Fela Kuti might have been the archetypal rebel, but this belated 75th birthday party for Nigeria’s favourite son was a cosy affair. Presided over by Fela’s former keyboardist Dele Sosimi and his Afrobeat Orchestra, it had something of the school disco about it. Perhaps it was the giant mirror-ball hanging from the ceiling. Or maybe it was the audience-wide conga line that started during Sosimi’s new single ‘T.M.I.’, just before the band launched into the spindly groove of ‘Turbulent Times.’ Either way, this was a disco freed from any adolescent awkwardness; a joyously un-self-conscious celebration of the life and music of Nigeria's most celebrated musician.
The Afrobeat Orchestra stayed onstage throughout, maintaining Fela’s trademark endless groove as a wealth of guest artists streamed in and out. They hit their stride when accompanied by a group of musicians from Greenwich’s Trinity College, where Fela studied in the 1950s. If any proof was needed that afrobeat is alive and well, they provided it in their searing run of solos on ‘Coffin for Head of State', Fela’s spine-tingling tribute to his mother, written shortly after her death from wounds sustained during a military raid on his Kalakuta Republic commune.
Speaking to Think Africa Press last week, Fela’s former manager Rikki Stein singled out Noisettes singer Shingai Shoniwa as a serious talent. He knows what he’s talking about: her blistering rendition of Fela’s ‘Lady’ was the high-point of the evening. Belgian-Congolese hip-hop artist Baloji also stood out – decked out in a formal jacket and baker-boy cap, the dapper rapper’s elaborate wordplay had the audience nodding along on ‘Buy Africa’.
Other guests made less of an impact. Blak Twang appeared only briefly to contribute vocals on ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’, and by the time Sam Duckworth (AKA Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly) made it onstage, he was almost invisible behind the Goldsmiths Vocal Ensemble, who were busily setting the audience alight with Fela’s political anthem ‘Zombie’. As the stage grew more and more crowded, the band lost a little of their earlier tightness, but it didn’t matter. We weren’t there for a slick, polished evening – we were there for a party. Fela Kuti would have been proud.
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