On stage, Nigerian Femi Kuti plays dual roles of serious artist and demanding coach. His most recent show at the Minnesota Zoo on August 2nd gave a crowd filling 2/3rds of the 1,500 capacity amphitheater plenty to observe.
His entourage of ten instrumentalists including a brass section and drums opens up the concert, loudly playing their horns and guitars as a trio of women dressed in red hot-pants, beaded ropes, and bangles dance and provide back-up vocals.
There is no mistaking Kuti’s appearance. He walks on stage with a commanding visage. In contrast to the kelly green tunics and pajama bottoms worn by the band, Kuti wears a long, black tunic with a butterfly blue geometric pattern. His stern countenance could be construed as forbidding, but his shy, though infrequent smile, suggests he is only introverted.Watching him perform gives further evidence of a man who pulls his energy from within rather than from others around him. He sings, plays both saxophone as well as a Roland VK-7 organ all the while holding the most serious of faces, sometimes looking quite anguished. Intermittently he remembers that there is an audience watching him and he reaches out to us with a genuine smile and steady eye contact.
Early into his one-hour show, he shouts out, “I shall never forget ’97” referring to that momentous year when he lost his father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, as well as his younger sister, Sola. In fact, August 2nd marks the ten year anniversary of his father’s death.
Fela, legendary for his musicianship and pioneering of Afrobeat music also lent his passion for human rights and political activism to his son. Femi, born in London in 1962 started his public career in music in 1985 when he took over the leadership of his father’s band while the band was on tour. Fela had been arrested at the airport moments before leaving on the tour. According to Kuti’s myspace.com website, Femi continues his father’s work with music that combines sentiments of anti-globalization and celebrations of our common humanity.
He also acts like the director of a choir or orchestra. With his long, basketball player fingers, he seemingly points and accuses and scolds whether facing his band or facing the front of the stage. Kuti’s blistering level of focus and intensity mirrors Congolese dancer and choreographer, Faustin Linyekula, who exhibited his work this past spring at the Walker Art Center. The art completely consumes Kuti, acknowledging the crowd seems almost an effort as he must break away from his music, his artistry.
Kuti displays a very curious idiosyncrasy. At times the musician begins to shake his head to and fro as if he’s experiencing a tremor of sorts. I remember doing the same thing as a child. I’d shake my head repeatedly in small movements creating something akin to a toddler-high. It amuses me to see Kuti doing this and I wonder whether it’s an effect of the music on him, or if he’s trying to induce an altered state for himself.
The music Kuti produces is quite unlike any music I’ve heard before. Often his voice is urgent and narrative, not melodic. Rarely is there any melody to the songs that I can identify, but many notes and beats and a driven percussive.
Kuti’s interpretation of Afrobeat rests on his father’s own contributions to the polyrhythmic sound created by merging traditional Nigerians music with other elements from around the word. Kuti colors that music with the popular beats of American and European club culture as well as hip hop, which has profoundly impacted today’s youth culture.
The audience bounces and sways, jumping up and down as they dance organically to the sounds. There is little finesse or organized patterns to their steps, rather dictated by the trance-inducing music. The sound is so loud it smothers any other thoughts these dancer might have save for the immediate present. There is nothing but the moment and there is nothing to do but to hear the next note and dance next step.
Although it’s a perfect night with temperatures in the mid-80s, low humidity and slow-falling sunset allowing the band and audience to see one another clearly, after only an hour, Kuti is drenched in sweat. Maybe as he relaxes in the performers’ green room after the show he’ll renew himself to the Zen-like notes of Jamaican reggae band, The Wailers.