First Night: African Soul Rebels, Barbican Hall, London

'Son of a lion' is king of the African showmen
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The Independent Culture

This is the third year of the African Soul Rebels tour - previous line-ups have included the Sahara Guitars of Tinariwen, Mali's Amadou & Mariam, Rachid & Taha & Souademassi from Algeria.

This time around you couldn't beat the line up with a stick. The "son of a lion" Fema Kuti is the headliner. Kuti's 16-strong band summon up a killer brew of Nigerian Afro-Beat, matching the energy and innovation of his father Fela Kuti. Guinean kora player Ba Cissoko, is a relative newcomer. His Electric Griot Land was a nod to Hendrix's 1968 double album, Electric Ladyland, to do for the kora and its West African repertoire what Jimi did for the Delta Blues. His cousin Sekou plays a Kora saturated with effects and veers from a skunk futurism to sounding like it has been amplified from a 1920s radio.

The night opens with Akli D Berber from Algeria, who mixes folk music of his native Kabylie tradition with Chaabi, American blues and Senegalese M'Balax pop. His second album, Ma Yela, was produced by Manu Chao, who helped turn Amadou & Mariam into international stars with Dimanche A Bamako. It's an astonishing good album. Here he opens with Salaam, its first track, working up the interplay with his three-piece band of guitar, bass and drums into a rich subtle texture.

He has got interesting hair, a kind of cross between Bobs Dylan and Marley and with electric guitarist Malik Kemouch scattering quicksilver lines over Akli D's intricate work on acoustic guitar.

His seven-strong set is drawn entirely from the new album with Good Morning Tchetchenia one of the most compelling. It opens oud-like, melody picked out by Akli and accompanied by a blues cry, descending to scales of lament: "War in the east, war in the west. Stop the war." A plaintiff wish but driven on a compelling insistent rhythm that's like a wake-up call.

Calabash player Konkoure opens Ba Cissoko's set. Cissoko and Sekou are both wired to effective pedals, though the effects are sparingly applied outside of Sekou's rapid bolo runs. The interplay between the two is highly inventive and adding an echo chamber of a wah-wah to the fluidity of the kora makes for a remarkable piece of Guinean Cosmische music.

It's Sekou who's largely the freak-out artiste here, though he is matched for inventiveness by Konkoure's percussion, the songs extend into lengthy workouts on core rhythms that are infectiously danceable. The kora must be the most beautiful sounding instrument in the world, and Sekou's intense style and use of effects stretches it to its outer limits.

Their final extended number is magnificent and the last to put down his instrument is Sekou, playing out the final phrases of Dandala to huge applause.

Fema Kuti would be an impossible act to follow, and his 16-strong band stokes the insistent layers of rhythm as the three booty-shaking dancers dominate the front of the stage. This is music that floods the senses with a real showbiz build-up leading to Fema's arrival on stage. He is one of Africa's great showmen, but one of its great voices of conscience too. And passionately political, his set is filled with fire and grace. These are songs that, once set up, can keep going for hours, shifting hypnotic polyrhythms behind exuberant brass lines, with Fema's ecstatic vocals weaving between the two, pushing and pulling at the beat.

Resistance is useless under this kind of oral and visual assault. The African Soul Rebels have won the hour.

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