Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dad would be proud.

The audience of around 500 people obviously didn't know what to expect. They awkwardly shifted in the theatre seats to the infectious beat pumping from the African Conga drums and Funk-filled bass riffs. The brass section flourished with jazz embellishments and solos, stretching the opening song into a 15-minute blur, with Showboy inserting his lyrics: attacks on Nigerian soldiers political use. No one really knew if they should sit or stand.

After a few minutes, four spectators in front of me jumped out of their chair and started dancing. Everyone gasped and gave looks at first, as if this outburst of youthful exuberance was a faux pas for this usually reserved Union Theatre crowd. They didn't sit down. Others jumped up. Loosened up and felt the beat. Eventually, the throbbing funk fusion rhythm proved too hard to resist. From the allure of the female dancers, to the full-force punch of the horns section to the two human metronomes that flanked the stage, it was designed for a continuous groove. The crowd started down the ramps and crowding the front of the stage.

Limbs were flailing, the crowd was swaying and Egypt 80 spun a web of sound bigger than the theatre that held it.

All this, without the main attraction.

It was understandable that Seun Kuti would take his time getting to the stage. After nearly being confined to his native Nigeria due to passport issues and political unrest caused by an oil strike, Seun arrived in Madison, by way of Montreal, by way of Paris. Seun got no sleep during the 3-day journey to Madison. Therefore, it was necessary to save up every bit of energy for the Afrobeat heir's first-ever US concert.

Sleep deprived or not, Seun was - to say the least - explosive.

Sauntering onto the stage with his tenor sax and fitting 70's style attire, Seun shouted a "Yah Yah!" to his audience, something that would take some practice before being returned. From there, Kuti performed one of his father's songs with as much power and showmanship as Fela. As soon as Seun puts down his Sax, he shakes and twists about the stage with a dancing style reminiscent of a young Mick Jagger. He knows how to work the crowd and isn't afraid to strut.

What's more is the passion with which he performs. Every syllable of his lyrics are pounded into the senses as he shakes, twists and bends backwards with his mic gripped tightly. His internal struggle is visible as he runs about the stage with such urgency, but always moving to the beat. Clearly, he doesn't just sing the plight of Africa, he lives it. He wants you to, as well.

"After the Kososvo War, they gave them 600 dollars for each person in aid," Seun mused to the audience. "In Africa, in Darfur, we can't even get 10 dollars a person."

He then raises a middle finger. "That is for the G8 leaders."

It wouldn't be Afrobeat without the blunt infusion of a distinct political message. With songs such as "Think Africa", "Many Things", and "Na Oil," the thunderous African groove is fueled as much by the message as the 20 person band.

That message was one of awareness and need for reform. Starvation, Malaria and AIDS were all topics for awareness during song intros. During one introduction, Seun decried a bridge constructed in Nigeria as a sign of progress. "The bridge is only a connection of servants to their masters."

Yet, Seun understands why Africa isn't able to stop the vicious cycle. "Africans don't have room in their lives to think about all these problems. They only think about how to survive." As he insisted with his song, perhaps his music will force others to "Think Africa."

This blitz of high energy big-band African funk and impassioned political pleas awed the crowd. It fueled the dancing frenzy for nearly two straight hours. Audience participation was in such abundance throughout that Seun invited four Madison women onstage to compare dance skills with Seun's sister, Moturayo. Despite their best attempts to match her skill, it must be said bluntly: She knows how to shake it. Even Shakira should take notes.

As for Seun, his brand of Afrobeat activism was a landmark event for Madison. There were only 500 people to see Seun's American debut. Tomorrow, Chicago shares the pleasure of his company with 15,000 people at Millennium Park. Looking at his schedule, it is obvious - this performance was a rare musical coup for Madison.

He'll be coming out with an album in the next week or so and his myspace offers a few singles, but don't rely on recordings. Youtube might provide a glimpse at his amazing stage performance, but only the real thing will do. If you're in Chicago tomorrow - GO SEE THIS MAN. You owe it yourself to see a 24-year old legend in the making.

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