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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

On not leaving London 2: Africa on the Square, photography at Somerset House and some rich coincidences

Bukky Leo and Black Egypt transport a rapt Trafalgar Square crowd - out of cold, rainy London and straight into the heat of
Fela Kuti's Shrine, in the Kalakuta Republic, Lagos, Nigeria. For half and hour. And then the rain came down.
So by the following week, still not having left London, despite the increasingly grim view of the vile Nine Elms - Battersea development from the back of the flat, it would have been plain churlish not to go to Trafalgar Square for the Africa festival.

There are many such events on this square, always free, of course, and always endorsed by the Mayor of London. They include Chinese New Year, the Russian spring lenten festival, Maslenitsa, Diwali and so on. They are generally heavily sponsored by big corporate interests and the Tourism ministries of relevant countries, and often as a result a bit bland and worthy. Plus the square itself always struck me as one of the bleakest and least encouraging of communal meeting places of any major city I've ever visited.

But remember we now have a new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. This event is part of the annual educational exercise, Black History Month. It does have a big sponsor - Air France, but the media sponsor is The Voice newspaper. And if anyone can transform an awkward,  grey, ex-triumphalist colonial space into something good, it must surely be Africans.

And by god they did, from the bright colours of the different stalls and pop-up stands selling food, fashion, artefacts, books etc - to the non-stop upbeat patter from the two main presenters on stage. And one super-brilliant DJ. Read on...

So, having arranged to go to the Picasso exhibition at the NPG, we encounter the Square already bustling with people, and with some high-energy South African music echoing off the facades of the old colonial offices all around.

We stay in the square, and watch

We tear ourselves away from this, head to the NPG, even though the sun is shining. Inside there's a big queue for Picasso, so we head for another exhibition, across Covent Garden to Somerset House to see photos by the late Malick SidibĂ© of nightlife and beach-life in his native Mali. All the photos are black and white and taken on a Kodak Brownie 127 camera with flash gun, and they are superb, evening blown up to a metre square or more. It's a small show and unmissable for the absolute elegance and beauty of the people he cpaptures, their innocence and eloquence of movement, in the matter of body language and facial expression.

This small, unforgettable exhibition has an audio dimension as well, thanks to a background soundtrack of African music contemporary to the photos - that is to say, mainly 1960s, 70s and a bit of 80s.

It's gorgeous music, mixed up with ambient sounds from parties and streetlife of Bamako. This mixtape was produced by the DJ Rita Ray.

By 4pm I am back in the square and there is amazing music coming over the PA. The DJ is Rita Ray. The crowd is dancing, and it keeps on dancing through the three final bands of the day. And dancing even more when Rita Ray ends the whole thing with some astonishing mix-ups or mash-ups of god knows what dub and Afrobeat and tribal chanting and desert blues and who knows what else, but so expertly blended that the sound seems to make the ground slide beneath your feet.

Then the Algerian musician Seddick Zebiri comes on with his band Seeds of
Creation, mixing what sounds like classical Berber oud playing with some serious jazz-funk and a bit of far-out acid-rock riffing and drumming. He's another crowd pleaser! This guy is a crazy singer and mover and his band flies,  always shifting its musical ground, and after a short but fiery set they get a huge round of applause.

The amazing Algerian master musician Seddick Zebiri with his band, Seeds
of Creation, bring a unique brand of North African funk to the Square.
Then comes the final act - a band known as Black Egypt, led by the Nigerian afrobeat Saxophonist Bukky Leo. Yes, the same  Bukky who used to play Sunday evening sets at the Beufoy Arms inLAvender Hill, back in the early 90s I think, a true disciple of the Black Presidnet. ANd sure enough Bukky dedicates this set to Fela, who, he says, "was borh in this month and died in this month". SO Black History month is also Fela Kuti month. Sounds good to me. WOn't argue with that.

Certainly won't argue with this band's top-class renditions of a string of Fela classics, Zombie, Water Get No Enemy, Coffin for Head of State....the voice and the sax are so good, the band is great, even though much smaller than the full Egypt 80 or whatever band Fela had at the time. You could almost imagne the iron hand of Fela himself leading the tight, deadly accurate and beautifully-rehearsed ensemble playing. Trafalgar Square has surely never before resounded to such a fabulous onslaught of music straight out of the Kalakuta  Republic. Love!

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