There is no part of a Femi Kuti show that doesn’t thrill or educate. It’s a whirlwind of African percussion, and American funk and soul married in a most danceable state by a colorfully dressed ensemble, with Kuti overseeing the maelstrom with either a saxophone or a set of dictum-weighted lyrics.
His act, drawing heavily on material from his second album for MCA,”Fight to Win,” continues to set the bar for the term “first-rate” with new music that is loaded with colors softer than the ones found on his debut, “Shoki Shoki,” or in the Afrobeat music of his late father, Fela. Femi Kuti’s ensemble is asked to play tight arrangements while the dancer-singers and drummers remain consistently on the mark.
“Fight to Win” finds Kuti incorporating more contemporary Western styles into his music, particularly rap on “Do Your Best” and rock in “Walk on the Right Side,” two of the strongest numbers in Tuesday’s packed two-hour show and performances that were more powerful than the disc’s admirableversions. Still, it is funk, the hard, sweaty stuff James Brown invented in the late ’60s and early ’70s, that dominates the melodies and the bass lines with exhilarating steadiness; Dumbe Djengue appears to put his hand in one spot on his bass guitar and amazingly peel off a set of five, six or seven notes for 10 minutes at a time, embellishing and driving the work of the four percussionists onstage.
Kuti’s twist on Afrobeat, which wouldn’t exist without American influences, is no different than Bob Marley’s reggae evolution. At one point in the concert, oddly enough, there appeared to be a meeting of Kuti-Marley pop minds, an isolated spot in which three female vocalists give a gentle push to the leader’s oration, the beat behind them fat and swaying as the music was gently unleashed for the briefest moment from geography, its historical grounding already established in the song’s opening. It was a moment that doesn’t exist on the disc, which more ably displays Kuti’s growing command of different styles and sonic explorations.
The artist, live and in the studio, is borrowing more from the softer soul sounds of the 1970s – the electric piano, the slow burst of horns, the sweet harmonies – and gliding rather than churning near the beginning and conclusion of songs. Each number is invested with melodic ambition, a tunefulness that few African performers have been able to assimilate into their music without sounding forced or marketplace-driven. If there’s one Kuti attribute that’s unfortunately discarded in the newer sound it’s his freewheeling ways with alto and tenor sax solos; he has shown himself to be a fierce soloist capable of conjuring images of late-period John Coltrane against a rhythmic wall. That side of him was not heard Tuesday.
As much as he echoes his father, he continues to move that music forward. Fela was the great assimilator of American funk into Nigerian pop and his music progressed from the jazz-funk fusion he recorded in the late 1960s through his trance-inducing work with Afrika 70 and the Euro hit “Zombie” and finally his lengthy rhythmic workouts of the 1980s. It has all been laid out recently in a superb set of 26 reissues from MCA.
Femi Kuti, hailed in the introduction as the new king of Afrobeat, obviously has the large shoes of his father to fill yet more and more he creates music that sounds separate from his dad’s. He expresses political thought with the clarity of his father’s words and in many ways his concerns are so similar – he calls for peace in Africa, a better Lagos, a world without AIDS and for individuals to put themselves on a higher path in life. As he says “I cry every day for Africa,” and regardless of any individual’s political or social thought, there is immediate and deep empathy among the audience.