Saluting the Black President: London, UK, May 17, 2013

Saluting the Black President: London, UK, May 17, 2013
Chris May By

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Saluting the Black President
Dele Sosimi, Ginger Baker, Tony Allen, Keziah Jones, Afrikan Boy, others
London, UK
May 17, 2013

Saluting the Black President was presented to mark the release of the second batch of albums in Knitting Factory UK's Fela Anikulapo-Kuti reissue program. The event sold out long before the doors opened, with the advance publicity creating some seriously heightened expectations. Among these was the promised reunion of drummers Ginger Baker and Tony Allen—who, until the show's opening at Paris' Zenith the previous evening, had not played together since Afrika 70's appearance at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1978. Another was the roster of mainly twenty-something British/Nigerian Afrobeats (with an "s") rappers and singers who had been invited to put their spin on some of Kuti's classic songs. Instrumental backing was provided throughout by Dele Sosimi's Afrobeat Orchestra.

On a musical level, Saluting the Black President proved to be a blinder—and as a piece of history, the Baker/Allen reunion alone made it the stuff of legend. The gig was staged like an old school rock 'n' roll package show, with each of the rappers and singers coming on to perform, in most cases, just one number apiece. The set list focused on tracks recorded by Kuti between 1969 and 1978, when Allen was his drummer and bandleader and Baker an occasional guest. Of the rappers and singers, the highlights included (in running order): Afrikan Boy's "Gentleman," Breis' "Sorrow Tears And Blood," Bumi Thomas' "Ololufe Mi," Ty's "Zombie," Blak Twang's "Shuffering And Shmiling," Keziah Jones' "Trouble Sleep Yanga Go Wake Am," Kof's "Water No Get Enemy" and Biola Dosunmu's "Upside Down."

Baker and Allen then joined Sosimi's band for performances of "Ye Ye De Smell" and "Egbe Mi O," both featured on the 1971 album Fela with Ginger Baker: Live! (reissued in the first batch of Knitting Factory discs earlier this year, with Baker and Allen's 16:22 drum solo in Berlin included as a bonus track). Two of the half dozen greatest drummers the twentieth century ever produced, Baker and Allen remain formidable. Baker's playing is less ferociously embellished than it was back in the day, now more closely resembling Allen's stripped-down groove, and it is still as irresistible as sin. Hearing the pair together again was pure joy.

Two people deserve special credit for the success of the evening. One is Dele Sosimi. A keyboard player with Egypt 80, and later the bandleader of Femi Kuti's Positive Force, Sosimi today leads one of most exciting Afrobeat bands on the planet, one that is authentic without being narrowly revivalist. As musical director of Saluting the Black President, he kept things moving along masterfully and at a pace.

Credit goes too to Kuti's longtime friend and manager, Rikki Stein. In programming the show, Stein had the imagination to include the younger Afrobeats artists on the bill, along with the Afrobeat veterans, so drawing out the continuing relevance and appeal of Kuti's music and message. Stein's curatorship of Kuti's legacy is exemplary.

Saluting the Black President sold out in Paris and London, and many people who wanted to come along were unable to get tickets. The good news is that Stein is already planning a bigger event in a more capacious London venue for October 2013, and other European cities, including Paris, are likely to be included in the schedule, too. The gigs will follow the release of the final batch of discs in the Knitting Factory program and coincide with the annual Felabrations staged in Lagos and elsewhere around the date of Kuti's birthday, October 15. Stay tuned for further news.

Photo shows: l-r back row: Kof, Marco Piccioni (guitar), Suman Joshi (bass guitar), Tamar Osborn (baritone saxophone), Aflay Sackey (congas, percussion), Rikki Stein, Kunle Olofinjana (drums), unidentified, Tony Allen, Dele Sosimi (keyboards, vocals, MD), unidentified, Phil Dawson (guitar), Justin Thurgur (trombone), Tom Allan (trumpet); l-r front row: Max Reilhardt (Shrine DJ), Rita Ray (Shrine DJ), Linus Bewley (tenor saxophone), Afrikan Boy. Missing In Action: Ginger Baker and others.

Photo Credit

Biyi Bandele

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