Last year, when most global pop music was fervently revisiting Brazil’s Tropicalia, the underground dance scene was getting up for the downstroke with an equally intense resurgence of vintage Afro-Beat. Clubs like New York City’s Body & Soul and Sound Factory were channeling the spirits of one of the great originators of Afrobeat, the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. A political agitator with tremendous sexual magnetism, Fela was to Nigeria as Bob Marley was to Jamaica—a cultural icon. His originals, like “Original Sufferhead” and “Expensive Shit,” remained in heavy rotation in bohemian dance clubs, as did various inventive remixes by dance-floor guerrillas like Masters at Work (“Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez) and the Roots. There were also a notable number of Fela box sets, compilations, and tributes, and former Fela musicians like drummer Tony Allen started crafting their own personal blends of electronica and Afrobeat stomps. And then here came one of the most intoxicating Afrobeat anthems to grace a dance floor in decades, “Beng Beng Beng,” by Fela’s son, Femi Kuti.
If Fela was Bob Marley, then Femi is Ziggy. Like Fela, Femi transmits incendiary political messages through gripping interlocking grooves, and he throws exhilarating live shows featuring gorgeous women singing and gyrating with erotic abandon. And, although many folks were hoping—salivating—to hear classic Fela anthems Wednesday night at the packed 9:30 Club, the infectious grooves from Femi’s latest album, Shoki Shoki, created an electrifying frenzy on their own. Femi didn’t have to rely on his father’s songbook to move the masses.
From a cursory listen, it’s hard to distinguish Femi’s music from his father’s. But the differences became clearer during Femi’s sweaty encore, in which he performed two of his father’s classics, “Lady” and “Water No Get Enemy.” Fela’s tunes percolated leisurely compared with Femi’s, thanks to Femi’s full-throttle delivery. With the bracing grooves driving slightly behind the beat, Fela’s compositions seemed more designed for fans smoking ganja. You could have easily danced for three hours to Fela’s hypnotic polyrhythms, soulful chants, and blasting horns without passing out.
Apparently, Femi’s well-aware that his songs, like the scintillating “Truth Don Die” and the racy “Beng Beng Beng,” are geared toward ecstasy-popping club kids. Whereas Fela often charged his music with relentlessly funky rhythms, the engine that powers Femi’s music is much more urgent, with beats barreling out at high velocity. Femi’s musical groovalliance with the underground dance scene was best illustrated in the rousing performance of “Truth Don Die,” in which house-inspired keyboard grooves slid underneath the charging spatter of percussion. Disco guitar scratches and a stabbing horn line propelled the thing even further. Femi often appeared so bewitched by his syncopated polyrhythms and the declarative force of his warlike chants that his attention to the audience was somewhat less than complete.
Femi’s neck-snapping contortions and fancy footwork frequently got the best of him—especially when it was time to deliver a verse or play the saxophone. Unlike his father, Femi apparently knows the limitations of his saxophone playing. Fela’s inchoate saxophone (and keyboard) solos blew so long they grew annoying. Femi’s tone is paper-thin, like his father’s, but where Fela’s essays were prolix, Femi favors short bits of shrilled wails and undeveloped melodies. And his band, Positive Force, largely concealed Femi’s saxophone weaknesses with sheer volume and unbridled funk.
But Positive Force’s thunderous power paired with the bad sound system didn’t help Femi’s singing: You might not have discerned that songs like “Blackman Know Yourself,” “Victim of Life,” and “Sorry Sorry” are blessed with not only compelling grooves but also politically savvy lyrics. The Black Nationalist theme of “Blackman Know Yourself” and “Victim Life”‘s treatment of the bleak race realities for blacks the world over would surely have resonated among many here in Chocolate City, but the music’s messages drowned amid the blasting horns and rhythm section.
The greatest distraction from Femi’s sermons, though, was the stunning dancing by his three female backup singers. Fela always turned to potent sexuality as a main ingredient, and though he never explicitly sang about getting it on, he was widely known as an international loverman with several wives. Although Femi professes monogamy, his live show had enough bump ‘n’ grind to fuel a Freaknik weekend. Femi could have been Martin Luther King Jr. reciting the “I Have a Dream” speech, and he still wouldn’t have been a match for the three colorfully dressed denizens as they wiggled, humped, and ground nonstop. The remarkably nimble women sent the crowd into howls that sounded as if they came from an Olympian orgy.
The sexual innuendo climaxed to an endorphin rush on “Beng Beng Beng.” (Hint: The song is not about gun control.) As the triumphant horns blared the sexy melody and the band shouted the infectious chant—”Beng beng beng!”—the crowd’s high energy burst into overdrive. Riding on top of a fiercely horny groove powered by a hard backbeat, Femi strutted across the floor like a peacock ready for pairing. His display of African machismo and his ringing out those salacious lyrics (“To the left, don’t slow down now…To the right, don’t come too fast”) made Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” sound like “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” CP