July 21, 2007
Better Than: Seeing a Fela cover band
Download: A Femi Kuti stream off his MySpace
Text and Photos By Eric K. Arnold
A Femi Kuti show isn’t a concert, it’s a ritual; Songs aren’t played as much as experienced, and the music’s ultimate goal seems to be a harmonic convergence of mind, body, and spirit under a tribal groove.
During Saturday night’s show, Fela’s son played maybe seven or eight tunes total over the course of almost two and a-half hours – unusual for pop music, but de rigeur for Afrobeat. At that pace, there was plenty of time for Femi’s band Positive Force to gel, and all evening, dense polyrhythms kept building and building to continually-higher levels of intensity.
Long instrumental sections wrapped around call-and-response chanting, while Femi’s often-fervent vocalizing alternated with occasional keyboard or alto-sax excursions. In addition to a full horn section, several percussionists, a keyboardist, a drummer, a bassist, and a guitarist, the band featured three backup singers who doubled as dancers. Dressed in colorful traditional Yoruban regalia, the three shimmeyed and shook when they weren’t singing, frequently competing with Femi for the sold-out crowd’s attention.
The show’s centerpiece was a rousing version of Femi’s biggest hit “Beng Beng Beng.” Removing his shirt and prancing around satyr-like, Femi led the band through a joyous ode to sexual bliss. Several minutes into the tune, the band vamped as Femi delivered a long soliloquy which made a case for premarital sex because “then a husband will know what to do with his wife” and “a wife will know what to do with her husband.” Sounds good to us; just keep the “Beng Beng Beng” coming, okay?
For all the playfulness of “Beng Beng Beng,” though, Femi isn’t without his serious side. Earlier, he led the band and the crowd through such message-laden material as the moralistic “Stop AIDS” and the inspirational “Do Your Best,” imparting consciousness-raising lyrics onto high-powered syncopated grooves. He remembered his father Fela and two other deceased relatives with “97,” which started out dirge-like, but ultimately became celebratory (as one might expect from an artist who comes from a tradition of ancestor worship).
The concert ended with another nod to Fela, as Femi and the band powered through a long-ass version of “Water Na Get Enemy,” one of the elder Kuti’s signature songs. Carried by horn melodies and a shuffling rhythm, its parable-like lyrics speak a simple, yet undisputable truth: it’s pointless to oppose a force of nature, and much better for all concerned to just go with the flow. The same could be said for Afrobeat, which, when played by a master like Femi, is primal in its essence and organic in its conception. Its songs may be long, but they’re infinitely more satisfying than your average pop music morsel, which pales both in comparison and in substance.
Personal Bias: This is my third time seeing Femi at the Fillmore. All three shows have been excellent, wholly authentic examples of the power of Afrobeat in a live context.
Critic’s Notebook: The show opened with a hot set by DJ Jeremiah and members of Afrobeat Nation, who improvised over crowd-pleasing Fela classics “Shakara” and “Zombie.”
Random Detail: Femi’s headed to Seattle this week.