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Last night Seun Kuti, the youngest son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, made a stunning Chicago debut in Millennium Park, fronting the remnants of his father’s last band, Egypt 80. Since Fela’s death a good number of acts have been scrabbling to grab the Afrobeat throne, from American groups like Antibalas and Nomo to Africans like former Fela drummer Tony Allen and Dele Sosimi, but most have deferred to another of the master’s sons, Femi Kuti, who's been touring here regularly for over a decade. But 25-year-old Seun made it clear who’s in control. His resemblance to his father is even more uncanny than I thought, and while he’s clearly channeling Fela’s creative spirit and sound, his charisma and skill can’t be faked.
At once sexy, funny, smart, and confident, he led his killer band through a relentless 90-minute set distinguished by good pacing, non-flashy showmanship, and a convincing passion. Although only eight members of the 17-piece band actually backed Fela before he died a decade ago, they played with the force of a locomotive and the precision of a clock, expertly heeding Seun’s verbal cues to drop out, cool down, or rev up. The leader sings in a thunderously deep, imposingly authoritative tone, chanting lyrics that do their best to tackle social injustice in Nigeria and Africa at large. His song explanations were cogent without being preachy and he wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself.
Toward the end of the set Seun invited some audience members onstage to dance—all night he mentioned the importance of audience participation back in Lagos—but he clearly didn’t expect several hundred of the estimated 8,000-strong crowd to swarm the bandstand. Having a number of dancers and admirers make short trips to the stage is a common tradition in African music, but the stream of fans that overwhelmed the band looked more like several busloads of the Bonnaroo unwashed than connoisseurs of Afrobeat. Millennium Park security exerted the force of a wet noodle; two guards on either side of the stage literally opened gates, which were stormed by eager fans. Luckily, no one was hurt and nothing damaged, but it was astonishing that the park’s security force was so feeble. It could have been a real mess. While it’s true that Seun invited concertgoers onstage, an informed, skilled security team should have had little problem containing the mellow crowd. Bandleader and baritone saxophonist Tajudeen Lekan Animasahun successfully directed the smooth exodus from the stage once the song ended.
While most American labels and concert promoters seem committed to Femi, Seun and his band are only playing five dates in North America and they’ve yet to land an album deal, although Chicago’s own Still Music has just released a great 12-inch single, the first music made available in this country by them. I don’t think it will take long before folks realize that Seun is the real deal. Femi, who will play Lollapalooza later this summer, has just released a best-of double-CD called The Definitive Collection (Wrasse). I’ve seen Femi three or four times, starting way back in 1995 as part of an Africa Fete tour at the Skyline Stage, and none of those performances come near what I witnessed last night.