By Anote Ajeluorou
When Ade Bantu-led Afropolitan Vibes said last month it was moving to the main stage from the smaller amphitheatre, its young, upwardly mobile Lagos audience that had made it their regular show was ecstatic. The amphitheatre had become too small to accommodate the ambition of the only serious live band playing genuine music in Lagos. True to type the audience kept the date. Incidentally, the date coincided with the yearly Felabration events designed to honour the late musical legend, revolutionary and avante garde, Abami Eda, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
And so at 8pm last Friday, genuine music lovers streamed to the main stage at Freedom Park, Lagos Island, to be treated to something extraordinary. Even the line up seemed mouth-watering – Simi, Praiz, Gaise, the Lekan Babalola-led leading Eko Jazz Band and a blast from the past, highlife master, Etubom Rex Williams all the way from Calabar. Then it was showtime. Ade Bantu started on a tentative note. The Afrobeat or the Fela’s songs he pelted were as though he was on rehearsal; there wasn’t the strong, masculine, Fela stamp that is gut-wrenching, which Ade Bantu is capable of delivering.
But it was just the beginning, and so he be could be forgiven; better you don’t burn out so soon. Simi came on and added a spark with her sassy performance and a wooing voice that got the audience nodding and salivating for a promising night. Eko Jazz Band came on and attempted to raise the bar; it did to some extent with just the instrumentals before the lead vocalist came on with a voice that failed to carry, probably because he chose the wrong song. The band had what it takes to re-enact Fela on stage, but he went off tangent and lost out, completely. On Felabration night on the main stage at Freedom Park, the only jazz band known for its amazing performances failed to resurrect the spirit of Fela. So, the palm wine felt tepid on the tongues of many with the drab performance on stage; Ade Bantu had to constantly coax his uninspired audience to buy some more to finish the 500-litre lot or so on offer!
But there was a little moon yet to light up a bleak night of lackluster Afropilitan Vibes that failed horribly to reverberate and rouse the spirits of those hung on that platform in the colonial prison in celebration of Fela, a latter day co-prisoner of conscience. However, when Ade Bantu introduced the next act, the crowd held its breath for this blast from the past. When he was wheeled onto stage, the audience stopped breathing all together. What was a frail man in a wheelchair doing on stage? Wait for it! A microphone was pushed into his hand; a little later, a trumpet was also pushed into his hand. Where they serious?
But Etubom Rex Williams knows his musical onions and how to peel them to make a fine musical brew. Yes, his voice may sometimes go off key and a little too loudly, but he can still undulate it to produce good, gravelly vocal delivery. And the trumpet? Well, Rex Williams, probably in his late70s and early 80s, is still the man for the job. Poor microphone positioning perhaps didn’t help much, but he blasted off gloriously, as he showed Lagosians what stuff he’s got. Indeed, it was sheer musical resurrection for this man as he relived his younger years once again on the big stage with an audience to woo.
A little background; Ade Bantu had been invited on a trip for a documentary of musical oldies when they happened upon him in Calabar. Eager not to let the big chance slip, he invited him to Lagos for the big stage he’d always known before he faded into anonymity. It was a chance of a lifetime, and Etubom Rex Williams grabbed it with both hands. Frail and in a wheelchair, but his talent still shone through. And like a lame man hungry for a walk on a moonlit night, Afropolitan Vibes provided the platform yet again for Rex Williams to relive his musical life. And he would leap to his feet sometimes from his wheelchair and sing or blast off on his trumpet.
A little later it became a duo performance as he was joined by a fellow oldie, Orlando Julius, a saxophone maestro also of the highlife genre. His wife, Latoya had ignited the stage earlier with her energetic dances that put the motley crowd allowed on stage to shame. It was a wonder Ade Bantu allowed such nuisance crowd to monkey on stage in the name of dancing. But Latoya sparkled, and when Orlando Julius joined Rex Williams with his saxophone, real Felabration just seemed to have started. They were the true artistes like Fela, multi-instrumentalist, with a strong bias for the saxophone. The duo was a magnificent blast from the past and even the call and response part on the trumpet and the saxophone between Williams and Julius was out of this world; it put the audience edge, and it was a shame it had to end.
When it ended, the show also literally came to an end as well. Praiz’s first note showed promise, but after that he descended to current hiphop craze with little finesse to set him apart from the ‘unmusical’ crowd. He got a bit of spark back when he veered into Bob Marley, with ‘No woman no cry’ and, capping it off with ‘Redemption song’. Gaise didn’t show up.
When Ade Bantu took back the rein of performance, it still felt flat. He couldn’t lift up the flagging mood. There was the sneaky suspicion that he believes he’s got it made so why border exert oneself. Having moved from the small stage to the main stage, Afropolitan Vibes would seem to have arrived or is it? Taking an audience for granted with the kind of performance put last Friday is certainly a terrible mistake. The main stage certainly demands even major performance. Afropolitan Vibes has done it since it started; now, perhaps is the time to do it even better to justify the Lagos crowd being commanded to ‘jump’! It can only jump to good music and equally good performance the way it has come to know Afropolitan Vibes doing these past months. Anything less is recipe for irrelevance, which it can ill afford.