Its nearly 14 years since the death of Fela Kuti, the undisputed king of Afrobeat, but his legacy is stronger than ever. A sell out Broadway and London musical about his life, Afrobeat bands springing up from San Francisco to Lagos and African acts like Staff Benda Bilili and Mariam and Amadou selling records and live dates around the globe.
The key African music dates in the UK over the last decade have been via Music Beyond Mainstream's 'Africa Soul Rebels' banner. Each year they bring together a bill of African acts of differing styles to tour the UK and previous years have seen performances by giants like Baba Maal, Salif Kieta and Tinariwen. Fittingly, this year the bill is headlined by Kuti's youngest son Seun and his (and formerly his father's) band Eygpt 80. Kuti has just released his From Africa with Fury LP and is promising a full band. Support comes from acclaimed Malian electronisists Donso. I caught up with tour organiser Guy Morley to find out more about the tour...
It’s quite a coup to get Sean Kuti this year. How did you manage to secure him?
It was about 8 years ago that I first saw Seun Kuti, with one of his first few gigs with Fela’s old bad Egypt 80. I was fortunate enough to see Fela perform a couple of times and when Seun walked on stage it was like watching a young Fela. He had just left Lipa in Liverpool – We all know he was a very talented musician and he had such on-stage charisma.
Seun kept the power of the traditional Afrobeat sound – running along at slower pace of 106 to 120 BPM gives those horns all the punch you’d ever want. Over the intervening years I have seen him quite a few times and he has just got better and better. Last year Brian Eno was guest artistic director of Brighton Festival and I helped him bring over Seun and the band from Lagos. The show they performed with Tony Allen was just sensational – and I talked to him then about coming on-board for African Soul Rebels. He liked the idea and we are really excited to have him.
Was there a sense that this was a good year to get Sean given the warm reception for the Fela musical at the National Theatre?
Seun is definately the man of the moment. The Nigerian elections – the resurgence of Afrobeat (helped by Fela!) His brilliant new album co produced by John Reynolds and Brian Eno have all been factors....... But I have been a big fan since the beginning so it’s just a great coincidence that all this has come together now.
Why did you go for Donso as support?
Donso’s album really turned my head – such a clever mix of traditional Malian sounds with an electro groove. When I saw live footage of them – I knew it would make sense to put them onto an African Soul Rebels tour. Fusions are really hard to achieve – when they work they are brilliant and change attitudes and music. Too often they don’t work – welded together to cross over markets. Donso achieved that rare balance and got the fusion right.
I notice you’ve changed the format this year, moving from three bands to two, what’s the thinking behind that?
Mostly we wanted to give Seun a full set – he has 18 on stage in the most incredible show. Three acts in one evening restrict set times..... It just would not be fair on the audience or Seun.
Has the concept of Africa Soul Rebels become a little outdated with the breakthrough of the likes of Staff Benda Bilili and Amadou and Mariam or is there still a need to pull people into venues to support African music in this way?
The need is as big as ever. I don’t think the world music niche categorises African music so much anymore – and I hope African Soul Rebels has played a role in the change. The need to increase the visibility of African Music is really important. This is Seun’s first UK tour – it will have a bigger impact and all the extra media coverage African Soul Rebels brings. African Soul Rebels grows from strength to strength – I’m really happy that politics are in the fore this year...... Seun, like his father, wears his heart on his sleeve..... and speaks his mind......... Rebels by name – rebels by nature.
Who else would you be keen to book?
It’s understandably difficult to catch the next big artist on the rise. So I’m not going to predict that one just yet. Here are some of the artists I would love to see on the bill though. Yousou N’Dour (Senegal), Ayub Ogada (Kenya), Sven Kacirek. (Kenya / Germany), Ethiopiques (Ethiopia), Jupiter Bokondji and Okwess International (Congo) – to name just a few.
Are there still tickets available?
There are still tickets for all the shows. And they are.......
WED April 13 London, Royal Festival Hall
FRI April 15 Northampton, Royal and Dearngate
SAT April 16 Edinburgh, Usher Hall
SUN April 17 Bangor, Bangor University
MON April 18 Manchester, The Ritz
TUE April 19 Bristol, Colston Hall
WED April 20 Basingstoke, The Anvil
THU April 21 Poole, Lighthouse