Anyone lucky enough to see Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 live doesn't soon forget it. The son of Fela Kuti, the late Nigerian-born musician whose transcendent music and consciousness-raising rhetoric put him the same class as fellow icons James Brown and Bob Marley, Seun first played with his father’s band at age seven and became its leader upon Fela’s death in 1997. Combining African rhythms and chants with squawking jazz and hard, body-rocking funk into a bespoke style of music he called “Afrobeat,” Fela was a hero to his people and an outlaw to the Nigerian government, which twice sent the military to raid his compound; the second time soldiers fatally injured his elderly mother. Although far from a household name in the U.S. while he was alive, Fela lived such an epic life it became the subject of a Broadway musical anyway, 2009’s Fela!
Seun, who is now 32, has given a contemporary gloss to his father’s Afrobeat sound, incorporating plenty of hip-hop into Egypt 80’s music while continuing to criticize the Nigerian government and the oil companies many people believe are the real puppet masters running the country. The group’s local debut at the 2012 Houston International Festival was one of the most striking, hip-shaking, hypnotizing musical performances I’ve ever seen:
The real force of nature was Kuti's ten-piece orchestra, although I probably left out a couple of horn players in there somehwere. There was a gourd, wood block, two guitars, a bass, drummer, percussion, at least three horns and two female singer/dancers who helped Kuti strip off his shirt after a couple of songs in the Nigeria-like Houston humidity (to the delight of many in the crowd). Together they created such a tidal wave of sound even Kuti himself could barely control it, contorting his body to and fro like he was tossed by a hurricane-force breeze.
Someone else who saw Egypt 80 that day was my friend Reg Burns, Director of Finance & Operations for Miller Outdoor Theatre, the 92-year-old municipal venue in Hermann Park that seats around 1,700; there's room for another 4,000 and change on the spacious lawn. Burns suggested bringing in Egypt 80 to his colleagues, but Miller’s unique mandate that all its performances be free to the public creates some unique circumstances in booking an act of Egypt 80’s caliber.
“I will tell you that I’ve never been in a bidding war with another local promoter for an act,” explains Cissy Segall Davis, Miller’s Managing Director. “The agents that I deal with have to understand the kind of program we have here…all free — all the time. There are some acts that just do not want to play admission-free. And, Miller cannot offer the kind of fees plus percentages of the gate that other promoters can.”
Inviting the Lagos-based Kuti and Egypt 80 to Houston for a one-off performance is out out of the question, Davis says, due to the forbidding travel costs of bringing in a large ensemble over from Africa. But the group booked a U.S. tour to promote their latest album, 2014’s A Long Way to the Beginning, which opened the door. Davis says she put in an offer for Egypt 80 to play Miller last November, and it was a full five months before they accepted in March. Once they did, Davis says the steepest hurdle to making tonight’s show happen lay in getting the band cleared to travel.
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“The biggest challenge will always be getting Visas for performers,” she says. “Then the sheer cost of airfare and shipping for equipment. That’s why we always want to be part of a tour managed by a reputable agency that handles all those details and logistics and prices the tour accordingly.”
Davis says Kuti will be bringing 13 musicians and two backup vocalists/dancers with him. Though they haven’t provided the venue with a set list, the length of the set alone suggests there will be a mighty groove emanating from Hermann Park’s hill tonight.
“They should be playing for 90 minutes without an intermission,” Davis says. “A bit longer if they are having fun! And, this is Houston and Miller Outdoor Theatre….of course he’ll have fun!!”
Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 perform at 8:30 p.m. tonight at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Dr. Seating for the theater’s covered area is on a first-come/first-serve basis; the box office opens at 10:30 a.m. See milleroutdoortheatre.com for more details.