Maybe it’s too ethnocentric to compare Femi Kuti’s Nigerian cultural background with politics in the U.S. right now, but it’s tough to overlook.
Kuti and his 11-piece band wailed Wednesday night with the sounds of corruption, greed and poverty. Those uninitiated with Afrobeat might think the night was gloomy with these political scenarios, but that wasn’t really true. If anything, the music packs the visceral punch of punk rock. Your brain is challenged by the lyrical themes while your body is overtaken by rhythm. The genre draws from traditional African drumming and American funk, R&B and jazz. It’s a wall of sound that drives and drives until it breaks into quieter, more vocally-driven interludes.
Femi Kut’s band is made up of four men on horns, a guitarist, a bass and keyboard player and two drummers. They wore matching dashikis and bright yellow pants. Three women on stage right made up in Nigerian body paint and beaded skirts sang, danced and gave vocal contrast to their frontman. Kuti wore a red and white jumpsuit and sandals, distinct from the rest.
As a bandleader, he is masterful. From the first song to the last, Kuti slashed his arms and hands to command more or less from his band and himself. To watch him work is like an orchestra conductor who is also a player in the band. A multi-instrumentalist in his own right. He took turns playing saxophone and trumpet, a Hammond XK3 organ and singing.
Three quarters through the evening, what felt like the night’s magnum opus began. It was a 10-plus minute tour through the perils of corruption: “Evil will do anything to survive / it will never know true joy.” The song drove, collapsed, drove again, collapsed again to almost a whisper before it built again with one of the most infectious and danceable rhythms of the whole night. Sweat flying in every direction, Kuti, 54, at this moment looked for the first time a little spent.
Twenty minutes later, a refrain started quietly from the horn section. Recognizable if you have even a passing interest in world music, it was “Water No Get Enemy”, the masterpiece of Fela Kuti, Femi’s father. This number faded into a three-song encore before he humbly bowed first to the crowd, then his female singers and finally his band before leaving the stage for good. The audience begged and stomped for more. The house lights came up but the music didn’t stop ringing through our bodies.