Monday, 28 May 2012

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 - Photos

Seun blows plenty-o
The spitting image of his father, minus shirt
I borrowed a Nikon D80 from a colleague and took a couple of hundred photos of Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 in action during their awesome performance at the Africa Shrine in Lagos on May 26. I've put up two sets of photos on Flickr - click to see the first set featuring Seun Kuti and the second set featuring Egypt 80.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 at the New Africa Shrine

Amazing. Having just heard Femi Kuti's band a couple of times at their home venue, I thought I had experienced the pinnacle of Afrobeat. Then younger brother Seun came to town leading Egypt 80, Fela's former band. This must be one heck of a sibling rivalry.
Seun Kuti on alto

Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 played Saturday night at the New Africa Shrine in Lagos. The show was just outstanding, over three and a half intense hours without a break. I didn't leave the place until the music finished at 3:00am. The primary reason the music was so great is that about half the members of Egypt 80 were in the band when Fela was still alive. Egypt 80 is a living connection to Fela Kuti, the founder of Afrobeat. 

Looks like a modern Selmer
Seun Kuti is the spitting image of his father. He looks, moves, and dresses like Fela. The band mixes Seun's compositions seamlessly with Fela's and it is obvious that the son learned his lessons well. Seun reinforces some of the political messages Fela was famous for and they are just as relevant in today's Nigeria as they were 30 or more years ago. This is primal Afrobeat, essentially a static-harmony rhythmic music led by the horns, with plenty of room for the instrumentalists to solo and stretch out. Seun plays a whole lot of alto sax - his sound reminds me of Maceo Parker (Maceo! You can blow!). The band rocked from start to finish without letup. To me, the highlight of the evening was a crushing version of Fela's Zombie, with Seun marching around the stage in paramilitary parody...TURN RIGHT! TURN LEFT! SALUTE!.. 

Egypt 80 features baritone, tenor, and alto saxes, two trumpets, two guitars, electric bass, drum kit, three percussionists, and three dancers. The young bari player was, to me, the group's standout soloist and the instrument of the night had to be the log drum at stage left, beaten with two big sticks by a percussionist sitting on top of the drum. Practically the entire rhythm section was old school. Of the horn players, only the tenor player dated to Fela's original band. Fela's death must have been quite a blow to his band members but Seun has taken on the mantle admirably. This is much more than a tribute band. 

I met the band's music director Showboy on the sidelines; he rehearsed the band and led the warm-up set for about 45 minutes until Seun came on stage at midnight. Showboy said he knew Fela for 40 years and played baritone sax in Fela's band for years, until the end of the leader's life. I'm hoping to catch up with him this week and document some of the history of Fela's musicians. It was not only Fela who was great, his bands were great too, but most of us don't even know the musicians' names. That deep-down baritone sax that anchored Fela's horn section on his classic recordings was played by this man. 

As much as I loved hearing Femi Kuti and Positive Force, I was blown away by his lesser-known brother Seun Kuti and his band Egypt 80, and I put Seun on top of the heap. I took a load of photos at Saturday's show and will put them up as soon as I can get some decent bandwidth.

Friday, 11 May 2012

My 15 Minutes of Fame Passed Quickly

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. I really asked for it. Only two weeks in Lagos but carrying the dream of playing at the Africa Shrine for a long time, and there I was blowing my horn on the Shrine's main stage with Femi Kuti's Positive Force band behind me, standing in the spot of the man himself. 

"And then you woke up." 

No, really. Last night I went to the New Africa Shrine at about 6:00pm to meet up with Femi's tenor saxophonist Dotun Bankole. While I was waiting around Femi showed up and introduced himself. I brought my horn; Dotun had his silver-plated Mark VI with him and took me up on stage. We assembled our horns and started blowing. It turned into a 30 or 40 minute free jam which I found really enjoyable - we had no problem communicating from the first note as we alternated trading licks, playing unison lines, riffing and laying down rhythms for each other. Dotun is an excellent player and it was a blast. He made me think, blow, and sweat hard. One of the most fun times I've ever had playing the sax, seriously.

I was told that Femi rehearses his band on Thursday nights so my expectation before I went was an informal working session with the band. Not so; the band worked through some arrangements led by the music director before Femi joined up, but after 8:00 Femi came on stage and played a three hour set straight through! It was as intense a show as Sunday night's performance, only Femi and the band were dressed in street clothes and the dancers were not made up and costumed. When Femi says his performance runs 7:00 to 11:00, he means nonstop! And on Thursday nights, admission to the Shrine is free. Where else in the world can you see an international star and his genre-leading band perform a four hour set for free? 

After we jammed, Dotun asked me to sit down for a while and he would call me up on stage...I thought to join with the horn section and work out. He kept my horn up on stage and assembled it next to him. Right after 7:00 the band started playing, then about halfway through the first hour I heard my name announced from stage on the PA. The entire band broke into a fanfare. I had no clue. I put my harness on, went up on the riser next to Dotun, and picked up my tenor. He pushed me out into the spotlight, right into Femi's spot at the front of the stage with Femi's horns on their stand at my feet. I was in the man's spot facing the audience with the 12-piece band at full blast behind me. There was no choice but to blow. 

Hmmm. I've been around too much to say I was terrorized, but it was definitely nerve-racking and it took me a moment to get my footing. I hung at the mike for around seven minutes, soloing over the polyrhythms and horn punctuations, and the proof is here for posterity. Not my best-ever solo, but I take solace in the fact that Sonny Rollins can't stand listening to his own recordings either. Then it was over. I want more. 

Yes, I did it. I played on center stage at the New Africa Shrine with the world's very best Afrobeat band behind me. Whew.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Femi Kuti at the New Africa Shrine

I arrived in Lagos about two weeks ago. Lagos seems better than last time I was here, no doubt because of high oil prices rather than structural reforms in the economy or increased competitiveness of Nigerian businesses. A high tide floats all boats. 

To my surprise, on my second morning in town I looked out of the window as the car pulled up to the office and there was the New Africa Shrine! The most famous music venue in all of Africa is right across the street from where I work... an incredibly fortuitous coincidence in this sprawling, chaotic city of some 18 million. Lagos can be a daunting place so I waited to go in until I could get some Nigerian friends to go with me. Femi Kuti plays on Sunday nights when he is not touring. I went last night. 

Femi Kuti on stage at the New Africa Shrine
The Venue: Run by son Femi in the mainland neighborhood of Ikeja, the New Africa Shrine is the successor to Fela Kuti's legendary Africa Shrine. It is a large, cavernous venue decorated with Fela memorabilia, with a high stage up front. The cover charge last night was just over $3 and a large Heineken was also about $3. Definitely a people's venue. The atmosphere reminded me of the 1970s. There is no place like it in the Western world.  

The Artist: Femi Kuti is an international star but his music at the Shrine is all for the local crowd. His hard work on stage is impressive; Femi sang and played nonstop for more than two hours after I arrived, which was well after his set began. He was totally drenched from the exertion. The hardest working man in show business...totally into his music and his dedicated Lagos audience. 

Femi has the energy of a man less than half his age. My friend told me he is 51 which makes him almost as old as me, but he sings, jumps, and dances nonstop. Not a star who sings a snippet here and there and lets the band take over. He has the touch for direct audience communication.  

Apologies for the bad hand phone shots...
The Music: Femi's music has evolved from Fela's. It seems like every instrument is a percussion instrument, even the horns. Femi sang last night much more than he played. His music is dense and doesn't feature as many solos as his father's classic sides; Femi's tunes are more structured and there is less space for the instrumentalists to stretch out. Last night, he played some trumpet and later on in the set, alto sax. No tenor. The band featured three trumpets, trombone, baritone and tenor saxes, electric bass, guitar, keyboards, drums, two additional percussionists, and anywhere from two to six dancers, with Femi up front. There were dancers on platforms at each side of the stage.

Femi didn't take a break while I was there and exited backstage as soon as he finished his set so I didn't get to meet him. But while the horns were packing up I introduced myself to tenor player Dotun Bankole. When I told him I played sax, he put his cool 1950's Kohlert tenor back together and asked me to blow. On the spot audition. I hadn't touched my horn in two weeks but somehow a Bb jump blues came out and the end result is that he invited me to come Thursday for the band's rehearsal and bring my horn.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Visual Artist Gilbert Hsiao

I got an email a few days ago from Gilbert Hsiao, my childhood best friend since about 4th grade at the Lab School in Terre Haute, announcing a one-man show at Minus Space in Brooklyn running through June 16th. 

Gilbert has been a gifted artist since he was a kid and it is cool to see him gaining worldwide recognition now that he is in his 50s. Better late than never. I know this is supposed to be a music blog and although Gilbert is a painter, he has been a lifelong music head and is the most prolific music collector I have ever known. He really knows the good stuff. We hung out together in college during the loft years in the 70s when he attended Columbia and worked at the fabled WKCR, and have kept in touch ever since. 

Flash I, 42" x 42", acrylic on wood panel, 2008 © Gilbert Hsiao
Gilbert's visual art is heavily influenced by music: in his own words, "Thinking about music has been important in the development of my work. Discussing music in terms of chords, relative dissonance/consonance, rhythms, syncopation, tones, harmony, temp, movement, stillness, and loudness, and so forth, cannot begin to describe the actual experience of listening to a piece. One can describe a piece of music in detail using these characteristics, yet the description cannot take the place of the experience of the piece itself." 

"The interesting part of music is the experience, not the explanation." 

I discovered in his email that Gilbert received the Space Award from the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation last month, which will give him a studio residency in Brooklyn starting this fall. A lot like music, the quality of visual art expression is largely a function of how often you get to perform, and this will give Gilbert a place to perform without the economic pressures that artists of all types have to face. Good on him and thanks to the foundation for recognizing him. 

Minus Space has a lot more detail about Gilbert's art on its web site. Click here and here to find out.