The dark cloud that had erupted from an Icelandic volcano seemed to influence every aspect of society, including the music business. On Saturday 17 April Femi and crew had to hit the stage of Amsterdam’s Melkweg (Milky Way) venue immediately from the tour buss and do their sound check in a venue already half filled with people. Now it wasn’t a bad gig by any means. But the musicians and dancers looked and sounded tired, the crowd seemed to be put off a bit by the delay as they took a while to get into the music, the sound wasn’t optimal and, to my liking, the stage was too small for a band of this size and status. The band did their very best and the crowd went back home satisfied. But luckily, I was in for a double dose of Positive Force this weekend.
“Do you know Fela Anikupo Kuti?”
The Effenaar is the center for all things cultural in the South of the Netherlands. It’s a big and ugly building on the outside but it has several nice halls. I’ve seen The Cult play in the main hall and tonight I was seeing Femi in the side hall. The hall was full, but not too full. Most of the crowd seemed to be white and somewhere in their 40’s.
At 20.30 the ceremony was kicked off with “Do Your Best” the opening song of Femi’s seminal Fight to Win album. First the rhythm section appeared, then the horns section, then the dancers/singers and finally Femi. The dancing queens were clad in orange (the national color of the Netherlands) and wore crowns to signify their royal status. Femi usually gets into business pretty soon, starting out slowly and smoothly was more Fela’s approach, but on this tour he chose to start off with some of the more relaxed songs from his recent Day to Day album. “Do You Know” started out with Femi summing up his Jazz favorites. When he asked “Do you know Charlie Parker?” and some people shouted “No”, he explained that we should listen to Charlie Parker as he was one of the best saxophonists ever. On “Do You Know” all musicians soloed and Femi gave away a trumpet solo that went right through our souls. When he asked us “Do you know Fela Anikulapo Kuti?” the lady next to me, who was dancing like mad, started chanting all the titles of Fela’s songs from “Lady” to “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” which was kind of funny. After a truly beautiful rendition of “Day by Day”, it was time to speed up the pace with several songs from the “Live at the Shrine” DVD climaxing with “Can’t Buy Me” and “Shotan”. The dancing queens never ceased to amaze with their rhythmic and fluid movements and when they shook their asses it seemed as if the entire building shook. After two new songs Femi asked for some audience participation in “Sorry Sorry”, one of the songs of his early career. The entire audience replied by clapping their hands to the beat. The set was concluded with the essential “Beng Beng Beng” .
“Don’t come too fast!”
After a short breather for the band, they were back once more with “Beng Beng Beng”. Now we all know that Afrobeat is political music in the first place and the first Afrobeat love song is yet to be heard (at least by me). But a certain sense of eroticism is there, sometimes in the background with its hypersexual musical groove and sometimes up front with the scantily clothed dancers whose movements would grace a strip pole. And I should remind you that one of Fela Kuti’s early songs with the Afrika 70 “Open and Close” is about sex. While the band played, Femi lectured the crowd about sexuality. Now I’ve heard Fela lecture about politics and I’ve heard Femi lecture about politics, but this was something completely new for me. Femi said: “In the African tradition sex was nothing. I mean, you were told everything by your father and mother. Now, men have to watch blue movies and women have to fool around their husband’s backs. When a man goes to the pub the first thing his friends ask him is “Did you have sex?” He’s a big man so of course he answers “Yes, I had sex”. When his wife sees her friends, they ask her: “Did you have sex?” and she says: “Yes, I had sex, but it was bad.” Now he’s feeling bad because they had sex, she’s feeling bad because they had sex but it was bad. Sex is a lot like Karate. If you try it the first time you only last three or four minutes. The next time, you might last ten minutes. When you get up to Brown belt level you can last 50 minutes and a Black Belt could go for an hour.” I was thinking: Femi might be right. My Karate teacher was a second degree Black Belt and he could… I digress. In the meanwhile Femi started singing “Don’t come too fast” in his typical falsetto voice just before the song ended as a long awaited orgasm.
Then it was time for three new songs. Femi explained that they mix up the old and the new a bit so that the shows don’t get boring. “Africa for Africa” called for pan-African unity and another song criticized the role of foreign religions in Africa. Not much new there thematically, but I’m glad the good old “call and answer” with the backup singers is back.
The set was ended with “’97”. If “Coffin for Head of State” (about the sad death of Fumilayo Anikulapo Kuti) was Fela’s most emotional song then “’97” is surely Femi’s most emotional song. I could feel the emotion in his voice when he sang about the year he lost his father, sister and cousin. The dancing queens gave one more show of their extraordinary dancing skills and ended with their fists raised in the air. During the closing song the band left the stage, in the opposite order in which they appeared, and the Effenaar could write down another legendary concert in its annals.
If you missed out on this tour: you can watch the entire set of the gig in the Casino de Paris online!
Part Two: Backstage Interview.
Text and pictures, copyright, Julio Punch, 2010.