Jun 22, 2009

Femi Kuti - Live At The Africa Shrine (DVD+CD)

Femi Kuti: Live at the Shrine shows the Nigerian Afrobeat star in his element: preparing and performing his songs at the New Afrika Shrine, the dance hall and community center built by Femi to honor his father, Fela. Femi’s late father, Fela Kuti, famous for inventing Afrobeat, was also renowned for his political stance against corruption and capitalism — and for his womanizing. In Dutch director Raphaël Frydman’s collection of songs and interviews with Fela’s son, a man takes his role as a musician and famous person to heart. Fela is central to his community of family and musicians, friends and fans, always at work to better himself or the situation for people around him.

With a stage full of musicians and dancers, Kuti’s energetic Sunday night “jumps,” as the shows are called, attract locals and people from all over Africa and beyond. Live at the Shrine intersperses these concert sequences with interviews with Femi, members of his band, his sisters, fans, and scenes of street life. When he is not performing, we find Femi focused on practicing, playing endless scales on his trumpet, dancing, smoking, singing constantly.

I know descriptors like “desperate poverty” and “war-torn nation” have become journalist boilerplate, but they fit Nigeria all too well. The idealistic and committed younger Kuti declares that Nigerians can’t really call themselves independent if they can’t get electricity and water consistently and continually have to beg other countries for aid. In fact, a running theme in the interviews with him and his sisters and fans is that there are no lights. Instead of accepting this imposition, Femi takes responsibility for the obligations he feels his fame has placed on him. He works at his gift, music, to send out the word about conditions in Africa. He sets about every task without assuming for one minute that anything should come easily.

To me, Femi Kuti’s songs sound preachy and overly political. Kuti’s lyrics only transport me from the worries of my own day-to-day existence right into someone else’s fears. In the context of Femi’s life in Lagos, however, what else could these songs be? He could sing about romantic troubles, but instead he voices his take on Africans and their oppression, by their circumstances and by their choices as well.

Fans of Femi Kuti will appreciate the series of bonus interviews in which he discusses his political beliefs, history, and explains the origins and lyrics of some of his songs. Kuti’s songs are more compelling than his interviews, however; he often seems impatient to get back to his music. (I found it useful to turn on the English subtitles and fast-forward to read the text of the interviews.) For those who want more context, a booklet included with the DVD provides song lyrics and some historical background.


An unprecedented collection by Afrobeat legend Femi Kuti, Live At The Shrine includes both a concert film/DVD documentary and a live concert CD, singularly conveying the beauty and joy of Afrobeat music – a combustible cocktail fusing jazz, funk, and traditional African music – while also communicating it’s fascinating roots and politics which began with Femi’s father Fela Kuti, the creator and godfather of Afrobeat.

Live At The Shrine takes place in the Kuti family’s hometown of Lagos at the Africa Shrine, where every Sunday Femi plays to a packed house of revelers. With music as his weapon of choice and the Africa Shrine a temple of protest song, Femi continues his father’s fight, railing against the corrupt Nigerian government and staunchly defending PanAfricanism. Capturing this experience through interviews, street scenes, and the music itself, Live At The Shrine captures the spirit, passion, and hope, of a man and a people who are fighting.


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