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Femi Kuti at Northhampton
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Femi Kuti / Gokh-Bi System
Pearl Street Nightclub, Northampton, MA
July 13, 2005

By Ismail Osman

By the time Femi Kuti took to the stage last night, the crowd had already been thoroughly worked by the Senegalese Hip-hop act Gokh-Bi System. Gokh-Bi, which means "Neighborhood," is a young six-piece that blends traditional Senegalese rhythms and harmonies with hip-hop and funk beats, underscoring French and English rap-lyrics. The result of this fusion was a show as vibrant and colorful as the tie-dyed tunics the entire band sported. Gokh-Bi’s message centered on the themes of love, peace, and justice as well as Africa’s struggles with poverty, inequality, and HIV-AIDS. The electric performances of the two MC’s who fronted the band were only outdone by the high-voltage dance moves of their hype-man. This earned them the kind of applause that audiences usually reserve for the main act.

The crowd was taken by surprise when, without any introduction or warning, five men took to the stage in yellow tunics, picked up bass, keyboard, drums, bongos and guitar and immediately started into the opening instrumental. Shortly thereafter, a giant-of-a-man led the horn section, consisting of another four men in yellow tunics, onto the stage to join the ongoing instrumental. Three scantily clad background singers/dancers who resembled highly sexualized versions of Bob Marley’s famous I-three background vocalists, were greeted with thunderous applause. Finally Femi Kuti took to the stage, gave the audience a quick bow, and walked right up to the Roland organ ready to bring the steadily building instrumental to its climax. The organ peaked, the horn section exploded, and the rhythm section drove the crowd into a dancing frenzy– and that was only the first song!

Femi Kuti does not simply front his band, but orchestrates both band and dancers with much the same ferociousness as a conductor leading an orchestra through Wagners’ Ride of the Valkyries. Indeed, Kuti’s Afrobeat sound comes across just as booming and overwhelming as a hundred-piece orchestra, but with infinitely more hot-blooded soul, passion and spirituality. "I’m sorry for Nigeria, I’m sorry, sorry so…sorry for Africa" lamented Kuti, his eyes closed, sweating, shirtless and gripping the microphone so intensely that the audience could see every fiber of his muscles. The background dancers echoed his words, while Kuti’s other arm continued to direct his small orchestra. Soon enough, the whole band and much of the audience joined the sing-along fight-hymn Stop AIDS. The crowd chanted the slogan, "Stop AIDS –Fight AIDS" in-between verses in which Femi Kuti dealt with the epidemic by relating his own loss at the hands of the disease. His father, Fela Kuti, the creator and "godfather" of Afrobeat, succumbed to AIDS in 1997.

There was no time for the audience to catch their breath as Kuti launched from one song into the next, alternating between singing, dancing, and playing several wind instruments as well as the organ. After two hours of continuous dancing, the audience was treated to one final twenty-minute instrumental number which saw Femi Kuti stepping back behind the organ for a final burst of power before bowing to the audience. Only then did the faintest of smiles finally escape from the edge of his mouth. Kuti then gave his band a bow before exiting the stage to the right. The three dancers followed hot on his heels. The husky but light-footed leader of the horn section took to the center of the stage, grabbed the microphone, and with a surprisingly sweet voice, sang a few of his own verses before smoothly dancing off stage with his men. The remaining musicians finished the song thus ending the concert. They were then re-joined by the horn section for a final bow to the audience. The crowd by then was as exhausted as it was exalted, but still managed to garner the strength to give Femi Kuti a roaring applause.

According to the advertising for Femi Kuti’s new DVD entitled Live at the Shrine, "Afrobeat is meant to be seen and heard" – Indeed so!

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