After about two months on the road touring Europe and the Americas, Afrobeat’s first son, Femi Kuti and his Positive Force band, Saturday night, brought the groove to a different kind of Lagos setting. The Pool Bar at the Sheraton Lagos hotel was the venue of a sizzling one night only event promoted as an exclusive listening of Kuti’s tenth studio album, One People One World.
The upscale venue and steep tickets- at least twenty-five thousand Naira a piece- ensured that it was a different kind of audience that Femi Kuti would be playing for and he acknowledged as much in one of numerous interludes that had him engaging with the patrons. Kuti encouraged well-meaning folk to disregard any fears they might entertain while considering a visit to his regular stomping ground, the iconic space named New Afrika Shrine. ‘’A shrine is a spiritual place’’ Kuti explained before instructing the uninitiated on how to respond to the famous call and chant, ‘’Arararara.’’
As if such people actually exist.
If the purpose of the opening act is to hint at a taste of what is to come then the trio of Etuk Ubong, Nonso Bassey and Ruby Gyang was an awkward fit for A Night with Femi Kuti. Ubong, a jazz artiste is perhaps the closest in spirit to Kuti’s Afrobeat splash but his act didn’t quite catch a fire. Nonso Bassey, a talented singer and alum of The Voice Nigeria was vocally all over the place, substituting screaming for emoting. It was up to Ruby Gyang to find a fine balance with a shaky cover of Jill Scott’s A Long walk followed by more convincing renditions of her own songs, Good Man and Down.
The big masquerade himself came on at about 9.30pm, opening with Truth don die from his 1998 Shoki Shoki album. Kuti instantly established his mastery of the stage form as he worked up a sweat, puffed and sang and puffed some more, holding on a note from his saxophone for far longer than necessary. Kuti broke for a brief conversation with host Folu Storms on the new album, his influences and the importance of optimism in a word that offers little arguments for hopeful thinking.
In the spirit of democracy, one of the big themes recurring in his work along the years, Kuti allowed the audience to dictate the direction of the night’s proceedings. Having secured approval, he went back in time, gleefully churning out iconic stompers like Wonder Wonder, Beng Beng Beng and Africa for Africans.
It isn’t said as often as it should be but watching Femi Kuti perform onstage, in his element, has to be one of the greatest simple pleasures of living. Kuti has lived his entire life on stage and his command of it is second to none. At times he plays the role of preacher man, growling and gesticulating wildly as the band, thanks to countless hours of rehearsals follows his lead with nary a single misstep. At other times he is the manic conductor, leading an orchestra and directing every note, harmony, beat and tune.
Kuti is at once the lifeblood and beating heart of the band. He is intrinsic to the music and inextricably present at all times, but he also knows when to take a back seat and let the spectacle settle in.
For these moments, the back up female singers who also double as dancers, gyrate and twerk in tune with the music. Some of the instrumentalists step up for brief solo runs. Made, Femi Kuti’s firstborn son and latest addition to the band has a prominent place playing bass. Kuti announced him as a replacement for a rogue member who absconded in the United States hours before a show. ‘’I know this one will not abscond,’’ Kuti joked about his son Made, while the mother, Funke beamed with pride, a few spots away.
The album listening commenced with One People One World songs like Africa will be great again, The way our lives go and Evil people. The new material was delivered with the same gusto as the oldies. Touching on familiar ripped-off-the headlines topics, One People One Nation has a central unifying theme, calling for collective action on climate change as well as preaching political and civil responsibility.
If this comes across as a sign that perhaps Kuti, 56, has been softened by old age, better think again. Kuti has some strong words for the bad guys and the good for nothing politicians on Evil People and Corruption na stealing. But ultimately the disc is hopeful that Africa will be great again, a far cry from the doomsday tone of Kuti’s contentious Sorry Sorry.
For their interesting father-son saxophone duet, it was clear who the maestro was but the younger Kuti proved himself no chopped liver with bundles of talent stored within, and across different musical instruments.
The show came full circle when the band closed out with the Fela classic, Water no get enemy, the performance, a representation of three generations of stellar musicianship up on one stage. Femi Kuti isn’t quite ready to pass the baton, but it is comforting to note that Afrobeat has a future.