During the Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 performance at Campbell Hall on Monday night, a definite highlight of this year’s UCSB Arts & Lectures series, Seun (pronounced “Shay-oon”) proudly declared that we were seeing an “African band playing African music from Africa.”
The music was Afrobeat, a rhythm-heavy mix of James Brown-style funk, jazz, Cuban and traditional West African music, featuring call-and-response vocals that are mostly about political topics. The primary architect of Afrobeat was Seun’s legendary father, Fela Kuti, who died in 1997 after releasing dozens of albums, most of which I’m happy to say are in my own personal collection.
In fact, the band Egypt 80 was Fela’s last band and has been playing together with Seun for 16 years, giving a continuity that strongly connects Seun’s music with that of his father. And what a band it is! There were up to 15 people onstage, mixing electric guitar, bass, keyboards, horns, drums and percussion to give some of the best grooves on the planet.
A special mention goes out to the two gorgeous singers/dancers in blue facepaint and colorful outfits and adornments. Musically, they provided the response in the call-and-response vocals, but they also danced with amazing energy to the music, shaking their derrieres in ways that have to be seen to be believed.
Of course, the true star of the evening was Seun, who has inherited his father’s musical talent and charisma, and has an animated delivery that clearly made him the coolest person in the room. Like his father, Seun plays a mean saxophone, and sings in Pidgin English about injustices in his home country Nigeria (“Mr. Big Thief” decries the actions of Nigeria’s former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and “Rise” sings of rising up against oil companies, diamond companies and Halliburton, among others) and marijuana (in “The Cool Leaf” he asked, “uranium and plutonium is OK, but marijuana?”).
The crowd’s response was a bit subdued, probably due to the fact that Campbell Hall is full of comfortable seats. At first, the only dancers in the audience were along the far aisles. But, eventually, everyone did rise, goaded by Seun telling how he missed seeing Tupac Shakur’s hologram appearance at Coachella, where Seun had just played, to make it to UCSB — “I missed that s*** to be here tonight.”
For the encore, Seun’s shirt was off — the tattoo on his back fittingly says “Fela Lives” — and a number of enthusiasts from the crowd climbed onstage to groove along with “Mosquito Song.” Seun dubbed them the New Afrobeat Orchestra. There can be no doubt — Afrobeat, and the spirit of Fela Kuti, lives on with Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.