Femi Kuti @ Metro Theatre, Sydney (20/11/10)
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.