tie.


theneedledrop said...

Sounds like an exceptional time and performance. Your experience really pours through your writing, and that's the pest part about it.

China said...

Nice to see you 'round these parts.

This group is such a joy to watch. Recordings really don't do them justice - I think the biggest kick is that it's possibly the first show I've seen in LA where people not only danced but made room and danced with each other. Never happens here! If you get a chance and haven't, I definitely recommend going to see them.