Femi Kuti

Femi Kuti

– BAND ON THE WALL, MANCHESTER –

After a wonderful intro from Positive Force, bandleader Femi Kuti tells the audience that he is going to take us on a tour of afrobeat (or a crash course for the uninitiated) from the early music of his father Fela Kuti, through the present and into the future. He certainly delivers, with strongly political lyrics, brass-led jazz-funk and smooth, chilled grooves – all in the space of the next song.

Modern afrobeat can be described as a mix of jazz, funk and traditional Nigerian and Ghanaian music, as well as taking influences from highlife, which is a brass-led style which originated in the Gold Coast (colonial era Ghana) around the turn of the 20th century.

While funk could be said to be an ingredient of afrobeat, the emergence of the style coincided with the emergence of funk in the late 1960’s. Much as James Brown and his musicians basically originated funk, so modern afrobeat was pioneered by Fela Kuti, with no shortage of contribution from the band Africa 70, including drummer Tony Allen.

Despite playing a cover or two, Femi Kuti certainly isn’t just living on his father’s reputation; he’s a very smooth and capable band leader and shows his musical chops several times, with great saxophone work, firing the songs to a new level when he plays.

It’s not just Femi who’s a chip off the old block, though, as we find out when Femi introduces his own son, who is playing bass tonight. For someone brought in on three days’ notice, and whose main instruments are classical piano and saxophone, it’s hugely impressive (and that’s coming from someone who’s been playing bass for 20 years). Femi is right to say that his son has a bright musical future if he chooses to pursue it.

The whole set is hugely musical throughout, massively dance-able, very captivating and relatable to what is a very diverse audience. The spectacle of the dancers, the vibrant colours of the traditionally-inspired costumes and the energy of the band is a visual delight. Everything on stage is constantly uplifting, despite the difficult themes which it often deals with.

Political music doesn’t have to be obscure and inaccessible; it doesn’t have to be distant from the everyday feelings and experiences of ordinary people; on the contrary. Simple messages like “stop AIDS, fight AIDS” have such power behind them and make you contemplate how much suffering and destruction of life the illness has caused. It seems obvious – yet in this context it feels rousing, powerful and inspiring.

Femi Kuti - No Place For My Dream

Femi Kuti – No Place For My Dream

Femi’s condemnation of the horrors caused by war are thankfully distant for most Westerners, but painfully close to home for many people in African nations affected by conflict. In contrast, condemnations of poverty and inequality (while obviously relative for people in one of the richest nations in the world) are surprisingly relevant in food bank Britain.

Still, it’s easy to underestimate the lightness of touch and the clarity of lyrics needed to float challenging ideas on top of music without losing the impetus, without dragging people out of the moment, or pushing into the realm of dry protest song. Femi walks this tightrope expertly.

Afrobeat is perfectly suited as a vehicle for political songwriting, as the inspiring power of the music is hard to resist, and provides immediate bursts of energy with the captivating grooves, and powerful blasts from the horns giving irresistible commands to move your feet.

Lyrics like “evil people will destroy anything good that gets in their way… evil people can never know love” must speak to us all, but for Femi Kuti they are lessons which were learned in the most painful of ways, including through the officially sanctioned persecution of his family, including the imprisonment of his father and the death of his grandmother at the hands of Nigerian soldiers when Femi was just a boy.

But there’s no self pity in this music – only inspiration, education and brotherly love.

The concert (and more than one item of clothing) was spoiled for a few people by a few people who decided that throwing red wine around wasn’t enough and started throwing (plastic) glasses at the stage. They succeeded in hitting other members of the audience, but the fellow-feeling and good temper of the crowd meant that this was a small blip in what was otherwise a wonderfully positive experience.

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I've been playing bass guitar and guitar for over half my life. I last played bass in in a band called Electromotive and as a singer-songwriter I have written songs about cheese and vajazzles (separate songs!). I started out listening to 60s, 70s and 80s rock as a kid and I was in to grunge and U.S. punk and ska in the 90s. Since then, I've broadened my tastes and I like the best of all styles of music, even country. I've been writing for Silent Radio since it started.