[15 July 2005]
We’re here to make you happy, give you all the good inspirations you deserve.
—Femi just before the concert gets underway
Standing proud and utterly focused, Femi Kuti is at the edge of the stage between songs, breathing in the air of the Africa Shrine, heady with the sweat of a packed audience rapt and dancing feverishly, wrapped in and exuding something between drunken ecstasy and religious fervour. When he paced the platform at the concert’s beginning, he’d surveyed the throngs filling the venue with an inner peace finding its confirmation, at one point effortlessly jumping above the first row to do pull ups on a ceiling strut, the act at once spontaneous and entirely symbolic of the levitation granted a musician by the belief of his people. His superb physique shiny with sweat and his handsome features showcasing regal solemnity, it is hard not to see Femi as an ideal Africa embodied; strong, beautiful, joyous, peaceful despite a life of endless hardship. Although specifically urged not to earlier, the crowd, bereft of any way of expressing the totality of their exuberance, begin flinging full water bottles around. One of them, thrown quite hard, strikes Femi as he stands unprotected and unafraid; it stops dead and falls limply aside, as though it had hit a brick wall. The man shows no sign that he has even noticed.
Although this documentary by Raphaël Frydmann gives one a good impression of day-to-day of life at the Shrine, a converted warehouse in Lagos turned community centre that hosts “jumps”, or concerts, every Sunday night, it understandably focuses on the Fela Kuti’s son; interviews with him and those around him being intercut with footage from an evening’s concert, the recordings of which make up the free CD that accompanies this DVD (and quite frankly would be worth the asking price by themselves). While Seun Kuti—whom I saw live last year accompanied by Tony Allen—gives the impression of being exceedingly fond of himself and more than content with the attention paid to a travelling musician, Femi has stayed in Nigeria and attempted to live the only life that makes sense to him in a world “gone crazy”, immersing himself completely in music whilst attempting to give something back to a community still hopelessly poor and almost entirely deprived of education (and, for that matter, of electricity).
The film paints a picture of Kuti both at rest (playful in the presence of one of his girlfriends, meditative when practising a relentless Evan Parker-like pattern on his sax as a warm up) and at work leading the orchestra. This all gives you a good idea of why this quiet, unassuming man, shaped into a community leader through the strength of his convictions and his passion for music—his family heritage—rather than any drive for control, is the subject of almost messianic devotion by some of his peers; interviews with some community members breaking out into cries like “Femi Kuti is a GOD in Africa” raise the neck hairs with a mixture of fear and the acute despair you know Femi must feel at such an attitude.
The meat of what I got to watch—apparently the commercial version will include 46 minutes of bonus footage, an extra interview with Femi and film of that evening’s concert tracks that don’t appear in the documentary as is—remains the concert footage, which gives you feel for the strange intensity of this relaxed yet manic weekly event that uneven light levels and the occasionally grainy picture quality cannot detract from. It also pushes unavoidably home how bored African bands must be when they tour the rest of world and are faced with audience reactions falling so far short of the total abandon witnessed here; one of the back-up singers/dancers becomes so consumed by the carnal energy in the air that she goes into a writhing frenzy next to her microphone, humping the floor, the air to her side and finally in the direction of the ceiling.
Musically, the concert is fantastic, with Femi’s magnificient workrate at his beloved saxophone, keyboard and singing backed up by some irresistibly supple bass and a brass section which, I became increasingly convinced as the concert progressed, has got to be one of the best in the world (catch them in full flight on “Bring Me the Man Now” and disagree with me). Reflecting on Live at the Shrine, it is as easy to understand the fervour engendered by Femi and his music as it is hard not to despair at the suffering surrounding the oasis of relief that is the Africa Shrine, or be appalled by the empty mockery of “highlife” that has become the leitmotif of the American Dream. If Femi is an ideal African, then—to paraphrase Virgil—his is a nation of broad realms and proud in joy, and it is essential that everyone everywhere realise their birthright and prove worthy of the responsibilities and heritage inherent in living there.