Several weeks ago I got the chance to see Fela Kuti’s youngest offspring in musical action. Today, however, it was the turn of the firstborn child of the founder of Afrobeat to give the city of Amsterdam a taste of what live music should sound like. One day after the announcement of Barack Obama’s Presidency and some time after a pleasant autumn day turned into a starless night, I approached the Milky Way, the home of live music in the Netherlands’ capital. I saw a long line of people that extended to the Leidseplein. I know Femi is loved in the Netherlands, but such a line would be unlikely even for him. “Do you want to buy some tickets?” some guy asked me. “For what artist?” I asked. “Guus Meeuwis” he answered. It turned out that one of the country’s most popular singers was performing in the same venue that night. I saw a big tour bus before the Milky Way. Reassured that Femi and crew were in the house I lined up in a considerably shorter line and it wasn’t long before I stood before the rather small stage where it would all happen. A public of all ages had gathered in the Milky Way’s “Max” hall.
I have spent several hours waiting for bands to appear on stage the last few years. But not tonight. A couple of minutes after nine Chinowiso Maraire from Zimbabwe appeared on stage. She was honoured to be able to open for “brother Femi Kuti”. She played a total acoustic set, accompanied by her two brothers on several songs. They played an instrument that looked like a drum. The music reminded me of traditional Balinese music. It wasn’t real dancing music, although some tried. Chinowiso has an amazingly loud and clear voice. But in the age where the girls who can’t sing get the spotlights, I don’t know if she’ll ever make it big. Her CD Rebel Woman was for sale in the hall.
OLD SONGS AND NEW SONGS
After a short sound check the non-horn section of The Positive Force took to the stage in their familiar orange uniforms. They set out a basic rhythm. Then the horn section came out and performed a funny dance on stage before taking their places in the back. Next were the “Dancing Queens”, scantily dressed and abundantly painted. Last but not least, Femi appeared clad in traditional African clothing and sandals.
The opening song was Black Man Know Yourself, a Femi Kuti original. The lyrics of this song aren’t that long but the powerful chorus “Black Man know yourself/Don’t forget your past” speaks volumes. After that Femi introduced himself and the band. “We now have a Black President in the White House”. The crowd cheered. “Change in inevitable. We are babies, we grow up, we grow old. “Arararara?” “Orororo” the crowd answered. “Good, Amsterdam. You did not forget!” Femi also remarked that he didn’t have much time and would bring us the best of ten years of his music.
That music is a curious concoction of Funky bass lines, Jazzy horn eruptions, rhythmic drumming and traditional African “call and answer” vocals. These elements mixed together result in a tropical Molotov cocktail that will rock your socks off in a live setting. Femi’s voice, a couple of octaves higher than his father’s, sounded amazingly clear. Especially since the band had been touring for several weeks. After a couple of Afrobeat classics it was time for something slightly different. As I noted in my review of Femi’s new studio album, Day by Day, several songs on the album are strongly jazz-funk oriented. The band played several of these songs in a row. Contrary to his father, who often gave lengthy explanations, Femi never talks much between songs. But before he played Do You Know he named several of “the teachers that made me what I am today”. Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others. Several of the musicians played solo’s during the song while Femi stood in the back with the horn guys. When he asked the crowd “do you know Fela Anikulapo Kuti?” a roar ensued. He smiled and bowed. It continues to amaze me how many people have taken “The Black President” into their hearts.
THE KING AND HIS QUEENS
Seeing Femi Kuti move on stage is something nobody who has seen it will easily forget. He has brief eye contact with other band members and uses a particular brand of sign language to give them pointers. Instead of focusing on the crowd, Femi seems to be focusing inwardly. His eyes half closed, pupils invisible. His dancing and almost spastic looking hand movements make him look like a Voodoo Priest fallen under his own spell. Femi emphasizes almost every line he sings either with gestures like pointing away when he denounces the Nigerian government or by frantically shaking his head up and down or from left to right. As if the lyrics themselves and the emotion in his voice weren’t clear enough.
But even the current King of Afrobeat cannot compare to his three Dancing Queens of which one handled the maracas. You could say they’re half of the act. Dancing sometimes in sync and sometimes individually they never ceased to amaze the public. I train at a gym where some of the best dancing instructors of the country teach, so I get to see some top stuff now and then, but it pales in comparison to what Femi’s Dancing Queens showed us. During one song Femi sat down on his knees and sang to part of the public. By the time the band played “One, two, three, four” the crowd was getting really into it. For some reason “Shotan” seems to be Femi’s ultimate crowd pleaser. The crowd went wild when it was played, some ladies in the pit imitating the hand motions of the Dancing Queens.
THE UNDERGROUND SPIRITUAL GAME
Much too soon it was time for the last song. “Day by Day” turned out to be the ultimate sing-along with almost the entire crowd participating at Femi’s behest. I knew they’d be back, but the crowd had to let them know they were in for more. Two minutes later the small stage was filled again and Femi said he’d give us a glimpse of the future. The encore started with the sensual Beng Beng Beng that was followed by two new songs. “From the year 2011” Femi told us. This night I got to hear Femi play trumpet, saxophone and flageolet. But it was during his last contribution, a keyboard solo, that I finally experienced the “underground spiritual game” that had lain dormant the entire evening. This last hypnotic solo was truly mind-expanding and if Fela used African mediums to channel his late mother, I’m sure Femi can use his keyboard to channel his late father. Minutes later it was Femi’s time to leave. He shook my hand and those of several others. Like his character, his grip is firm and strong. I also got to shake hands with several other band members, though regretfully not with the Dancing Queens. Then the gig was over and the DJ supplied us with more music. Until next time! “Ararara?” “Orororoooooo!”
Video: The Dancing Queens in action.
Text and pictures, copyright, Julio Punch, 2008.