Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.’s first song this past evening at Central Park Summerstage was Expensive Shit. As a literal, graphic condemnation of wretched capitalist excess and status-grubbing, it has few equals. Fela Kuti’s son and principal heir to the family Afrobeat legacy probably spat the word “shit” more times during the roughly ten minutes it took for the band to bubble and rise and finally bring the relentless underlying vamp to a close, than any other act has done at this venue in many years.
Kuti has been fortunate to sidestep the kind of brutal repression his father faced, but he’s no less fearlessly political. His second song, a defiantly triumphant pro-ganja anthem with a fervent refrain of “Lemme see your lighters,” was a red herring. The younger Kuti shares his dad’s withering sarcasm. He welcomed the audience into the era of fake news – “News that’s for profit,” he explained – by reminding that Nigerians knew all about it before it became part and parcel of White House correspondence. A little later on, introducing African Dreams – a broadside against western cultural imperialism – he snidely commented that “Conscious capitalism doesn’t exist.”
Leading an endlessly undulating fourteen-piece band, he took a quick turn on piano and then showed off a bracing, bitingly metallic tone and a no-nonsense, modally tinged sensibility on alto sax. The percussion section emerged stealthily from a quiet thicket and grew toward a stampede as the brass blazed, the electric piano rippled and the two guitars – one a tenor model for extra upper-register tingle – ran jaggedly circling melodies along with a similarly purposeful bass player, throughout what would become an unexpectedly abbreviated set.
Many people in the crowd – especially those who showed up to see the advertised headliner and consequently missed the guy they came for – were surprised not to see Roy Ayers headlining. He’s certainly earned that respect. He also didn’t get much more than three quarters of an hour onstage, leading his four-piece band through expansive takes of Red, Gold and Green, Everybody Loves the Sunshine and finally, Searchin’.
While he saved his most high-voltage playing for a long solo with Kuti’s band, the iconic vibraphonist who more or less invented noir psychedelic soul put on a clinic in purist, seat-of-the-pants tunesmithing, whether with endless volleys of bluesy triplets, rapidfire chromatics or playing against the beat. His band stayed pretty much on low-key, glimmering point, although they lost the crowd when they went off into warpy keytar spacerock and a snapping, popping, faux Bootsy bass solo. They won them back again with a tight drum solo where the guy behind the kit played the whole thing one-handed, then with both sticks behind his back, finally flipping them forward over his shoulders, and kept going without missing a beat.
Hometown opening act Underground System justified the ambition of sharing a bill with two more-or-less iconic acts through the afternoon’s longest set, a mix of original Afrobeat with a more straight-up funk tune or two and also a whirling Italian womens’ rights anthem. Frontwoman/flutist Domenica Fossati really worked up a sweat with her dance moves; if she was a sheik, her last name would be Yerbouti. Guitarist Peter Matson and keyboardist Colin Brown pinged and rippled and threw off a few clouds of toxic noise, drummer Yahoteh Kokayi and percussionist Lollise Mbi held the beast to the rails while the horn section – including baritone saxophonist Maria Christina Eisen and trumpeter Jackie Coleman – smoldered and sputtered and bassist David Cutler ran simple, emphatically circling riffs that would have made Fela proud. Their high point was the brassy Rent Party, something Fossati said the band knew a little something about. From there they segued into their most ominous, dynamically shadowy number of the afternoon.
Afterward, many faces n the crowd went west to the Hudson, where Innov Gnawa – the only Moroccan drum-and-bass trance band in this hemisphere – played what amounted to the afterparty. In more than ten years of concerts at Pier One at 70th Street and the river, it’s impossible to think of another show that had so many people dancing, from toddlers to oldtimers.
And they did that to ancient animist and Muslim themes originally dating from thousands of years ago in sub-Saharan Africa, sung in Arabic to the hypnotic pulse of sintir bass lute and cast-iron qraqab castanets. This was a slightly smaller subgroup of the band, Moroccan master Hassan Ben Jaafer taking turns with his similarly agile protege Samir LanGus riffing on the low strings. Some of the songs worked a tension between octave notes, others bounced and swayed along with crescendoing call-and-response choruses. As the night went on, Ben Jaafer subtly introduced all sorts of tricky polyrhythms and suspensefully allusive chromatics hinting but never quite crossing into Egypt.
Qraqab player Amino Benyalmani sauntered into the dancing melee midway through the show and taught everybody some snazzy moves, complete with a split-second squat in the middle – and by the end of the show, a lot of people had all that pretty cold. Innov Gnawa’s next gig is at Prospect Park Bandshell this Friday night, July 21 at 7:30 PM where they’re opening for wildly popular, microtonal psychedelic Malian band Amadou & Mariam. The next show at Summerstage is tomorrow night, July 17 where 90s noiserock icons and occasional cinematic soundscapers Yo La Tengo hit at around 8. Be aware that there’s an opening act; doors at 6 for those not willing to take chances.