Few venues are less conducive to dance parties than London's Royal Festival Hall, and few ushers are less tolerant of patrons' Terpsichorean impulses. But tonight neither the structure nor its attendants stood a chance against the simple might of people power. By the end of Femi Kuti's show, the place was one writhing mass of flailing bodies, and the ushers could only gaze on with equanimity.
Kuti was an interesting choice to open the London Jazz Festival, not least in the way his band returns jazz, after its century-long journey from nightclub to concert hall, to its original function as dance music. That much was evident from the players' outfits, the 10-piece band in loose, Hawaiian-style shirts in candy-apple green with a shocking-pink floral motif, while Kuti himself was in a flimsy, garish orange two-piece number and sandals. The fringed bikinis of his trio of female dancers fluttered mesmerically as they made moves that were part bellydance tremble, part dancehall bump'n'grind, part epileptic fit, and totally provocative.
It took about an hour of Kuti's Afrobeat riffing to get everyone on their feet, plenty of time to admire the band's manifold attractions, particularly the majestic, hard staccato riffs of the five-man horn section, the players shuffling in time even when relaxing between riffs as their leader delivered another political sermon in pidgin English.
Much of the set was drawn from Kuti's recent album, Day by Day. Kuti himself played soprano and alto saxes, trumpet and organ, his person permanently a-twitch, as if willing the beat along, while occasional hand signals kept the band moving in the right direction. He seemed most accomplished on alto sax, using cyclical breathing techniques like Roland Kirk to produce long contrails of overblowing against the fat horn textures; every so often he would move to organ, adding dense chords that set up strange harmonies and overtones in a manner that recalled the cacophonous logic of Sun Ra.
But it was always his father whose spirit loomed largest over the proceedings, from Kuti's diatribes about neocolonialist injustices and his denunciations of corrupt politicians, to the celebrations of pan-African fellowship. But Femi's leadership appeared less autocratic than Fela's: when members of the horn section stepped forward to take brief solos, he would take their place in the brass section, a nice democratic touch that contributed to the evening's warm, egalitarian mood.