The funk this time

Pub date June 17, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

With gas prices topping four dollars in the United States this summer, Americans are educating themselves on where their fuel comes from. Often it’s from places like Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where multinational petroleum giants face armed resistance from local groups that see foreign oil developments as resource exploitation. So why are groups like Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) fighting the Nigerian government, Chevron, and Shell?

As John Ghazvinian points out in Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil (Harcourt, 2007), "In Nigeria, 80 percent of oil and gas revenue accrues to just 1 percent of the population…. Virtually everybody in the Delta scrambles to get by in shantytowns built of driftwood and corrugated zinc, watching children die of preventable diseases, while their corrupt leaders whiz past behind the tinted windows of air-conditioned BMWs."

Against this backdrop rises 25-year-old Seun Kuti, whose potent self-titled debut for Disorient Records directly addresses Nigeria’s issues. Seun is the youngest son of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who before his death in 1997 popularized the funk-influenced West African Afrobeat sound worldwide throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Backed by his father’s 20-piece Egypt 80 orchestra, Seun invokes his dad’s fiery political rhetoric on protest songs like "Na Oil" and "African Problem" that lyrically excoriate foreign and domestic oppressors. In keeping with his father’s work, Seun’s backing music is as engaging as his commentary.

Seun Kuti is carrying Fela’s music to a new generation. But unlike his older half-brother Femi, whose recordings incorporate hip-hop and dance motifs, Seun revives Afrobeat’s original big-band blueprint and injects it with a fresh urgency. He’s helped by Fela’s longtime bandleader Baba Ani, along with Adedimeji Fagbemi (a.k.a. Showboy) on saxophone, Ajayi Adebiya on drums, and a dozen or so other Egypt 80 veterans who’ve been playing regularly for nearly three decades at the family’s Kalakuti compound.

The group stretches out on eight-minute songs like "Don’t Give That Shit to Me," where dueling guitars trade jabs, a full brass section swells mightily, and Seun Kuti adds vocal diatribes. Kuti’s sax flourishes lead the charge on that track, one of the album’s most spacious, jazz-improv-driven numbers. Similarly, blazing trumpets and speedy percussion-laden polyrhythms transform "Mosquito"<0x2009>‘s serious anti-malaria message into a rebel-dance anthem.

Kuti closes his first full-length with the punchy, mid-tempo "African Problem," which is replete with street traffic samples and the band leader’s passionate, rapid-fire lyrics. "Make you help me ask them sisters / Why no get houses to stay / Salute my brothers when they fight / Fight for the future of Africa," he sings in a militant call-and-response with the horn section. And like the campaign waged by one of Kuti’s American supporters (Barack Obama, who helped Egypt 80 get visas for a benefit show in Chicago), Kuti’s album resonates as an authentic political expression where expression and message are aligned.


With Sila and the Afrofunk Experience

Sun/22, 2 p.m., free

Stern Grove

Sloat and 19th Ave., SF