Anyone who has frequented the British Library will be more than familiar with the high-ceilinged entrance hall. An impressive and imposing space, it was an interesting choice of venue to host an event celebrating what would have been the 77th birthday of the late Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. And while it was a privilege to be in attendance, sipping on a beer while grooving to some of Fela’s finest, it still felt a bit odd. Almost like we were trespassing on a land of hushed voices and library cards. In fact, you’re more likely to walk in on a poet reciting their magnum opus to an attentive audience than a full blown concert, complete with a packed crowd of enthusiastic dancers.
All that in mind, nothing could detract from the pleasure that everyone seemed to share as Fela collaborator Dele Sosimi got things going with three of his originals. With so many special guests it was always going to be fairly chaotic, but proceedings were never going to veer off course with an experienced bandleader like Dele at the helm. Guiding us on a journey through the life and career of the Black President, the efforts of the former Egypt80 keyboardist to conduct the various musicians and vocalists were only matched by the incredible musicianship of his Afrobeat Orchestra. As tight a performance as your likely to get, the brass section in particular deserves a special mention, although their contribution was generally overlooked on an evening that featured so many famous faces.
With no chronological order to the set list they opened with ‘Zombie’, Fela’s antimilitarist anthem and the title track to an album that set off a tragic course of events, culminating in the death of his mother at the hands of the Nigerian military. It doesn’t make for light reading, but there never was a more appropriate induction into the world of the Nigerian political insurectionist. Renditions of ‘Blackman’s Cry’ and ‘Coffin For Head of State’ from Afrikan Boy and the Trinity College Afrobeat Ensemble respectively felt a little lacking, although that may have been due to my lofty expectations of the occasion. Noisettes front-woman Shingai Shoniwa on the other hand captivated her audience with an earlier hit in ‘Lady’, a song that defines a period in Fela’s songwriting when love was a principal theme.
Bar the odd hiccup, the sound held up in what was undoubtably challenging acoustic environment, but none of that mattered when it came time for another member of Afrobeat royalty to take the stage. Accompanied by Shoniwa, singer-come-historian Ed Keazor and Dele’s supporting cast, Tony Allen brought the 1976 single ‘Kalakuta Show’ (a song he recorded the drums on) to life and if the crowd’s impassioned reaction wasn’t enough, Keazor pointed to the master, telling us all that “this is Afrobeat”. He wasn’t exaggerating either and Allen’s incredible technique was on show for all to see as he navigated through the complex rhythms he’d composed nearly four decades ago.
The crowd were nicely lubricated on a mixture of wine, cocktails and Nigerian Guinness once we entered the latter stages, and the best was yet to come. A personal favorutie drew one of the biggest reactions of the evening when Nigerian superstar 2face Idibia and Brummie songstress Laura Mvula put their stamp on the oft-sampled ’Water Get No Enemy’, while a closing performance of ‘Shakara’ saw everyone return to the stage for a spectacular send-off that succeeded in capturing the vivacity of Afrobeat and the essence of Fela’s music.
On an evening of posthumous adulation, it was great to see such a diverse crowd enjoy the music of the Afrobeat originator. An inspiration to generations of music-lovers, it was abundantly clear that neither his influence or appeal have diminished in the eighteen years since his passing.