was the last one on the stage at his recent sold-out
Paris concert, following almost a dozen musicians and
three dancers. Amidst the horns and cheers, Femi strided
out on stage, receiving a welcome worthy of Mick Jagger.
Throughout the show, he sang and also played saxophone,
speaking at times in basic French and in his native English,
to the 1,300-plus crowd. It wasnt so much about
the setlist of specific songs, but rather like a Grateful
Dead show, the Femi fans came for a feeling.
But unlike those joyful
yet often homogenous crowds for the Dead in days gone
by, or presently, those who fill the stadiums for the
Dave Matthews Band, for example, there is really diversity
here. Black, white, European, African, Asian, Middle Eastern,
it runs the gamut of different styles and ages in a way
that goes well beyond the lip service of cultural exchange.
At least in France, on this night.
Born in England, Femi Kuti
was raised in Lagos, Nigeria. He is the son of the legendary
Afro-beat musician Fela Kuti, whose legacy is never very
far from his music, both in sense and lyric. Femi initially
played with his fathers band, Egypt 80, then in
a band of his own, Positive Force. In the mid-90s he released
a solo album which was quite successful in Africa and
in Europe, though he remained largely unknown in the U.S.
Last year he released his second album, Fight to Win,
from which much of his shows set list derived.
He toured the U.S. with the re-formed Janes Addiction
this past autumna crowd no doubt different than
what he is accustomed to playing. In the summer he will
be touring as a headliner to medium sized clubs throughout
His songs are less verse/chorus/verse
than they are jams with a variety of sources; Femi takes
the Afro-beat sound and further infuses it with jazz,
hip-hop and even some folk. But primarily, it is Femis
political activism that drives his music. Much of this
is born out of the tragedy of his fathers death
from AIDS complications in 1997 (and his sisters
death only a month later). Given that Femis father
has died from so large an epidemic in Africa, he has become
outspoken in his activism for AIDS awareness, prevention
and eradication, and has written blunt songs like Stop
His second album Fight
to Win, was released in October of 2001, with songs
like Stop AIDS, Traitors of Africa, Tension Grips Nigeria
and the album is a bit like newspaper headlines and social
action slogans set to a boisterous beat. In the liner
notes, each song features an explanation of current events
or history relevant to that song, some including facts
and figures. And yet lyrically, Femi stays simple, sometimes
with nothing more than a simple phrase chanted, endlessly.
While at first this can seem less than thrilling for those
who want lyrics with some meat on their bones, it soon
becomes clear that Femi is deliberately using these lyrics
because these songs are his rallying cry, and likewise
they should be the most accessible to the most amount
of people. It is how you get your message across, and
how you have thousands of people who have many different
native tongues, singing your words with you as they bounce
in the crowd.
Despite these political
discussions on the album, the concert played completely
differently. Though the extended jams do veer into self-indulgenceas
most jams dothe music is far more effective played
live than recorded. And there is little reference to the
issues that he writes about in the liner notes, knowing
that the concert stage is for a musical performance. It
is rather the opposite of U2 throughout its 20-year history;
whereas Bono waxes politically throughout his shows, sometimes
spot-on, other times with an egotistical sanctimony, the
songs of his band are vague and generic in their references.
Femi Kuti plays his songs, dances to them and encourages
the audience to do the same. But he leaves the speeches
and commentary for the album. Given the celebratory feel
of a song like Stop AIDS, one would never know
that was its chorus, because everyone is too busy dancing.
Perhaps one of the reasons
that Kuti and other "world music" musicians havent
achieved the level of success in the US that they have
abroad is the constricting categorization of musical genres.
More than in Europe, American radio plays by strict rules
of category, giving music like Femis limited airplay,
and probably only on college radio during a world music
hour. Perhaps having guests on his albums like Mos Def,
Common and Jaguar Wright and others will attract more
fans. Because surely, with its piano, horns and dancers,
all working together, moving around the stage, his music
is meant to be seen, not just heard.