The crowd that attended Femi Kuti and the Positive Force on Friday night was small by all measures.
About 200 people showed up to listen to the Afrobeat musician and political activist from Nigeria and his large orchestra, who, despite the heat and the crowd size, put on a lively and colorful show for nearly two hours.
Kuti was backed by a 14-piece ensemble that included three singers dressed in African garb who also danced nearly nonstop throughout the show, a four-piece horn section, a percussionist and a drummer.
There was plenty of motion and action going on around and behind Kuti, but he was clearly the center of attention, whether playing his saxophone, playing the keyboards, singing or dancing, sometimes along with his singers/dancers.
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They opened with “Oyimbo,” a song about the search for salvation, peace and justice and the redemptive power of music.
Much of his music carries a spiritual theme or expresses a thirst for transcendence. Other songs address political issues, like “Carry On, Push On,” which sermonizes: “The Arab Spring never did bring roses / peace in the Middle East won’t ever come easy.”
Another song preaches: “Evil people will do anything to survive … they always destroy / Evil people can never know true joy.”
His music fuses African polyrhythms with funk, highlife and blasts of jazzy, big-band horns. It’s lively and joyous, even when the lyrics are expressing serious concerns. Several times the sound evoked more Western sounds, like New Orleans jazz, bands like Blood, Sweat and Tears or African explorations by bands like Talking Heads or artists like Paul Simon.
Kuti is a passionate singer and performer, but some of the more rewarding moments were during the freewheeling instrumentals, in which the band was given berth to showcase its skills and his rump-shaking dancers showed off their footwork. Kuti, too, displayed his keen musicianship on the sax and keyboards. The energy flowing from the stage was contagious. Small though it was, the crowd was enthusiastic throughout the set, dancing along with Kuti and his band.
Ultimately, this show was an expression of affection, for life and music and a quest for spiritual unity, with each other and with the planet we live on, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Kuti performance was part of the Crossroads Heritage and Roots Festival, which comprised sets by several bands, including Soul Rebel & the Beast, a seven-piece band from Topeka that warmed up the crowd for Kuti with a lively, brassy set of reggae/roots songs.