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Femi Kuti And The Positive Force At Central Park Summerstage, Sunday, June 23rd, Reviewed

Nubian Princesses And The Prince Of Afrobeat













First the band came out, bass, keyboards, guitar, drums, then the three back up singers, dressed in native Nigerian garb, and ready to dance, then the three piece horn section and finally the 50 year old Nigerian superstar son of Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti. He played the keyboards, sang, danced with the singers, took a swift sax solo and a longer trumpet solo and sang some more, going to the edge of the stage, then turning around to conduct the band. “Do something for Africa” Fela sings. The song goes on and and on and then he follows it with two more songs off his most recent album, 2010’s Africa For Africa, a piece of agitprop, that never stops exploding.

Call it Afrobeat, Femi does, but it is a jazz oriented, deep beat, dance music and it is 25 minutes before the relentless pace lets up for even an instant.

The music, the band, Femi himself, are enormous presences on stage,. There is a sense of a Clash for Afrobeat, maybe more. I claimed this was agitprop but it might be more than that in the same way Peter Tosh was more than agitprop. The calls to unite both behind and with Africa weren’t subtext, they weren’t text, they were the essence of what was going on.  In 1900, Nigeria became a British protectorate (aka it got itself colonized) and in 1960 it cast of the shackles of British institutionalized racism and fitted themselves to civil war and one military junta after another till the constant incivility  ended in 1998. In 2013 is a very corrupt society (they’ve had two Presidents, one of whom died in office). Kemi, whose father was jailed for his political activities, has every right to be pissed off with both his own country in particular, Africa in general and the world as a whole.

It’s OK with me.

After 25 minutes of nonstop  sloganeering I’ve had my fill and after an hour I am trying to figure out what the problem is here. The band is great, Kuti is a superb trombonist, a great band leader, a graceful dynamic host. But the set is on a treadmill and it goes round and round and round, and where it stops, when it stops, it lands on another indifferent song. And nothing can save these ordinary songs, not even extraordinary performances.

This is what Kemi is upset about, the two c’s: colonization and corruption. Oh please. The British left over 50 years ago, get over it. Well, Kemi can’t and won’t, he shouts out his slogans, “Free Africa”. Free it from what?

The songs had two speeds: fast and less fast, the jams were smart and pointed but lack the eternal sophistication of jazz or the relentlessness of his father. Femi is a handsome, smart leader but he doesn’t know how to write a great song. This was his fifth time at Summerstage so obviously City Parks Foundations disagrees with me, but it is like going to a John Lennon concert and finding Julian Lennon. It is mindboggling disorienting.

That is until the two thirds mark when Femi breaks loose of the politics to give a funny and smart Sex Ed class called “Reverse Back”, a simple recommendation as to how sex might be more fun for both partners and while respect for one’s partner might be paramount, and elongated technique is more important still. Freed from the tethers of saving  the world, the seriousness of being his father’s son, there is a lightness the afternoon’s performance has been missing.

Femi also has a new album just released today, No Place For My Dream, which on first listen is pretty good more of the same, but if he played any of it on stage I missed it (I did leave early to catch another show downtown).

Femi is neither a great politician nor a great songwriter and but he is a great band leader and he is a great son. He needs to stop talking at us and embrace the self evident truth: music is what will bring us together not lectures.

Grade: B

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