Femi Kuti and the Positive Force just might be the best musical experience you’ll have all year. I know you raged Bonnaroo, got loose at High Sierra, found a higher power at JazzFest. You probably have several can’t-miss shows on your calendar, tried and true favorite bands you’re religiously fanatic about. But if you’re open to something new and exotic, something guaranteed to make you shake your ass and check your head, go see Femi Kuti. Straight outta Lagos, Nigeria, Femi is reinvigorating the earthshaking Afrobeat phenomenon his illustrious father originated 30 years ago, and bringing an unmatched power and passion to fervent fans around the world.
It’s impossible to review a Femi Kuti show without at least acknowledging the role his father played in developing the musical style called Afrobeat. Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Black President, “The Man Who Keeps Death in His Pouch,” a mysterious, controversial, prophetic figure, succumbed to the great inevitable in 1997. But before he passed on, Fela had ingrained in his oldest son the same funky swagger and righteous, authoritative presence he brought to the stage every night. It was clear early on that Femi was not just the heir apparent, but also a talented, charismatic bandleader in his own right. In fact, back in ’85, a 20-year-old Femi was forced to lead his father’s 40-piece band at the Hollywood Bowl when federal authorities in Nigeria kept Fela from entering the US to begin his tour. Since that fateful day Femi has grown in stature and expanded his repertoire, finally emerging from Fela’s shadow as an international icon of justice, equality, and the power of music.
So there we were at The Fillmore last Saturday, myself accompanied by an eager posse of JamBase friends and family, awaiting our encounter with this rising superstar. A vast, colorful crowd teemed within those hallowed walls, spanning ages, races, and styles. Plenty of folks were decked out in full African regalia: bright, billowing tunics, heavy beaded jewelry, elaborate headdresses. Even stoic eco-warrior Julia Butterfly Hill was in the house, and all of us were ready to be moved.
The band paraded on stage one section at a time—first the guitar, bass, kit drum, and keys, followed by the four-man horn section, then three percussionists (one conga player accompanied by Femi’s 10-year-old son and his friend on timbales!), and finally three shapely female vocalists/dancers. Each section hit the stage at a full run, rushing with energy and enthusiasm to take their places as the groove gained momentum. Eventually there were 13 players on stage, and the thunderous Afrobeat recipe was nearly complete.
(If you don’t already know, this sound is about as heavy, expansive, and moving as music can get. Imagine James Brown’s raw, syncopated funk deepened by heavy African polyrhythms and spiced with extra libido, and you may begin to understand the bodyrocking weight of this groove. I’ve seen the Meters, I’ve seen George Clinton and P-Funk, and I’ve even seen the Godfather himself, but truly, they all fall short of the pure visceral power generated by the Positive Force.)
Then, in a whirlwind, Femi took the stage. The crowd erupted into chaos; a ritual of ecstatic abandon had begun. He wasted no words, just went straight for his alto sax and took effortless control of the band. Now 14 strong, they began to sway in unison, Femi leading the horns above the rhythm section’s thick, hypnotic foundation. Guitar and keys dueled over a sparse, ominous melody, but it was the exaggerated brass—baritone and tenor saxes, trombone, and trumpet—that provided the main melodic thrust. After a sweat-drenched, 10-minute foray into the darkest regions of groove, the band settled and Femi took the mike.
“My music is political,” he began, “and I have no apologies whatsoever, to anybody!” Throughout the night Femi decried the political corruption in Nigeria, spoke out against the African AIDS epidemic, and implored for improved relations between Africa and the West. He spoke with an undeniable gravity and urgency, rendering what might have been clichéd or oversimplified topics personally relevant to the audience. He never preached, only spoke from his heart. And as politicized and inflammatory as some of his words were, he also revealed a wry sense of humor and a predilection for sexual wordplay. For example, the lyrics to “Stop AIDS” (from his latest album, Fight to Win) repeat, “COME brother, COME sister, listen to me.” And later in the set, Femi, shirtless and grinning, preluded a tune with an extended metaphor about male sexual stamina as it relates to life. “The moral is, don’t come too fast. Whatever you do. If you want to keep her happy, if you want to make a point. Don’t come too fast…” This is definitely a complex, multi-faceted man whose strong beliefs and razor wit resound throughout his music.
And his music resounded with the enthusiastic audience; we were forced to keep the balls-out bounce going all night. There were no ballads, no slow numbers, no rest. In fact the mid-tempo tunes churned deepest, the plodding pace allowing Femi and his horn to plumb the heights and depths of melody with greatest intensity. His song selection spanned his first (“Beng Beng Beng,” “Scatta Head”) and second (“Do Your Best,” “97,” “Traitors of Africa”) albums, and dipped into his father’s extensive song catalog as well (“Water No Get Enemy” and more).
At different points through the night, as each of the hornmen took a solo, it was very apparent how well-trained and patient the Positive Force truly is. Each solo was a potent statement, yet there was no wankery or showboating by anyone. This group is as restrained and minimal as a 14-piece ensemble can be, playing more like an orchestra than a funk band. Each song built intensity, drama, and conflict by slowly layering rhythms over rhythms, soaring brass atop percolating conga atop wah-wah guitar atop subsonic bass. The keys were dark, shimmering, almost an afterthought adding subtle punctuation to the bold rhythmic lines. And Femi’s husky vocals and soulful chants remained just barely ahead of the groove, carrying it forward in perfect, burning cadence. The combined effect is an all-encompassing deluge of sound, a sonic downpour vast, dark, and absolutely infectious.
By the end of the night, band and crowd were both exhausted, yet Femi came out for a rousing encore that tore the roof off The Fillmore. Capping what might have been the set’s most ferocious tune, Femi circular-breathed through his sax, allowing the band to tear open the jam while he held the same note for what must have been 10 minutes. It was a thrilling display of both Femi’s endurance and the band’s incredible energy. Like a sonic orgasm, the band finally peaked with explosive, anguished power, and faded out to a languid finish. Once the house lights came on, you could see that warm, post-coital glow and loopy smile beaming off everyone in the crowd.
Unfortunately, Femi Kuti and the Positive Force played their final show of their summer North American tour the next day in LA. But make no mistake, they’re in it for the long haul, and they’ll soon return. Don’t miss it when they do. If any music has the power to change the world, this is it.
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