Clip: Red Hot & Riot Live
- The original album is wonderful, probably my favorite ?uestlove production.
In the Afro-Funk Groove of an Incorrigible Rebel
By JON PARELES
Published: December 4, 2006
Fela Anikulapo Kuti's music, Afrobeat, has had a long and unlikely
afterlife since he died in 1997. "Red Hot & Riot Live!," which started
a two-night stand at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday, wasn't a
rediscovery but one more affirmation.
Presented on World AIDS Day, Friday's concert was a reunion for many
of the musicians who appeared on "Red Hot & Riot," a 2002 anti-AIDS
benefit album. (Mr. Kuti died of H.I.V.-related illness.) The concerts
were also benefits, for African Services Committee, which helps
immigrants with H.I.V. and AIDS.
The African contingent onstage included Les Nubians, Cheikh Lô, Amadou
et Mariam, Keziah Jones and, most important, Mr. Kuti's drummer, Tony
Allen, who was the mainspring of Afrobeat. Mr. Kuti's songs were
already hybrids of African and American music, and "Red Hot & Riot
Live!," with Andres Levin of the Latin alternative band Yerba Buena as
musical director, also bounced them toward the Caribbean.
In Nigeria, Mr. Kuti was an incorrigible rebel, defying the government
and denouncing corruption in his songs; he was repeatedly arrested,
beaten and jailed. Afrobeat set Mr. Kuti's righteousness and defiance
to African funk that dug in for a long siege. He mixed Nigerian
rhythms with James Brown and jazz, and his songs take their time,
vamping along at adamant medium tempos and taking turns among vocals,
solos and brawny horn riffs. Afrobeat smolders and seethes, determined
Instead of waning with time, Afrobeat has proliferated. Two of Mr.
Kuti's sons have led bands featuring his former sidemen. Mr. Allen has
been making his own albums and collaborating widely. Bands like
Antibalas, from New York City, have been picking up Mr. Kuti's old
songs and writing new ones in his style.
"Red Hot & Riot Live!" didn't try to recreate the bitter intensity of
Mr. Kuti's own performances. It concentrated on the groove and let the
protests — against poverty, war and what one song called the "colonial
mentality" — speak for themselves. Yerba Buena, which has two drummers
of its own and a Latin percussion section, was the core of the stage
band, which included Meshell Ndegeocello on bass, who tinctured the
Afrobeat bass lines with passages of thumb-popping and hints of
reggae, and John Medeski on keyboards, playing flinty 1970s-style funk
solos edged with distortion.
And it had the groove: not just from Mr. Allen's drumming in some
songs, with its subtle bass drum thumps and fastidiously shifting
high-hat cymbal syncopations, but from an Afrobeat horn section
anchored by Alex Harding's forceful baritone saxophone.
There were guest rappers: Dead Prez, a duo that brought its own rhymes
about ghetto survival. Yerba Buena's own singers, Pedro Martinez and
CuCu Diamantes, sometimes brought out the ancestral connections
between West African music and Afro-Latin incantations, and the
percussion could layer rumba into the Afrobeat. The Africans — even
Mr. Jones, from Nigeria, who sang and played some bluesy lead guitar —
didn't imitate Mr. Kuti; they expanded his music from Nigerian to
pan-African style. Cheikh Lô moved from an ominous whisper to the
soaring lines of Senegalese griot singing in "Shakara"; Les Nubians,
with Ms. Diamantes, were both flirtatious and assertive in "Upside
Down" and "Water Not Get Enemy."
The concert gave ample reason for the survival of Afrobeat. The music
offers plenty of room for allies and kindred spirits, without ever
surrendering its own stubborn identity.