★★★ CD: SEUN KUTI - BLACK TIMES The song remains the same because the problems haven’t gone away...
Is it fair to say that Seun Kuti’s fourth album is just more of the same? I believe it is, because more of the same is more or less the point with protest music, particularly if what you’re protesting hasn’t gone away. You have no choice but to keep singing that same tune (sometimes literally). So what we have here are variations on the theme of struggle and liberation – corrupt politicians, the unjust jailing of the poor, police and army brutality, the promise of jobs as more factories close, and the need for education so that the young are intellectually armed for an uprising. Oh and, to lighten the tone slightly for five minutes, a song about the politically and psychologically importance of smoking weed in public places.
Afrobeat as a musical style is perfectly suited to extended, direct polemic because all it does is punch. Every instrument in Seun’s father’s old band, Egypt 80, is focused on percussive attack: stabbing brass, chopping guitars, pounded congas, and of course the right and left hooks of every bass drum and snare note. And the band is as tight, if not tighter, than they’ve ever been before. But does Fela’s youngest son bring anything new to the genre the legendary Nigerian musician created? Well, a little.
There is more space in the arrangements than usual, despite the bass drum beats sometimes coming at the speed of machine-gun fire. Also, Carlos Santana’s spiky guitar soloing throughout the title track is a welcome addition to the pallet. In fact, the opening bars of this track border on laidback, at least for an Afrobeat album, the guitars muted – the call-and-response backing vocals almost hesitant. Perhaps that’s because the song begins with a question rather than a proclamation: "Are you ready to rise?" I find this curiously moving. Direct anger reframed as a direct question.