Do you think the price of gas is too high in Santa Barbara? Does it make you want to blame the government? Then imagine how the people of Nigeria feel. One night in January 2012, their government cancelled its longstanding gasoline subsidies, allowing the price of petrol to more than double there in a single day. Seun Kuti, the 29 year-old leader of Afrobeat funk orchestra Egypt 80, made this point forcefully when I spoke with him by phone last week. He told me that the price of fuel is one issue where “people will definitely take to the streets — and they would do that in the United States, too, if it happened here.” He went on to point out that “Obama would have a hell of a problem with that much increase in the price of petrol.”
We had been talking for only a few minutes, but the conversation had already shifted gears several times, with Kuti — who will perform at UCSB’s Campbell Hall with Egypt 80 on Monday, April 16 — equally as animated on matters of music as on economics and politics. For a Nigerian, especially one raised in the tradition of social protest, the role of the musician and the role of the political gadfly are one and the same. And for Seun, whose father, the great Fela Kuti, founded the group he now leads, that responsibility to be the voice of the people and the scourge of corruption is something to be cherished. At a time when the outside world is more interested in Fela and his music than ever before, it seems that his sons Femi and Seun have inherited a wonderfully vital legacy.
So when Seun and the 13 current members of Egypt 80 take the stage at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Monday, there will be a 14th member with them in spirit. Fifteen years after his death in 1997, Fela Kuti continues to gain influence internationally. One version of the multifaceted story of his ongoing renaissance would begin with the outstanding Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela compilation, to which Macy Gray, Common, and D’Angelo contributed some scorching interpretations. In 2003, the New Museum exhibition titled Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti captured many other aspects of the nuance and resonance of Fela’s legacy with a combination of documentation and original artworks by multimedia artists who were influenced by Fela. The Black President show included works by two great talents who will be familiar to readers in S.B. from recent exhibitions here — Yinka Shonibare (at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 2009) and Sanford Biggers (at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum in 2010).
The crossover of Fela climaxed in 2006 with the musical Fela! by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, which brought the thrilling real-life drama of Fela’s heroic battles with Nigeria’s military dictatorship to an audience that might otherwise have never heard a note of the man’s extraordinary musical output. Now, with awareness and recognition of Egypt 80’s wonderfully danceable African funk reaching unprecedented levels, young Seun, who got his start singing in front of the band when he was barely in his teens, has a chance to reach an even bigger audience than his father ever did, and he’s taking advantage of new media such as Twitter and Facebook to enhance that momentum.
A little less than a year ago, in June 2011, Seun took his biggest step yet in advancing a claim on his father’s status as an international star by releasing the album From Africa with Fury: Rise. With legendary producers Brian Eno and John Reynolds on board, and the original tracks laid down in Rio de Janeiro, Rise has all the feeling of a vintage Fela recording, but with a more contemporary and frequently up-tempo sound and attack. Seun told me that he was glad to have the record because “it’s important to preserve and transmit the music, too, and not just to perform it live.” This brilliant, cascading funk orchestra tends to play in much larger venues (like this weekend’s Coachella, for example), so it should be quite a thing to see and hear them in the relatively intimate confines of Campbell Hall. Seun explained that he looks forward to these shows as much or even sometimes more than the giant crowds at the festivals. “In Montreal at the Jazz Festival we were told there were 120,000 people in the audience,” he said, “but in the smaller places, we sometimes connect even more with the people because we can see them better.” To be a part of the Seun Kuti solution, carpool if you have to, but be sure to show up on Monday for Egypt 80 at UCSB.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 at Campbell Hall on Monday, April 16, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.