Two Nigerias: King Sunny Ade and Femi Kuti

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It’s hard to imagine music  that’s much happier than juju, the Nigerian-born style with peppy, repeating guitar lines, honeyed vocals, and an army of talking drums inviting–OK, imploring–you to dance. King Sunny Ade is its primary exponent, and back in the late ’80s he was my entry point into African music. Vaguely interested in African sounds from my Talking Heads records (what can I say, I was a white kid from the Midwest), I picked up the Ade album Live Live Juju and was swept up in the cascading drums and sweetly unfurling melodies. My ears took me further and further into African sounds and eventually led me to the legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, also a Nigerian but a much more complex, controversial character with darker, denser music and strongly political lyrics. In a sense they were the bookends to my aural African sojourn: the easy and the hard, the gentle and the ferocious.

I never saw Fela perform before his death from AIDS in 1997, and I never caught Ade on tour–until last week, when I caught both the King and Fela’s banner-carrying son, Femi Kuti, on an amazing double bill at the Minnesota Zoo. The concert was everything I expected and more, with Ade’s juju as vibrant as ever and Kuti’s music just as intense and forceful as his father’s.

Ade’s set came first. As the sun sank low in the summer sky, his band members, more than a dozen strong, took the stage in their brown patterned African dress, and then Ade entered, his sparkling blue gown and regal comportment announcing his arrival. (My 5-year-old son said, “I can tell which one is the king by his uniform.”) The band let its full force be known immediately, with the drummers–entirely half of the band–constructing a wall of rhythm that within minutes had rib cages shuddering and feet fidgeting. If there were any doubts about the health and humor of the 60-something bandleader, Ade soon displayed that the King is alive and very well, deftly dancing and stepping to the beat and commanding his band with a mere wave of his finger. Singing in Yoruba, Ade led the band through a blissful series of songs that reminded me just how powerfully his music had grabbed me 20 years earlier.

A small segment of the crowd were Yoruba speakers, standing out not just for their African dress but for their hearty responses to Ade’s call-and-response lyrics and their inspired dancing. Their enthusiasm was infectious and helped the somewhat staid Minnesota crowd get their Africa on. By the end of the set, after a particularly hearty sing-along, Ade himself seemed thrilled by the response: “I love you all,” he said, and the crowd responded in kind.

After a short break, Femi Kuti’s band Positive Force took the stage, distinguishing itself with far fewer drums, a five-man horn section, and three rump-shaking dancers. (Ade briefly had two dancers onstage.) Kuti appeared at the forefront with a serious, calm but piercing gaze that would seldom leave his face, and he established set the tenor of his set by leading off with “Stop AIDS” from his Fight to Win album. The song’s edgy horn bursts, driving rhythms, and blunt English lyrics announced that things were getting heavier–though, as the dancers proved, there was still a lot of shaking going on.

A couple of songs into his set, Kuti popped a quiz on the crowd. “Do you know Dizzy Gillespie? Do you know Miles Davis? … Do you know John Coltrane? Do you know Duke Ellington? Do you know Billie Holiday?” The crowd’s affirmative answers set up his own: “Then we won’t have any problem tonight.”

After several jazz-informed solos, he had one more question: “Do you know Fela Anikulapo Kuti?” The roaring response left no doubt that his father’s legacy was hovering in the cooling night air.

Jazz indeed proved to be one of the magic components in Kuti’s music, as he switched between vocals, saxophone, trumpet, and keyboards, always pushing the band toward raw and emotive sounds with an improvisatory edge. But there was also some house, hip-hop, and techno in the mix, adding a modern, sexy shine to the Afrobeat sound. Throughout it all, social messages leapt out from the lyrics: “Why all this fighting? Why all this suffering?” “The African man and the African woman find it very difficult to succeed.” “All in the name of peace we fight and kill to find justice.” The overall impression was that of a party whose host had an awful lot of his mind.

Kuti’s last number mixed up all these contradictions in one big mishmash. Singing “Beng Beng Beng” from his album Shoki Shoki, he gave a long mid-song lesson in sexual restraint–“don’t come too fast,” goes the song’s refrain–that took on an almost scolding tenor. But after he delivered his message, the band kicked in again, the big beat started up–and hips resumed swaying.

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