Review: Femi Kuti and King Sunny Ade at the Minnesota Zoo

Categories: Concert Review
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Femi Kuti photo by Nicolas Hidiroglou
Twenty-five years ago, Femi Kuti was a young saxophonist in his legendary father's band, stepping into the role of leader one night when Fela Kuti was detained by authorities back in Lagos, and couldn't make a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. At around that same time, fellow Nigerian King Sunny Ade was being promoted by Island Records as the next big thing in "world music" after Bob Marley. Where Fela had invented Afrobeat, an aggressively African groove-and-rant music sung in pidgen English (like H. Rap Brown fronting a James Brown band with Yoruba percussion), Ade had defined juju, a gentler but equally hypnotic talking-drums music, usually sung in Yoruba, but sounding more like African gospel on the moon, with Hawaiian guitar.

Tuesday night at the Minnesota Zoo was a summit of these two Nigerian music legacies, and the outdoor amphitheater overflowed with fans, many of them Yoruba-speakers. King Sunny Ade, who had known Femi Kuti since Femi was a boy, was the night's opener, but this was less a reflection of his relative command or talent than of his genre's Western fortunes relative to Afrobeat, and his own lowered stateside profile. (He has released two African albums in the time since his Cabooze show in 2005, but only one American one, a reissue of his out-of-print 2000 CD Seven Degrees North.)

Ade's 16-piece band, which included some members from as far back as the '70s, was tighter and more playful, with plenty of capella call-and-response singing, and the 60-something Ade eliciting shrieks with nimble swivels of his hips.

Ade soon picked up a guitar for his only soloing of the evening, offering spooky wisps of echoing chords as a barefooted dancer, clad in sparkly brown, shook herself in response to each note. (She could maneuver her back self the way other dancers can move their head.) During the song, a white heron glided slowly over the lake to land in the water behind the stage, staying a while, as if to listen.

Ade broke from Yoruba to sing a seemingly impromptu melody about "Africans and Americans," and addressed the audience directly to lead them in a sing-along, saying, "Let us bring this roof down."

When Femi's band Positive Force took the stage, with more horns and dancers, their fiercer attack at first obscured how much messier they seemed, by comparison. The band plays the way Femi sings--pouring itself into every note, but spilling over the sides.

Still, Joe Strummer's philosophy of performance came to mind: Passion is more important than perfection. Femi has even developed a punk-like growl for some songs. Opening with "Black Man Know Yourself," he single-handedly brought down the darkness (the sky is part of the light show at the Zoo), and held off the storm, which kept threatening with sudden gusts of wind, but never came. His bitter-faced sax-playing was particularly lyrical and intense, while he spilled more of himself over the sides on trumpet and keys.

At some point, Femi seemed to sense that his set had drifted a bit too deeply into atmosphere and jazz, and he picked up the pace to begin engaging the audience more directly, talking eloquently about the common desire for peace during a rendition of the waltz-time title track from his 2008 album Day by Day. And those few who slipped out early missed his most entertaining oratory in years: a lengthy "lesson in sexual education" offered during quietly percolating passages of the otherwise rousing "Beng Beng Beng," with Femi expounding on those two most important things in life: sex and music.

"It takes years to be able to improvise on your instrument," said Femi, earning laughter from the crowd, now mostly on its feet. He also emphasized the importance of men not coming too fast, as the song put it: "We just explode immediately." After a slowly-building hour of sensuous music, it was a perfect climax.

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