For a glorious week and a half in November, London seemed like the epicenter of Afrobeat. Antibalas played Islington Town Hall. Dele Sosimi's Afrobeat Orchestra played Hackney's New Empowering Church. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 played Kentish Town Forum. If only every month could be like that.
For most of each year, London's hardcore Afrobeat community lives from one of Sosimi's bimonthly Afrobeat Vibration all-nighters to the next. The event, now in its fifth year, is as close to being at The Shrine as you can get without being in Lagos. Doors open at nine, Sosimi's kicking orchestra comes on around midnight, and band, guests and DJ Koichi keep the congenial joint rocking until five or six in the morning. Having played the Forum the night before and with 24 hours at leisure in London, most of Egypt 80 came along to the November 24 Vibration, adding to the good times.
Named after the Evangelical church which previously occupied the building, on Vibration nights the New Empowering Church draws more viscerally inclined worshippers. No "suffer suffer for earth, enjoy for heaven" here.
Antibalas was a blast (and will bring us, shortly, to EMEFE's Good Future). The pioneering Brooklyn outfit's profile has been given a boost by the hit musical FELA!the stage band was formed around Antibalas, whose trumpeter, Jordan McLean, and trombonist, Aaron Johnson, wrote the arrangementsand the long Off Broadway and Broadway runs have given it Olympian fitness levels. The London set-list focused on the most recent Daptone albums, the post-Broadway Antibalas (2012) and the pre-Off Broadway Security (2007). Always an uplifting band, Antibalas sounded more ferocious than ever.
A new face for Londoners, drummer Miles Arntzen was a sensation. Arntzen joined Antibalas in 2010 and proved his worth on Antibalas, but in London on November 14, two years after those recording sessions, the earth moved. Still only 21 years old, Arntzen has youthful exuberance and the poise of a much older player. Comparisons with another drum prodigy, Tony Williams
' band when he was 17, may be glib, but Arntzen is the real deal.
So, too, is Arntzen's own ten-piece EMEFE, whose self-produced debut, Good Future, was released last summer. A drummer and a composer, Arntzen wrote or co-wrote all the tracks, with tenor saxophonist Jas Walton contributing to half of them. The music is Afrobeat laced with Sly Stone funk, hip hop beats and a rock 'n' roll edge. From the primordial, surf-rock guitar twang introducing "BBB," through the pretty, Marco Benevento
, EMEFE delivers a fresh and inventive take on the music.
Along with Antibalas, Arntzen's current commitments include Antibalas tenor saxophonist Stuart Bogie's new-wave Afrobeat band, Superhuman Happiness. But EMEFE is his pride and joy. So it should be. Here's hoping for a London debut before too long.
Of the November gigs, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80's Forum performance was the blinder among blinders. This was the third UK visit the ensemble had made behind its 2011 album, From Africa With Fury: Rise (Knitting Factory Records)and once more the lineup justified Brian Eno
's description of it as playing "the biggest, wildest, livest music on the planet." Seun himself has star quality seeping from every pore. He is, joy of joys, a chip off the old block, but as his lyric writing and performing style increasingly attest, he is his own man with it. A capacity crowd roared its delight. Afrobeat does not get better than this.
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 will be back in the UK in May. Already the wait is too long.
Tracks: Stutter; Do Your Dance; Lucecita; Good Future; BBB; Title Of The Work/Interlude; Don Porfirio; Greed; Birthday Man.
Personnel: Miles Arntzen: drums, percussion, keyboards (6); Jas Walton: tenor saxophone; Christian Anderson: baritone saxophone; Ray Mason: trombone; Michael Fatum: trumpet; Jake Pinto: Hammond organ, Farfisa, Wurlitzer; Deen Anbar: guitar; Davy Levitan: guitar; Doug Berns: bass; Javier Ramos: congas, percussion. Guests: Billy Aukstik: trumpet (1, 2, 4, 9); Chico Mann: vocals (3); Gabriel Garzon-Montano: vocals (3, 5, 8); Dan Knobler: percussion (5); Phoebe Ryan: vocals (4); Jon Seale: vocals (4); Le'Asha Julius: vocals (5, 8); George Ross: vocals (5, 8); Luna Garzon-Montano (vocals (5, 8).