Out: Femi Kuti, at the Paradise

Odds are, no one reading these words will ever set foot inside Femi Kuti’s New Afrika Shrine, a huge tin-sided barn in Lagos that serves as a nightclub and a controversial community refuge. And if the Nigerian government had its way, the Shrine would disappear forever. Authorities nearly burned down the first Shrine (founded by Fela Kuti, a pioneer of Afrobeat and Femi’s rabble-rousing father) in 1977; they did finally bulldoze it after Fela's death in 1997. Last month, mere days before Femi Kuti embarked on his US tour, officials closed the Shrine’s second incarnation, citing noise violations and illegally parked cars. The Shrine is back in business — for now — but its future would appear shaky. Lucky for us, Kuti and his Positive Force backing band brought a little taste to Boston last Wednesday.

My mother and I arrive at this sold-out Paradise show just in time to grab a sweet spot in the upper balcony, where we scope out the crush of hipsters, Nigerian ex-pats, and old-school Afrobeat heads swelling the club. Mom eyes a middle-aged woman wearing a vintage dashiki: “She must have kept that in her closet a long time.”

Then Kuti and his massive 13-piece band (whose line-up includes three barefooted, bead-bedecked dancers) troop out and launch into “Blackman Know Yourself,” a cut off Kuti’s 1998 album Shoki Shoki. With so many people crammed on this stage, there’s not a lot of room for the fly girls to move; instead, they dip and shimmy in place, fluttering their prehensile booties. “Don’t forget your past,” Kuti implores, and his energetic burst of Pan-African sermonizing swathed in raucous party funk sets the standard for the evening.

The rest of the set list leans heavy on Kuti's 2008 record, Day by Day (his first studio album in seven years), which is more of a throwback to the “funky Lagos” style of the ’70s than any of his previous outings. “They Will Run” sounds especially time-warped. It kicks off with Kuti wailing out a mournful, jazzy horn solo — despite the throng already on stage, Kuti still does quadruple duty on trumpet, sax, clarinet, and Hammond XK-2.

The grand finale is “Beng Beng Beng.” Banned in his own country for its brazenly erotic lyrics, it’s Kuti's biggest hit, and the crowd goes apeshit. He begins: “Two things make us very happy in life: sex and music, and the two kind of go hand in hand. It takes a lot of practice to become dexterous.” Suddenly, he’s gleefully divulging graphic, Tantra-like secrets before sliding into the song. “Don’t come too fast,” he sings, then points at some guy’s video camera, declaring, “He comes too fast!”

Kuti and the Positive Force band certainly don’t need to prove their stamina: they've laid down a ferocious 16-song set, and they return for three encore numbers. After ripping through the blazing-fast stomper “One Two,” Kuti announces: “The people of the Shrine, the people of Lagos, are way ahead of you.” To get us up to speed, he tells us, they're going to do some new material “so you can say, 'I heard it in Boston. Oh yes!' ” What follows is another frenetic groove, complete with a guitar solo that inspires Kuti to start throwing air punches and high kicks.

We end the night sweat-soaked and exhausted. Boston may have to wait another seven years for a Femi Kuti album, but we'll have this piece of the Shrine to tide us over until then.


Not-quite-comprehensive set list from Femi Kuti's Paradise show on June 24, 2009

Femi Kuti set list - Boston 2009
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