The members of the Egypt 80 band enter one by one as the percussionists hammer out a pulsing rhythm on the drums, wood block and shakers. As they take their stations the musicians cascade into life: bass, guitar, keyboards, saxophone, trumpet. It’s the same band – some of them are the very same players – that backed Fela Kuti, the pioneering Nigerian musician who created afrobeat and died in 1997. The difference is that today they’re accompanying his youngest son Seun (pronounced Shay-oon) who, although less well known than his elder half-brother Femi, is considered by many to be the true heir to the great man’s sound.
Kuti certainly has the right players behind him. The Egypt 80 band produce a relentless groove that’s noisy, percussive and impossible to ignore. Afrobeat was devised as a mixture of Western funk and African rhythms. It shares elements of jazz but is more repetitive and considerably less delicate. It’s party music: raw, energetic and pulsating. And the mixed-age group contains some musicians who are old enough to be drawing a state pension.
Amid this display Kuti moves about the stage, like a bird stalking his cage, grinning all the while. He has an odd, jerky way of dancing that is vaguely reminiscent of a slightly deranged Johnny Depp. He eschews the baggy T-shirts worn by the younger band members as well as the traditional Nigerian robes favoured by the older ones, and instead sports a blue open shirt and unfashionable tight flares.
“I’ve been smoking some weed backstage,” he says, during his slightly rambling intro, delivered while the band pumps out a steady rhythm behind him. Marijuana is a subject that returns more than once during the performance. Kuti is a devoted smoker and has the devotee’s disdain for authority: “If you don’t like, don’t legalize it. I don’t care man, I’ll still smoke it,” he laughingly declares. One can almost see the fug of weed smoke rising around him and he says it.
One can’t smell it though, which is a shame because the atmosphere would benefit. Though Kuti jokes that London is a “Lagos annexe” – “there are so many Nigerians here, we’re about to take it over!” – the truth is that the Royal Festival Hall feels a long way from the Nigerian city. And the venue doesn’t seem to quite suit the band. It’s too big, too staid and rather too British for them. Some of the audience get out of their seats to dance but do so awkwardly amid the rows, while their more sober counterparts sit and smile weakly. This unfortunately is often the fate of “world” music in Britain – it’s confined to the snooty venues where most of the audience sit down.
Which is a shame, because this music is undoubtedly made for dancing to. Kuti’s two female backing singers set the example. Made up with colourful face paint and revealing dresses, they are energetic and seductive. Turning away from the audience between verses, each woman stands on the balls of her feet and vibrates her bottom up and down with the frequency of a plucked string. It’s hypnotic and unashamedly sexual, a description that also fits Kuti’s music. He even has a song whose name translates as “fuck me in my vagina”, and he explains in graphic terms before he sings it that this song should be played whenever a woman wants sex with a man.
There’s no doubt that Kuti is a born performer. He sings and plays saxophone, and is comfortable enough onstage to go on long digressions on the no-fly zone over Libya and the nature of dictatorship, letting his band throb away in the background. And though the music is a little hard going after an hour and a half of unvarying, repetitive grooves, there are few in the audience who can’t be galvanised when he says, with relish, “original African music”. Kuti, like his father, is a musical pioneer, and savours the taste of the words.