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Femi Kuti, Live At The Shrine

Album Review


Published July 6, 2005 at 3:44 p.m.

(MK2 Music/Uwe, DVD & CD)

If anyone could be a successor to the great Fela Kuti, the logical choice is also biological: Femi Kuti. The father, a gifted musician and composer, created not only the sound called Afrobeat but his own political party. With a combination of agit-pop lyrics and infectiously danceable rhythms, Fela invented a proud national music while leading the charge for sociopolitical change in Nigeria. Needless to say, he was a nettlesome presence for the government, which hauled Fela into court hundreds of times and prison three.

Femi, now 45, is his father's son on all counts: a saxophonist -- actually a multi-instrumentalist -- composer and political activist. His energetic stage presence incites booty-shaking delight and Pan-African fervor. And, regrettably, Femi still has a corrupt government to rail against, as well as the insidious scourge of AIDS -- the disease that led to his father's death in 1997.

Femi Kuti Live at the Shrine is the name of a newly released DVD/CD set that documents Femi's offstage discipline -- relentless practicing and physical exercise -- and onstage magnetism as a singer, player and leader of a typically enormous band. Fela's ghost is all over this package: Femi resembles his father physically, spreads the same musical message, and is performing at a new version of the popular Lagos club/community center his father founded. A lesser man would stagger under the weight of that legacy, but Femi embraces it powerfully and confidently.

Live at the Shrine is worth watching if only for the gyrating female dancers -- how do they make their hips move like that? But even without filmmaker Raphaël Frydman's visual documentation, the soundtrack stands on its own. The songs are sprawling, jazzy, jammy affairs with percolating rhythms and spot-on brass punctuations; they also subtly convey the international influence of funky urban sounds. Femi has a warm, appealing voice and a playing style that is equal parts ferocious and fluid. And though his politics are serious, his companionable rapport with his audience is evident. Somehow, he also manages to lead this orchestra-sized band, often in double-time workouts, through the (to Western ears) mysterious starts, stops and changes in the music.

Fairly or not, Femi Kuti will forever be compared to his father, but as Live at the Shrine reveals -- and a Yoruban proverb suggests -- the son of a tiger is still a tiger. Remarkably, Femi Kuti is touring the U.S.; his performance at Higher Ground next Tuesday, July 12, may well be a once-in-a-lifetime event for local fans, and will surely be unforgettable.