By Mark Jenkins
“I’m 54 now,” acknowledged a slightly winded Femi Kuti on Friday night at the 9:30 Club, just before the three encores that capped the two-hour show. There was some visible evidence of the Nigerian musician’s age: His hairline has receded, and he no longer performs shirtless. Yet Kuti’s energy is barely diminished. Between vocal passages and saxophone solos, he hopped, speed-walked and ran in place. (And yes, he can twerk.) Sometimes, he pushed at invisible barriers — probably put in place by the leaders he repeatedly denounced.
“When you see politicians you better beware/ Most of them, they don’t really care,” the singer instructed in “Politics Na Big Business,” one of his many protest songs. The message alternated between utopian and dyspeptic, full of hope for Africa (and the entire world), but contemptuous of the continent’s elected and self-appointed rulers. Kuti insisted on “Africa for Africa,” as one song title put it, but seemed to be angling for a World Bank loan when he pressed his desire for a highway from Lagos to Johannesburg.
Kuti is the son of the late Fela Kuti, whose flamboyant life and dynamic music inspired a Broadway show, as well as Afrobeat bands on several continents. The younger Kuti’s group, Positive Force, featured nine musicians and three female dancers who occasionally sang or beat hand-held percussion instruments. The skimpily dressed women exuberantly pivoted their hips in contrasting motions but sometimes clicked into precise unison. Instrumentally, the musicians did much the same thing. They could fill the packed house with chattering polyrhythmic sound, only to downshift suddenly so their leader’s voice had no rival.
If Positive Force’s models are the various bands Fela fronted, the younger Kuti has never let his material sprawl the way his father’s did. That worked on such early recordings as 1998’s “Shoki Shoki,” which cultivated a slicker, more mainstream style. The songs’ compactness was less effective on stage, where jazzy vamps disappointingly stopped just when they seemed poised to lift off. But the frequent halts and asides did emphasize the power of Kuti’s personality. They also exemplified the essential tension of such songs as “The World Is Changing”: They’re half dance party, half class struggle.
Much of the evening’s material came from Kuti’s latest album, “No Place for My Dream,” which was released in 2013. Among the encores was a song from a new record that the musician said would be available soon. Then he closed with “Beng Beng Beng,” a “Shoki Shoki” tune whose sexual braggadocio he’d lamented a few minutes earlier. “Control your sexual organs,” he had admonished, an odd command from a musician whose band includes three bump-and-grind dancers. Perhaps what he was trying to say was, “moderation in all things” — except the groove, of course.