Apr 12, 2011
Seun Kuti - From Africa With Fury: Album reviews
How times change. Fela Kuti would probably have put out around 10 albums in the time that has passed between his son Seun’s first and second international releases. But in almost every other way, Seun is continuing his father’s legacy.
Most obviously he’s still using Fela’s band Egypt 80 as his own. The sleeve design by Lemi Ghariokwu (whose chaotically busy, subversive art graced around half of Fela’s albums) is another conscious echo – even if the inadequate detail afforded by the tiny CD format underlines its limitations when compared with the old 12" vinyl covers. Seun has even taken on his dad’s ‘Anikulapo’ moniker, which means "he who carries death in his pouch". He’s also adopted more of Fela’s vocal mannerisms, and as the title of this confident new album suggests, his lyrics are just as concerned with "kicking against the pricks".
And in Nigeria, as in the rest of Africa (see Ivory Coast, Libya, Zimbabwe) it’s very much a case of new pricks, but old tricks, as the striking opener African Soldier spells out in a fiery tirade against former soldiers who become dictators for 20, 30, or even 50 years. Penned by Rilwan Fagbemi, it’s a lean and muscular update of the Afrobeat template, setting the pace of this largely up-tempo record, which only really slows down on its epic centrepiece/title-track Rise. This finds Seun railing against multinational oil and diamond companies as well as Mosanto (sic) and Halliburton. The other standout track is Mr Big Thief, mainly for the snappy interplay between Seun’s alto sax and the brass section, as well as his sharp vocal sparring with the female chorus singers.
Brian Eno has long been an enthusiastic champion of Afrobeat, so he’s an appropriate choice as co-producer (with John Reynolds and Seun himself) although it’s not easy to hear any radical departures instigated by Brand Eno that really distinguish it from the fine work of Martin Meissonnier on Seun’s 2008 debut, Many Things. However, Seun is singing with more confidence – or perhaps, authority – and Egypt 80 are firing on all cylinders.
The album is not without filler, with Slave Masters and For Dem Eye making rather less of an impression. Some may find the relative lack of slower tempos a disappointment, but dancers may well disagree. Overall, then, From Africa With Fury: Rise is a pretty solid second effort.
Youngest son of Afrobeat firebrand Fela, Seun Kuti has succeeded where most celebrity offspring fail, succesfully updating his father's musical legacy. It helps he inherited a brilliant band, Egypt 80, but Seun has added his own generational voice. On his second album, Afrobeat's loping rhythms are tautened for the digital age, while staccato guitars and intricate horns are laced with electronica (courtesy Brian Eno among others). Seun is a gruffer, less persuasive singer than Fela, but his songs sting just as strongly. Decrying Nigeria's plight, he sings of "Monsanto and Halliburton [which] use their food to make my people hungry". Protest music for modern times.
Seun Kuti has always had two problems. He has had to battle against continual comparisons with his legendary father Fela (hardly surprising, since he based his early career on a stage performance in which he looked and sounded like his late dad's clone), and he has had to watch the success of Fela's oldest son, Femi. The UK has been blitzed with Fela nostalgia in recent months, with the success of the Fela! stage show and the rerelease of all his back catalogue. Now it's Seun's turn to show whether he can take Afrobeat to a new level. He succeeds – but with a lot of help from others. For a start, there's his band, which includes legendary Nigerians such as band leader and keyboard player Lekan Animashaun, who played with Fela. And there's the production team of John Reynolds and Brian Eno, who have updated the style with a new edge and attack, and the occasional hint of electronica. This is an album that's memorable for its slick, rousing instrumental work, which includes Seun's own saxophone contributions. His new songs attack predictable targets, but at least he is beginning to find his own voice.
Alarm bells went off when I learnt that Brian Eno was co-producer of Seun Kuti’s second album. The last thing the son of the legendary Fela Kuti needed was his personal brand of Afrobeat to be given a distancing sheen, or diluted by some space-age Enoesque sound effects. But it’s easy to forget that Eno isn’t only Mr Ambient – he also produced the groundbreaking Afrobeat-influenced work of Talking Heads in the late 1970s.
In fact, Eno once stated that the muscular free-flow of African music lies at the route of even his most ambient compositions. Well, here is the proof that such an ostensibly tenuous connection cannot be sniffed at. For Eno - along with co-producers John Reynolds and Seun himself - have created one of the best Afrobeat albums since Fela Kuti himself left us in 1997. From Africa With Fury: Rise is like Fela in concentrated form. With tracks lasting a mere eight minutes - rather than the half-hour the great man himself sometimes meandered on for - this is good news. And Fela’s old band, Egypt 80, whom Seun inherited, are almost frightening in their sinuous, marshalled precision. Beats seem spot-riveted into place, snare drum thwacks are machine-gunned out in ferocious clusters, brass riffs cross-hatch the ongoing flow, and Seun himself delivers his best vocals to date from his father’s pulpit of Righteous African Outrage: “Our ear don’t fool for your words, our stomach still empty”.
But Afrobeat is sometimes at its most beguiling when it goes off on a tangent, so one of the best tracks here is the sublime “Rise”, a slow, mournful number built around a doomy rock guitar riff. Seun – conjuring Fela’s gift for the telegraphed slogan – sings, “I cry for my country when I see it in the hands of these people”. This is a ferociously focused album that sets my pulse racing every time I play it.
Afrobeat is a vibrant, living music – and there’s no group better equipped to express it than the Black President’s own band, Egypt 80, who pulse through the seven long tracks like it was 1980 all over again. They’ve been playing together for decades – and it shows, as they’re as tight as a duck’s proverbial.
Seun Kuti takes the reins and pulls no punches, his ferocious vocals pinning to the ground the miscreants who have raped his native Nigeria for decades. But it’s the rolling, throbbing music which snaps you to attention track after track. Mr Big Thief starts off with snappy percussion and banked brass before levelling out with outstanding solos and, of course, Kuti putting the corrupt politicians in their place. Rise is a slow, deep cry for food for the impoverished masses and For Dem Eye is almost hypnotic in its insistent rhythm, while The Good Leaf decries hard drug use and extols the virtues of ganja to a blasting brass and scatting Seun soundtrack.
This is what Afrobeat is all about – and it’s the album Fela’s fans have been waiting for since his sad death in 1997.
01. African soldier
02. You can run
03. Mr. big thief
05. Slave masters
06. For dem eye
07. The good leaf
08. Giant of Africa (only vinyl)
Labels: Seun Kuti