The Kuti family continues to keep the spirit of Nigerian afrobeat very much alive on an international scale, with Seun, the youngest son of the legendary Fela Kuti, now fronting his late father’s backing band. Those familiar with Fela’s music will have a fair idea what to expect from Seun, and it is certainly arguable that he makes fewer attempts to deviate from the successful and energising afrobeat template than his brother Femi Kuti. However, the presence here of Brian Eno as co-producer might indicate a different approach, enticing some whilst alarming others.
Given the wayward standard of his recent work both as a solo artist and as a producer, Eno no longer seems like a safe pair of hands and even less like a radical innovator. It’s nonetheless pleasing that he has left his armoury of studio effects and multi-tracked ambience behind when working with Kuti and Egypt 80. From Africa With Fury: Rise simply sounds like a more streamlined and rigorous approach to the afrobeat genre, with what feels like a ‘live in the studio’ vibe. There is plenty of energy, passion, fire and commitment in this set, even if it no longer stretches out ad infinitum in the way that Fela’s music did.
Kuti’s music is fascinating in that it demands a considerable degree of focus and discipline from the musicians, whilst also necessitating the ability to handle complex rhythmic material. Whilst repetition is a cornerstone of this music, it only works because the grooves are delivered with such depth and detail. Even the endlessly repeated guitar patterns are played as if they are overflowing with meaning and importance. Egypt 80 remain a tremendously organised, precise and muscular ensemble. Syncopated beat placements abound – and the band’s relentless accuracy is astounding.
The unwavering consistency in intensity and tempo across the opening three tracks is impressive if perhaps a little overwhelming. Rise provides a welcome contrast – and marks a moment of real departure, yet very much still with a clear and uncompromising intention. This sees Kuti at his most political (“I cry for my country when I see it in the hand of these people”), yet it is delivered at a slower tempo – one that seems somehow at once both urgent and elegaic. Whilst a righteous anger also seems to fuel the insistent, powerful Slave Drivers and For Dem Eye, it is Rise that lingers longest in the memory. It’s a tremendous, captivating, standout track.
For the inexperienced deterred by Fela’s 30 minute jams, Seun Kuti offers a more digestible approach to the afrobeat form, without sacrificing any of the clarity and energy of the original brand. For the already initiated, it’s a crisper, more modern approach – unlikely to offer much that is truly new or unexpected, but insanely inspiring nonetheless.