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Femi Kuti: Master of the Afrobeat Legacy

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Femi Kuti might have been the most exciting performer at the Oregon Waterfront Blues Festival.

You could say it was the one-minute-long sax note achieved through circular breathing, which then led to a maddening solo. You could say it was the fact that he danced as hard— if not harder – than his own dancers. You could say it was the passionate voice with which he pleaded for peace and unity. You could say it was the contagious trance-like state he entered while whirling about on stage and conducting his furious band.

The conclusive note is that Femi is a consummate performer. In the U.S., Afrobeat is not nearly as well known as the Blues. But thanks to Femi’s dynamite package of intelligent songwriting, explosive music and spectacular performance, Afrobeat stole the show at the Waterfront Blues Festival.

“One people, one world,” was the core lyric message of the performance, followed by earth-shaking brass melodies punctuated with vocal cries. Between Femi, his dancers and his band (The Positive Force), it was impossible to tell who was keeping up with whom —they were all on fire.

It was clear, however, that the audience of thousands was working hard to keep up, dancing to the wild flow between bombastic musical passages, heart-wrenching vocal solos and even alluringly gentle passages that highlighted the African roots of sweet Caribbean music.

As a master of ceremonies Femi was driven by the purpose of his music—to reach out and awaken his audience.

“Time is against us and I wanted to give you the best of the best,” he said, cutting one song short and moving on to keep the musical flow alive. And enliven the audience he did, leading them into a clap, building tension with his Hammond organ, then conducting fierce shouts of brass, and spinning, arms wide, like a whirling dervish in middle of the music he whipped up.

Femi was supported by three female dancers in tradition-influenced garb, and one male dancer in a purple vest, who was sweating up the white button-down underneath and resembled a Gospel-goer in a frenzy of joy. The constant flow of flirtatious and frenzied dancing transfixed viewers. It underscored the limitations of our “colder” Western culture, and gave attendees a chance to embrace the possibility of breaking free emotionally.

Femi’s drummer, Ayodele Alaba, marshalled a Ludwig drum kit sized for rock show, giving The Positive Force a massive foundational sound. In combination with the four-piece brass section and the rest of the nine-piece band, Alaba’s precise kick drum softened to let the hi-hat come through for smoky sections. But he was fearless about dropped the bomb again and again when it came time to let this Blues Festival know Afrobeat was exploding on the scene and taking over.

“It’s African music,” Alaba noted. “So it must have a big sound.”

Yet it was Femi himself who was biggest here. It’s one thing to create amazing music; it’s another to deliver it so naturally and effectively. Throughout the show he channeled passion and sincerity, warning that, “Politicians will tell you what you want to hear,” and challenging those who neglect the world after, “evil spirits done take over their minds.”

As critical as Femi was of corruption, he carried the torch of hope, noting in his heartfelt lyrics that, “Everybody has a dream.” He also heralded cooperation with the lyrics, “Africa for Africa.”
In the last moments of the show he stopped the music and said in his Nigerian accent, “I vehemently refuse to believe you cannot groove with us,” challenging the crowd to follow his dance from left to right and humbly shouting thank-you’s mid-song to acknowledge the unity of the moment. He then offered his second and final sanity-challenging sax solo—the trademark musical cry of Afrobeat—and gave the stage to his lead guitarist while the dancers twerked away.

It’s staggering to recall that this was a one-hour show.

Femi and The Positive Force packed every minute with explosive performances from the band and the dancers. It’s a rare thing to see, and the energy was well-received by Portland. Even Femi noticed, saying, “I didn’t expect the love. More than enough!”

Regarding his role in the legacy of Afrobeat, he said, “The foundation of Afrobeat is so solid, so important. I think it is the soul of the future.

“As you can see, the next generation and so many young people talk about the Afrobeat as if it were alive as in my father’s time,” he added. “So that’s why it is so important to always be humble carrying this huge legacy. And the more I can expand, not remaining stagnant and monotonous, the better it will be. If I can do this for another 10 years that would be fantastic.”

The genre of Afrobeat has gained more acclaim since the Broadway debut of “Fela!” the biopic about Femi’s father. In Brooklyn, groups like AntiBalas and Emefe have honed their craft to bring the genre forward to larger audiences.

But Femi distinguishes himself not only because of his legacy (his father Fela is the original creator of Afrobeat), but because his delivery of this style of music is incomparable in quality—harder-hitting, wilder and more revolutionary in tone. Growing up in his father’s band, his authenticity as the world’s leader in Afrobeat is confirmed by his complete mastery in creation and delivery.

A child of legacy now walks as the master.

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