Unlike most musical progeny, 37-year-old Femi Kuti arrives on these shores fully formed and prepared to make an impression on audiences the world over. Sons of legends who have found an audience — Jakob Dylan and Ziggy Marley chief among them — have done so after an initial period of struggle in which they are finding their voice. Son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, saxophonist-singer Femi is already a dazzling showman with an impressive and frentic two-hour show driven by an electrifying band of 11 male musicians and three female singing dancers.
MCA Records is breaking Femi in the United States at the same time it is re-establishing the catalog of his father, Fela Kuti, the Nigerian political activist and musician who is credited with the invention of Afrobeat in the early 1970s.
Fela, who died in 1997 at the age of 59, formed Afrobeat out of the rhythms of Yoruba and the brass arrangements of James Brown funk records; once those elements were married in a repetitive and driving yet loose manner, he added a political agenda to the lyrics.
Lagos-based Femi gets a tighter sound out of his brass band and gives each plenty of space to solo (trombonist Tiwalade Ogunlowa would do fine on the bandstand of any jazz club). His agenda touches on freedom and unity in Africa but is primarly concerned with love and sex.
Yet he is a 21st century performer, aware of the power of sex appeal and an insistent beat; Femi is as visually appealing as Ricky Martin — and he’s playing infinitely more complicated music.
Femi performed the bulk of the tracks on his “Shoki Shoki” album, extending them from recorded length of about six minutes and change.
Each perf was fiery and inventive: As a vocalist he roamed the stage with mike in hand, shouting, jumping and dancing; when he played his alto saxophone, he ventured deep in avant-garde jazz textures, playing wildly spiraling runs in the style of Albert Ayler and then held notes for stunningly long durations.
All of this is set to an uncompromising beat set by one trap drummer and two percussionists whose rhythms are as intoxicating as Femi’s message and talent. His next visit to Los Angeles will be Aug. 6 at the Hollywood Bowl.