sun 14/08/2022

Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra, Purcell Room | reviews, news & interviews

Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra, Purcell Room

Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra, Purcell Room

Better than the original

OK, let’s start with a bit of icon-bashing. In some circles, to say that a current Afrobeat band might actually be better than what the originator of the style, Fela Kuti, produced in the 1970s, would be as outrageous and absurd as proclaiming that the Ruttles were better than the Beatles. Fela Kuti is untouchable and beyond criticism, just as John Lennon and Bob Marley are. But Fela’s mythological status  is fed by an incongruous mix of the good, the bad and the ugly.

His insatiable appetite for women and marijuana would now make spectacular tabloid fodder. But his heroic one-man war against military corruption in Nigeria, which led to him being jailed, beaten, and eventually resulted in his own mother’s death, is the stuff true legends are made of. How could the value of anyone’s music not end up being distorted with such a monolithic shadow hanging over it?

But as a more sober appraiser of Fela’s catalogue I’ve come to conclude that although it is blessed with some great hooks and that hypnotic, immortal groove, his songs are often just much, much too long (a marijuana-steeped brain is never the best judge of when enough is enough of anything), the instruments are sometimes out of tune, and however compelling Fela’s lyrics might be, let’s face it, he was not the greatest singer in the world. So yes, I am that Ruttles fan: I genuinely find several of the current Afrobeat bands far more musically satisfying than much of what the man they owe their existence to produced.

A case in point is Dele Sosimi. Dele was a keyboard player and musical director for Fela in the early 1980s before joining forces with Fela’s son Femi to form the band Positive Force. Dele’s latest album, Identity, presents an artist who has decided that, hey, we can lay back on this groove a little; allow it to breathe, swing with it. Fela needed a form of music which had jagged edges and tension to offset his lyrics of protest and outrage, but Dele has other concerns. And last night at the Purcell Room his love of soul, jazz, and simply generating a positive atmosphere was what was most important.

Demi Sosimi’s Afrobeat Orchestra are a vibrant ten-piece – bass, guitar, drums, congas, a three-piece brass section, and two female dancers/backing vocalists - who are as tight as the animal skin stretched across the top of one of the conga player’s hand drums. Then there was Dele himself, a chunky gentleman in jeans and self-advertising black T-shirt, standing centre stage behind his keyboards. At first I’m doubtful as to whether he is a commanding enough presence to front this formidable outfit. But by the third song he’s twirling round in little circles, echoing some shimmies and shakes from his dancers, and purring his baritone lead vocals with unforced authority. Oddly enough, it’s only his keyboard playing which seems almost incidental, what with everything else going on. The guitarist chipped way funkily, the bass player swung like the proverbial pendulum, and the brass section punched out perfect Fela-like riffs whenever they were  required to.

When Fela’s classic “Zombie” motored into life, it’s a highlight of the evening (maybe I shall have to reconsider my position on Fela!) The girls do a quaint so-80s robotic dance routine, the bassist picks and slaps out a solo in which he seems to play more notes than there were people in the auditorium, and those self-same people obligingly sing, "Zombie!" at the tops of their voices whenever they were required to.

So in summation, Dele and his band of merry Afrobeaters aren’t as cutting edge as, say, New York’s Antibalas, but they are a damned fine band worth an evening of anyone’s time, particularly if you feel like a bit of a sing-along of the call-and-response variety.

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Zombie by Fela would definitely be among my all time favourite tracks, ever, in the entire universe. Ok - he also produced some dope filled, meandering tunes, but at his best the guy was a genius and his imitators are a pale shadow of the originator. Mr Male's backtracking at the end almost makes my point for me.

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