Dec 20, 2010

Femi Kuti - Concerts Reviews 2009/2010



Femi Kuti in Sydney, Australia

Afrobeat has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in circles outside the normal purveyors of world music. In particular there have been some stellar compilations on the Soundways label that have exposed many unsung heroes of afrobeat and its various versions of psychedelic, disco, rock and funk. The figurehead of the genre was Nigeria’s Fela Kuti who reigned supreme in the 70s, bringing his vision of African music to the masses. Thankfully his eldest son Femi has continued his father’s legacy and as such there was a fair amount of expectation in the air at the Metro for their Sydney show.

There is an inherent joy in watching a large band on stage who don’t sound like 14 musicians all vying for space in the mix. The band entered in stages, first the core guitar/drums/bass/keys section followed by a conga line of the quintet horn section and finally the three dancers/ occasional backup singers. From the opening snare crack it was clear the band was going to be exceptionally tight. It hit you in the chest before the bass and guitar spiraled off with a controlled sense of abandon.

Kuti skipped onstage looking the bandleader part and tall, full of energy and communicative intent. From there on in it was an intoxicating blend of funk, soul and jazz that either strove to sweetly seduce or demand that feet were moved and arms raised high. Kuti established from the outset that they were going to be playing a few tracks from his new album Africa For Africa and indeed a stretched out version of the title track was one of the highlights on the night.

Kuti’s dancers inevitably caught the eye of much of the audience with their tribal set moves and hyper-booty shaking. Their backing vocals were definitely not the reason why they were hired for the band but in terms of colour and fun they were a great enhancement to the music.

Femi Kuti has strong social and/or political motives running through many of his songs and we were treated to his seemingly simple solution to the struggles of Haiti following the earthquake as well as some instructional advice for young men wanting to please their ladies. Aside from the banter Kuti controlled the band with excited hand gestures, furiously pumped fists and his chant/sing vocal stylings and they responded with fluid soloing and such a relaxed demeanor.

Because the sermonizing was thankfully kept to a minimum between the songs – it left the band to make the bigger statement with brutally precise drumming, guitar that seemed to have an endless supply of effortless melodic runs, tasteful keyboard work and that well drilled horn section.

What Kuti proved was that righteous music with messages doesn’t need to be dull and inspiring like a rally to the converted. He knows that the music is the priority, the vessel for those messages when the time and place is right. The gig also served to give wider perception to those who only tread in the shallows of African music. By not succumbing to only using traditional instrumentation or musicality he has created a music of his continent that includes other cultures by the use of shared commonality via guitars, bass, drums etc. This was a show that felt communal, uplifting and celebratory all at one.

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Femi Kuti in Edinburg, Scotland

If the snow in the capital’s Lothian Road started to melt ever so slightly around 9pm on Wednesday, that would have been due to the arrival onstage of the band Femi Kuti calls the Positive Force.

The son of Fela Kuti, the legendary Nigerian musician, Afrobeat founder and political activist, Kuti sent his band out first to warm things up, and with a five-piece horn section specialising in rapid fire fanfares, three spectacularly gyrating backing vocalists and an industrious rhythm section including a drummer whose kick drum comes from the wrecking-ball school of emphasis, the force was felt immediately.

Kuti himself entered looking cooler than cool but this impression didn’t last. With a performance style that can only be described as wholehearted, he launched into songs from his latest album, Africa for Africa, with vehemence, his free hand beating the air impatiently, and he was soon reaching for his towel.

In a set that ran to almost two hours, including a generous encore section, Kuti only stood still to play his Hammond keyboard or tilt his trumpet and alto saxophone into the mic while he played imprecatory lines and improbably long notes through circular breathing.

His aim is to serve up strong medicine – diatribes on poverty in Africa and corruption and greed in the continent’s politicians – in a sweet drink and in case the message got over-diluted, he delivered a rambling lecture that rather broke the spell.

The music itself, however, as it paused, faded and erupted to Kuti’s James Brown-like conducting methods, was impressive and for those two hours Lothian Road might have been in Lagos.

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Femi Kuti in London, England

A couple of miles across town, the National Theatre continued to host its airbrushed version of the life of Fela Kuti. His son Femi whipped a similar mixture of drumming and brass and politics and sex – “You can’t talk about politics without talking about sex” – into a high-energy show at the Barbican.

“This is Lagos,” he declared confidently. “This is Africa.” There were Yoruba shouts from the audience. “I can hear a lot of my people from the western part of Africa here.” Not mentioning Nigeria was deliberate: “Borders are lies to keep us separated. I want to remove the lines drawn by slave traders and colonialists,” he said.

The Kuti home base in Lagos is a nightclub called The Shrine, and the concert had the feel of a religious service. Red, gold and green spotlights poured down like sunlight through stained glass. Music was interspersed with sermonising. “Alalalalala,” called Kuti, and the faithful responded with shouts of “Ororororoo!”

His waxcloth was more like a jester’s motley than a priest’s robes, but he manned his Hammond organ like a pulpit. Afrobeat is a cult of personality or it is nothing, and Kuti has a big enough personality to front it. On “Obasanjo Don Play You Wayo”, he railed without a hint of shame against nepotism in Nigerian public life. In the midst of “Beng Beng Beng”, his dancers vibrating in a way that went beyond the lascivious into the aerobic, he gave graphic instructions on avoiding premature ejaculation, to squeals of appreciation from half the crowd.

But whereas old-school Afrobeat songs unfolded over a leisurely half-hour or so, his reached their climax after five minutes. Apart from a maundering “Inside Religion”, the songs were tight and punchy, the juggernaut rumble of the drums set off by sharp percussive cracks and the powerhouse of the brass section blowing as one.

During “Africa for Africa” came Kuti’s main sermon: “Economic problems in Europe show that corruption isn’t just an African problem . . . In Britain you don’t even know who your president is.”

Then it was back to the music: a run through “Sorry-Sorry-O” and “Action Time”, energy still unflagging even if the dancers had to retreat behind a speaker stack to gulp water. “Africa can excel!” Kuti shouted. “Africa can excel!”

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Femi Kuti in Glasgow, Scotland, Pt. II

As Scotland lay under a blanket of snow and the temperature in Glasgow fell below -10, Femi Kuti’s stated aim of turning the Arches into a corner of funky Lagos may have seemed ambitious. When the star of the show joined his 12-piece Positive Force band onstage rubbing his hands it wasn’t initially clear if he was trying to warm himself or was just preparing to get down to business.

“We intend to heat up the place for you this evening”, said the 46-year old son of legendary Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, who has now carved out an impressive career in his own right. With songs taken mainly from his latest album Africa for Africa as fuel, Kuti and company launched into a two hour set that never failed to entertain.

Ably backed by a five-piece horn section, drums, bass, guitar, percussion and three dancers/backing singers whose gyrations added a visual energy to the layered rhythms, Femi switched between vocals, organ and saxophone and enjoyed the freedom that only a tightly drilled band could afford him.

Beginning with the polyrhythmic funk of Truth Don’t Die, the band had the crowd on side from the word go. Working through the likes of Politics in Africa, Dem Bobo and Bad Government from the new album, each component of the band was given a chance to shine but Femi, front and centre, directed proceedings and kept the collective pulling in the same direction.

Being a member of the Kuti family, it wasn’t just about the music though. Even apart from the African politics that dominate his lyrics, between songs there were impassioned calls for change and declarations that the band was bringing us a “true Africa”. Though encouraging, the crowd looked a little lost when one song was introduced with reference to the day’s events in the Ivory Coast and the polemic occasionally threatened to take away from the sounds.

The part-preacher/part-showman balance tipped in favour of the latter as the night went on and it was clear that Femi enjoyed the chance to spread his wings and play with songs he had already recorded. Sax solos brought a little bit of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane to the African sound and a little call and response kept the audience involved while they danced.
Coming at the end of a year in which he has been nominated for a Grammy and played the opening ceremony at the World Cup finals, it’s a compliment to the singer that he still looked as if playing to a small crowd on a cold night was a big deal for him.

The encore genuinely felt like a treat and what began simply had layer upon layer added until it exploded into an extended workout that brought an exciting and satisfying end to proceedings.

The gig was one of the first put on by promoters Organised Noise and it was hard not to feel some sympathy for them that the audience wasn’t bigger. The company hopes to bring the “finest live music from every corner of the world to Scotland” and having landed one of the superstars of world music it was a pity that the freezing conditions undoubtedly kept some people away from what was a thrilling evening.

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Femi Kuti in New York, United States

Femi Kuti’s band, Positive Force, danced its way onstage at the Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza on Thursday night. Guitarists swayed in unison, horn players strutted, female backup singers shimmied and bumped, and they all moved to Mr. Kuti’s directions — left, right, down to the ground — after he made his entrance. The women kept shaking and swiveling their hips virtually nonstop through the set, to a beat that merges rhythms from Mr. Kuti’s home, Nigeria, with funk, swing and reggae. As they danced, they sang choruses like “Stop AIDS, fight AIDS.” For Mr. Kuti, in a family tradition, dance music carries messages.

The rhythm is Afrobeat, which was forged by Mr. Kuti’s father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, from the 1970s until his death in 1997 (of complications from AIDS). It is virtually inseparable from protest and a social conscience. In “You Better Ask Yourself,” from Femi Kuti’s most recent album, “Day by Day” (Mercer Street), the lyrics wonder why Africa, with all its natural resources, still has the “majority of the poorest people.” Often, the songs rail against a problem that both Fela and Femi Kuti have condemned: government corruption.

On May 28, as Femi Kuti was preparing for the United States tour that started with Thursday’s concert, the state government announced a permanent shutdown of the club he and a sister built in Lagos, the New Afrika Shrine, citing “noise nuisance, illegal street trading, indiscriminate parking, blocking of access roads and obstruction of traffic.” (It is named after the Shrine, his father’s club from the ’70s and a center of defiance until it was shut down by the government after Fela’s death.) This permanent closing didn’t last; the New Afrika Shrine was allowed to reopen on Tuesday. Onstage, Mr. Kuti spoke about the closing and the reopening, saying that the Nigerian government was not strong enough to send him to prison, as it had his father, or it would have already done so. Then he called for a united Africa.

Mr. Kuti’s Afrobeat moves in ways established by his father. Behind Mr. Kuti’s vocals, it can simmer along, with accents flickering on high-hat cymbal and snare drum amid rippling keyboards and guitar. It can ease back, turning into a subdued midtempo pulse, for guitar and horn solos that approach jazz. And it can switch into brawny funk when the horn section kicks in with choppy, insistent lines anchored by baritone saxophone. Femi Kuti adds variations of his own: passages of vocal counterpoint, undercurrents of a hip-hop beat and, especially on the new album, hints of Caribbean rhythms.

The set was more party than protest. As a bandleader — who sings and plays trumpet, alto saxophone or electric organ in various songs — Mr. Kuti is a master of dynamics. Each song shifted repeatedly between smooth and punchy, triggering a new burst of dancing with every change. But there was no mistaking Mr. Kuti’s didactic mission. Even when he turned to the subject of sex in the set’s finale, “Beng Beng Beng,” he proffered advice and instructions — about not rushing things — as the Afrobeat groove pulsated and surged behind him.

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