As Scotland lay under a blanket of snow and the temperature in Glasgow fell below -10, Femi Kuti’s stated aim of turning the Arches into a corner of funky Lagos may have seemed ambitious. When the star of the show joined his 12-piece Positive Force band onstage rubbing his hands it wasn’t initially clear if he was trying to warm himself or was just preparing to get down to business.
“We intend to heat up the place for you this evening”, said the 46-year old son of legendary Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, who has now carved out an impressive career in his own right. With songs taken mainly from his latest album Africa for Africa as fuel, Kuti and company launched into a two hour set that never failed to entertain.
Ably backed by a five-piece horn section, drums, bass, guitar, percussion and three dancers/backing singers whose gyrations added a visual energy to the layered rhythms, Femi switched between vocals, organ and saxophone and enjoyed the freedom that only a tightly drilled band could afford him.
Beginning with the polyrhythmic funk of Truth Don’t Die, the band had the crowd on side from the word go. Working through the likes of Politics in Africa, Dem Bobo and Bad Government from the new album, each component of the band was given a chance to shine but Femi, front and centre, directed proceedings and kept the collective pulling in the same direction.
Being a member of the Kuti family, it wasn’t just about the music though. Even apart from the African politics that dominate his lyrics, between songs there were impassioned calls for change and declarations that the band was bringing us a “true Africa”. Though encouraging, the crowd looked a little lost when one song was introduced with reference to the day’s events in the Ivory Coast and the polemic occasionally threatened to take away from the sounds.
The part-preacher/part-showman balance tipped in favour of the latter as the night went on and it was clear that Femi enjoyed the chance to spread his wings and play with songs he had already recorded. Sax solos brought a little bit of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane to the African sound and a little call and response kept the audience involved while they danced.
Coming at the end of a year in which he has been nominated for a Grammy and played the opening ceremony at the World Cup finals, it’s a compliment to the singer that he still looked as if playing to a small crowd on a cold night was a big deal for him.
The encore genuinely felt like a treat and what began simply had layer upon layer added until it exploded into an extended workout that brought an exciting and satisfying end to proceedings.
The gig was one of the first put on by promoters Organised Noise and it was hard not to feel some sympathy for them that the audience wasn’t bigger. The company hopes to bring the “finest live music from every corner of the world to Scotland” and having landed one of the superstars of world music it was a pity that the freezing conditions undoubtedly kept some people away from what was a thrilling evening.