07/14/08

Seun Kuti + Fela’s Egypt 80

Familial comparisons are often inept yet inexorable when it comes to young artists extending the legacies of their predecessors. As for 25-year-old Seun Kuti, he not only has to grapple with being compared to his father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian superstar who forged Afrobeat into a global phenomenon; he also has to deal with measuring up to his older half brother, Femi Kuti, who’s been a leading light in 21st-century Afrobeat for the past decade. The dilemma is similar to, say, all the Marleys to emerge after Ziggy took the reggae reins in the mid-’80s.

Looking like a spitting image of his father’s imposing athletic build and rugged handsomeness, Seun also brandishes a saxophone like his father (and brother, Femi) and fancies incisive political messages and fist-pumping chants atop incessant Afrobeat grooves that percolate with the interlocking syncopation of James Brown’s Soul Power, embellished, at times, with skronky dissonance associated with free jazz. Given that Seun fronts his father’s Egypt 80 band on his enchanting debut, Many Things (Disorient), it’s obvious that he feels no pressure to distance himself too far from Fela’s shadow.

At a comfortably packed 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., Seun led his Egypt 80 admirably, not so much surpassing the captivating frenzy of his father’s concerts, but definitely delivering a roundly more rewarding experience than his older brother, Femi. Unlike Femi, who’s since dabbled with hip-hop and electronica just as those genres have digested much Afrobeat with varying degrees of success, Seun makes no such obvious concessions. Instead, he keeps the grooves organic and comparatively relaxed, while the band exhibits a noticeably more seasoned and tighter approach overall.

Although there were times when it appeared that Seun’s alto saxophone was nothing more than a prop, when he briefly took an aside, as on the melancholy “African Problems,” he demonstrated a moxie for melody that seems to escape Femi, who mostly relies on flash.

Mostly though, Seun held court like a true international rock star, channeling his father’s magnetism as well as subtle fragments of Prince and Ziggy Stardust. As his band whipped through the songs from his disc, constantly shifting in rhythms and tempo but never losing focus or vitality, Seun paced the stage manically as if he was possessed by the power of his divine messages, as on the driving “Na Oil” and the furious “Don’t Give That Shit to Me.”

While Many Things doesn’t have anything as devilishly suggestive as Femi’s 1998 breakout hit, “Beng, Beng, Beng,” when Seun danced to the hypnotic Afrobeat rhythms, he was the embodiment of sweaty sensuality in motion. Blessed with the sinewy, lissome body frame of a ballet dancer, and hip and ass control that would make JLo and Shakira envious, Seun flung his arms wildly and shimmied and sauntered his body as masculine and effeminate gestures blended, sometimes igniting a homoerotic charge as he danced ecstatically in front of his beefier percussionist, Adedimeji Fagbemi, who pounded out forceful rhythms on noticeably phallic-looking log drums.

Indeed, Seun keeps the crowd’s eyes on him, hardly ever being upstaged by the two beautiful, gyrating female back-up singers. Nevertheless, he did give opportunities for various band members to break out of the grooves and show some improvisational zeal. Emmanuel Kunnuji blasted flaring solos on “Think Afrika” and “Fire Dance” that would have made Dizzy Gillespie proud, while Adedimeji Fagbemi’s blustery baritone saxophone packed a Hamiet Bluiett-like wallop.

Seun only rendered one of his father’s classics, the riveting “Shuffering and Shmiling,” unleashing a performance that proved one of the evening highlights. Seun has enough time to navigate from underneath Fela’s towering shadow, but for now, this Afrobeat scion seems at ease showing flashes of the past, while hopefully eyeing the future in regards to his own distinct legacy.

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