Review by Steve Nover
Ahhh, the joy of sax… and trumpet and a hot band on a chilly night in Hudson; Club Helsinki has atmosphere aplenty, but the anticipation of Fela’s son Seun Kuti had the cognoscenti bringing their own auras to help make this the place to be last Saturday night.
Fela has gotten more mainstream exposure recently thanks to the 2008 off-Broadway production that made it to Broadway a year later, winning three Tony Awards, including best choreography by Bill T. Jones, who also directed. Fela the man died in 1997 at 59, but his charisma was overwhelming. I saw him perform twice, but the first time in Amsterdam, Holland in ’83 was one of the top concerts of my life, along with Bob Marley and… but I digress. That concert featured a 20-piece band with five women dancing and five more singing, mostly made up of his 27 wives. But it was Fela on sax, keyboards and vocals that made the concert a transcendent memory.
Mona Golub brought Femi Kuti – his son with his first and only legal wife – to Albany’s Washington Park back in 2002, and now Fela’s youngest son, 30-year-old Seun Kuti, was in Hudson to share the intensity of Afrobeat. His band Egypt 80 was made up of many of the same musicians who played with Fela and suffered when his highly political lyrics led to his imprisonment from ’84-’86.
The band took the stage first with the lead trumpeter and the baritone saxophonist helping to warm the crowd along with a tenor sax, second trumpet, three percussionists, drummer, bassist, two guitarists and a keyboardist (the only musician dressed in traditional clothes and cap). Seun came out blowing his alto, but it was his resemblance to his father, both facially and in body type, that was especially striking.
Like Fela, Seun sings in a pidgin English and later in the show he would give a lesson with the crowd’s help which translated to, “Plant seeds and let it grow.” But he was at his most fiery when talking about banks and the disappearance of money from government corruption, as well as his treatment at airports where he is made to feel like a terrorist and yearned to go through customs naked. His arrival came with two women who supplied the mostly call and response background vocals. They also provided plenty of lively dancing and often turned their back to the audience to shake their behinds at amazing speeds. They wore dreads piled high on their heads and beads around their hair and necks, but what was most striking about the two barefoot women were some 30 white beads that seemed to be embedded in their skin in an elliptical shape around their eyes with deep blue in between.
Throughout the performance the lead trumpeter would continue to come up front to solo and occasionally so too would the baritone sax player, but it was mostly Seun’s show. And if he doesn’t have the charisma of his father, who does? He danced in a herky-jerky manner, not graceful but with power, and towards the end of the night, he took off his shirt, which was a trademark of Fela’s. When he turned around, one could make out the tattoo “Fela Lives” across the top of his back. I was lucky to have a spot in front of the stage with Seun just a few feet to my right, a guitarist in front of me and the two women a few feet away. Behind them were a pair of percussionists; one had a wood block and stick with such a sharp sound that I don’t believe he was miked. The second drummer had three conga-type drums, but they were half the normal size. He hit them with two sticks or one stick and his palm, and occasionally he would sit on a large four-foot conga with a massive head and use sticks eight times the usual thickness. The third percussionist on the other side of the stage played a gourd with beads around it called a sherkere, and he also danced a bit.
Kuti and the band played for some 90 minutes before leaving the stage, but when they returned it was the first time I saw the musicians smiling. It was contagious, although in fact, the audience was smiling all along. The guitarist in front of me took his first solo of the night, since so much of the groove is built on layers – Seun soloing or playing ensemble parts with the other four horns.
The last time I had been at Club Helsinki for Thurston Moore, the restaurant was separated from the club, but this night the two were as one, and the music could not be held in check; it was truly a dance party despite the close quarters up front. And the main truism of the night was, yes, Fela lives.