SEUN KUTI & EGYPT 80 @ PIAF’S CHEVRON FESTIVAL GARDENS, THURSDAY MARCH 3
Sliding down William Street towards Elizabeth Quay, insistent rhythms and brass fanfares bubble up to meet me. Through the garden gates it’s KOI CHILD, Perth’s ascendant jazz-hop darlings, quickening the blood in the veins of an unseasonably chilly Thursday night.
Koi Child might not have been the most obvious choice to support afrobeat legends Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, but really it’s a perspicacious bit of programming. If Kuti & Co represent a seminal intersection of jazz, funk and traditional Nigerian musics, Koi Child embody a distinctly Australian response to the ever-evolving hybrid sounds of the African diaspora. Fronted by Johannesburg-born mc Shannon Cruz Patterson (tonight he gives shout outs to his friends back in South Africa), Koi Child are clearly conscious of their work’s global genealogy as they become increasingly prominent on the world stage. Naturally, the burgeoning ensemble don’t squander this opportunity to open for such a well-loved group, and they treat our pricked ears to a joyous set of strident keys, dense horn beds, slick quick-paced rap and confident, restrained solos. Blake Hart’s drum feels are sounding more effortlessly on-point than ever, acoustic kit fusing seamlessly with SPDS electronic grit. The whole thing is delivered with the light-hearted humour of a group of mates having a lark, as well as the tightness of a professional touring band. Which is a pretty beautiful combination.
Speaking of beautiful combinations, there’s a palpable sense of alchemy when the incredible EGYPT 80 fire up their introductory groove. The band famously backed afrobeat king Fela Kuti until his untimely death, at which point his then-14-year old son Seun was tasked to carry the (presumably daunting) torch.
Egypt 80 always sounded incredible but it’s apparent that the decades of working together have resolved the group into a kind of unstoppable hive-mind. Immediately, world-class rhythmic collages emerge with a nonchalant ease. Viscerally buoyant drums and percussion, slyly syncopated bass, twin crystalline guitars, impeccable horns arrive in your ears with thrilling inevitability. Backing vocals, vibrant costuming and seemingly unaffected dancing adds to the spectacular impact of the band on stage. Thus the scene is set for Seun Kuti, whose larger-than-life presence would quickly overshadow any lesser ensemble.
He appears: a crisp shirt so yellow it almost glows and densely patterned blue and white trousers. And, naturally, a glimmering saxophone. The crowd billows, rapturous cheers rising into the night air. Kuti grins and dives in, here in his element, like a frog released into a pond. They segue into Fela’s ‘Mr Follow Follow’ – in Seun’s words, “I always start with one of my father’s songs, to show him respect.” The band moves on to more recent Seun-era originals, such as the politically-charged ‘IMF’ (“it really stands for International Mother Fuckers”) and ‘Black Woman.’ Kuti leaps and struts about the stage, chanting anthemic choruses, wailing with wild intensity on the sax, or else whipping the crowd into a frenzy with shirt-removal and bum-wiggle. Apart from being an incredible performer, he’s extremely funny (joking about eating kangaroo, Lagos and urbanization) and always politically minded, discussing the toxic influence of “the American dream” in Africa and the dangers of prioritizing dogmatic religion over science. Those who begrudge Kuti his longer-than-average spiels between jams are probably not cognisant of the lineage he’s following; Fela’s music was always part of a radical protest movement and a distinct verbal (not just musical) political dialogue. For Seun to unapologetically follow suit feels apt, and imbues every rambunctious horn stab or energized groove with added gravity.
Kuti tells us about astral travel and his love for marijuana, repurposing its active ingredient (THC) as an anagram for ‘The Higher Consciousness.’ Far from mere stoner celebration, this too becomes a political call-to-arms as Kuti leads us in a climatic chant of “Fight the greed / with the higher consciousness” over a stomping mid-tempo riff.
In his review for The West Australian, Grant McCulloch wrote that during Thursday’s show “the party never quite hit fifth gear” – which might be a fair observation in regards to large portions of the audience, who seemed more content gazing on in wonderment rather than actually moving as the music so clearly compels you to do. But there were undeniable pockets of fifth-gear abandon, particularly closer to the stage, where Kuti & Egypt 80’s relentless energy became truly infectious. Whether you were quietly observing or throwing your whole body into it, this was a remarkable show, a distillation of so many of the things that make music special. It was physically and emotionally inspiring, conceptually resolved, politically engaged, technically incredible and ridiculously fun. The latter is notably absent from much of our (Australia’s) politically-minded cultural expression and maybe we yet have something to learn from Kuti’s approach. Truth be told, this was among the best shows I’ve ever attended. And I don’t say that lightly. I say it with my heart-rate raised, my face beaming, my favourite local musicians all paying tribute with their applause throughout the crowd, and my eyeballs reflecting the most sincere and powerful live dance-music troupe I ever did see.