Femi Kuti and Angelique Kidjo were "co-headliners" Wednesday night at the 9:30 club, but of course one of the African musicians had to go last. That turned out to be Kidjo, a Benin native whose four-man band lacked the firepower of Kuti's 11-piece Nigerian Afro-beat ensemble. Kuti certainly played the more forceful set, and Kidjo initially seemed unlikely to rival him. By the end of her set, however, the two performers seemed evenly matched.
Kuti is the son of the legendary Fela Kuti and has developed a tighter, more song-oriented version of his father's wide-ranging jazz-funk sound. Afro-pop's current trend is toward a quieter, more intimate style that features many traditional instruments, but Kuti retains the Western-influenced big-band format common in the '70s and '80s. Save for one percussionist and three hip-swiveling female dancer-singers, all the members of Kuti's band played Western guitars, keyboards, horns and drums.
The soon-shirtless frontman himself periodically played keyboards and trumpet, although his voice was his principal instrument. Kuti introduced several songs from his upcoming album, tunes that continued his practice of combining social commentary with playful ribaldry. The mixture, along with the singer's charisma, propelled such highlights as "Beng Beng Beng," whose celebration of erotic pleasure was interrupted for a brief talk about personal responsibility.
Beginning with 1998's "Oremi," Kidjo has made a series of recordings that explore the African underpinnings of American music. Her latest album, "Oyaya!," concentrates on Caribbean and Latin American styles. It was the source for much of her 9:30 set, which emphasized syncopated percussion and rippling lutes and guitars -- and Kidjo's sweet but powerful voice, of course.
Without the full arrangements of "Oyaya!," Kidjo's first few songs sounded thin. Her performance became livelier, however, as she broadened its scope to include such disparate material as Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child" and a traditional folk tune, "Malaika," in which a lone acoustic guitar accompanied a vocal that ventured into unusually throaty territory. Most of her show's second half, however, was devoted to such numbers as the salsa-rooted "Conga Habanera," which were so joyously upbeat that it hardly mattered how much of their DNA was African and how much Iberian.