If Judge Adam Arseneau ever gets famous enough to have a scandalous home-video sex tape released into the public, he's got dibs on the title, "Live at the Shrine."
Now him don see say dis democracy na wayo.
Wedged comfortably between documentary and concert performance, Femi Kuti: Live At The Shrine is an introductory course into the politically-charged music of multi-instrumentalist and band leader Femi Kuti, son of legendary Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti. The concert DVD, filmed in the small Nigerian town of Lagos in the "African Shrine," built in homage to his father's musical legacy and desire for democratic change, captures the "Sunday Jump" on film, the weekly concert in Femi's hometown playing to his following of fans who pack the venue, looking to dance the night away.
More than a simple stage, The Shrine was declared the "Temple of Democracy" by Femi's father, Fela Kuti, and was the location of his father's ascent to political and musical domination in Nigeria. Here, he developed the socially-conscious fusion of big band jazz and African rhythms that enlightened the masses towards the corruption of the Nigerian government and the oppression of its peoples, educating the populace and making them dance. Now, years after his death, Femi Kuti continues his father's crusade in bringing both the music to the people, and the people to the music, all in the hope of bringing about change for a tragically impoverished and oppressed nation.
The collective music of the Kuti family has been fraught with political complications, to say the least. Recorded in English to promote understanding across all of Africa regardless of local dialect, the style dubbed "Afrobeat" blends the infectious pan-African rhythms and vocals together with big band jazz and American funk, combined with politically-charged lyrics of democratic change. Fela Kuti's music soon became wildly popular across the continent, and often incited riot and social disorder, much to the ire of the ruling government. But after recording a scathing critique on the ruling party in his song "Zombie" in the late 1970s, Fela Kuti infuriated the Nigerian government to such an extent that they sent hundreds of troops to burn the original Shrine to the ground, destroying Fela Kuti's master recordings, confiscating his instruments, beating him within an inch of his life, and killing his elderly mother by throwing her out of a window. No, seriously.
Years later, his son Femi rebuilt The Shrine and has taken over the torch of bringing democratic change to Nigeria through his music; and like his father, remains an outspoken advocate for human rights in the African community, as well as one of the most popular African musicians currently active in music today. Femi is a musician living in the shadows of a Nigerian folk hero, a patriarchal figure of progress and human rights. It is a large shadow to fill, to say the least. Much of the film is spent discussing this fact with Femi Kuti, who has, almost reluctantly at times, fallen into his father's footsteps.
The 87-minute concert performance, interjected with interview footage and behind-the-scene footage captures Femi Kuti and his massive band playing their weekly show at the New African Shrine, rebuilt in the frame of a warehouse to honor his father's memory. Afrobeat, for those not in the know, is nothing short of infectious; a kaleidoscopic blend of James Brown bass lines, Nigerian rhythmic drumming, tribal dancing and female background vocals, horn ensembles, pianos, and organs all pounding out seemingly never-ending barrages of rhythm that gives your feet the desire to jump in the air. Combine this with Kuti's Coltrane-inspired jazz saxophone solos and his politically charged vocals, and the ensemble is complete. These are songs that stick in your head for days, like a parasitic infection of the funky bone; a fusion of jazz and funk, reggae and pop, topped off with African highlife with a hypnotic charm that can appeal to all, regardless of musical preferences. It is fantastic stuff.
The audio CD included contains the same tracks minus all the documentary filler, and is certainly a nice treat for fans of the Afrobeat, but the audio lacks the same dynamic energy conveyed in the live performance experienced by watching Femi Kuti and his band onstage. A free audio CD is nothing to be critical of, but Femi Kuti and his band are performers who must be seen and heard, not just heard, to be truly appreciated.
The track listing is as follows:
1. Intro (0:45)
The set is small, but the camera work keeps the performance interesting, and Kuti's high energy is invigorating. Directed in a modern and aggressive style by French director Raphaël Frydman, the camerawork makes frequent use of split-screen, often of two separate evening performances playing face-to-face. Femi's performance is interjected with political archival footage, poverty footage from the streets of Nigeria, and all manner of external material, making Live At The Shrine more like an MTV music video more than a live performance. Purists may wish to have more uninterrupted material, but the quality of the editing is quite excellent, and gives the entire viewing experience a heightened sense of energy.
The visual quality of the performance, thrown together from numerous cameras, film stocks, and formats, is a hodgepodge in terms of fidelity, but the overall experience is pleasing on the eyes. Letterboxed into a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, colors saturate bleed occasionally in the low-light conditions, but again, this depends on the source material. Black levels are thick and murky, and some anti-aliasing crops up now and again, and if this were a pure concert performance DVD, the presentation would be problematic. It isn't perfect, but for a documentary, Live At The Shrine is well within acceptable limits.
Two audio tracks are included, a Dolby 2.0 Surround and a PCM Stereo track, and both sound fantastic on the ears. Recorded live at the Shrine by Kuti's longtime sound engineer, the recording is magnificent, dispersing the instruments expertly between the channels while still preserving the overall impression of a live performance. It is hard to describe the impact of the audio accurately. The sound simply resonates, for lack of a better word; it fills the auditory space with a cavernous wall of sound, as if standing directly in front of the performers, filling every nook and cranny with instruments, horns, and rumbling basslines. Both tracks sound fairly comparable, but the surround track has a noticeable sparkle and fidelity lacking in the PCM track in a surround environment. However, switch to a two-channel presentation, and the PCM track takes over your living room. It is a matter of personal preference, but both sound quite fantastic.
The majority of the extra material constitutes interview footage with Femi Kuti, helpfully segmented into chapter stops based on subject. Some of the footage makes it into the feature documentary, but having access to the unedited material directly is a nice addition. Femi Kuti proves to be an erratic interview subject, both in the bonus features and in the documentary itself, speaking in his laconic hybrid of English and African slang. Luckily, a subtitle track is helpful in making heads and tails of his peculiar dialogue. He is a captivating interview subject, magnetic even, but has a particularly cryptic manner of speaking that will leave you scratching your head, and often bizarrely answers questions not asked by the interviewer, trailing off and falling silent at odd moments.
In addition, extended performance cuts of "Shotan," "Water no get enemy," and "Yeparipa" are featured as bonus material, as well as some helpful liner notes that include song lyrics and some insightful ideology into The Shrine and the ethos behind Femi Kuti's music. A few trailers and, of course, the extra audio CD itself, round off the special material.
Femi Kuti remarks during an interview session on Live At The Shrine about how he hopes this DVD will help bring The Shrine to the world, since he cannot bring the world to The Shrine. More than a simple concert venue, The Shrine is a metaphor for creative expression in an oppressed land, a beacon of democracy and hope in a country without steady supplies of water and electricity for the majority of its citizens. Even the songs selected for this concert performance were chosen by democratic majority, voted on by his band members for inclusion. This stark contrast between Femi's optimism and desire for change, mixed with the depressingly grim footage of surrounding Nigeria and the horrible conditions that millions of humans live in, linger almost as long as the infectiously catchy Afrobeat rhythms in your head, long after you hit the stop button.
As a concert performance, Live At The Shrine is high-energy, bombastic and vivacious; as a documentary, it is captivating, informative, and inspiring. The Shrine seems an amazing place both of music and of political change and, short of a sojourn to Nigeria, this DVD will no doubt be as close as most people come to touching something truly revolutionary, in the literal sense of the word. Watching Femi Kuti: Live At The Shrine is an incredible way of spending an hour and a half of your time. And that, I think, may be the kindest thing one can say about a DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Never-Before-Seen Femi Kuti Interview
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