Somnambule - Writing About Music

Roy Ayers Plays The Music of Fela Kuti

2nd October 2004, Barbican

Tonight’s show at the Barbican initiates a week-long festival entitled ‘Black President, The Art and Legacy of Fela Kuti’. A video screen at the back of the empty stage displays an iconic image of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, tightfitting shirt open to the navel revealing sax strap laid over slave chain. Dry ice lit by purple spotlights pumps out over the silent instruments and thoughts turn to Kuti’s legacy. His Afrobeat music is played by numerous tribute bands dotted around an ever-contracting globe which nevertheless seems unable to learn the wisdom of respect, tolerance and the need to share its resources more equally. Tonight’s support act is a Montreal group called Afrodizz who play an enjoyable set though their politics seem rather half-hearted and it’s none too clear what exactly they add to Kuti’s oeuvre. After the interval the lights dim and a berobed man walks onto the stage blowing a one-note rhythm on an ocarina. He seats himself behind a drumkit at the centre of the stage and is quickly joined by two percussionists. Together they play polyrhythms which build into an exuberant highlife number as the rest of the large group join them (five strong brass section, bass player, keyboards and guitarist). At the end of the next track which has a Caribbean wild-west feel, Roy Ayers finally takes the stage dressed in shimmering cloak and cap. He welcomes the last two performers in the form of the group’s backing singers. Their names aren’t included in the programme despite their central place in tonight’s proceedings as they contribute soaring, yelling African vocals and incredible dance moves to much of the evening. The group run through a number of highlights including Red, Black And Green, Everybody Knows The Sunshine, 2000 Black’s Got To Be Free, River Niger and Africa, Centre Of The World. The precision, good nature and energy the ensemble radiate makes it difficult not to grin in appreciation. Ayers knows the moves, there’s some lovely stone-baked solos and the audience is clamouring for an encore all too quickly. Ayers possesses ample credentials to play this tribute, after all he played with Kuti in the late 70s. Tonight Kuti’s rasping saw edge has been softened, his urgency exchanged for an uplifting, consciousness-raising vibe. They go out with the addictively repetitive I Just Keep On Trying. It’s all you can do.
Colin Buttimer
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