News Column

An ode to Fela Kuti's music

August 14, 2014

By James Verniere, Boston Herald



Aug. 15--A complex portrait of the Nigerian musician, political activist and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Alex Gibney's two-hour documentary "Finding Fela" may leave some viewers, this one included, better informed, but also troubled.

A compilation of interviews, some of them with Fela himself, filmed concert performances and other archival footage, the film is also a making--of movie about the Broadway musical "Fela!" with book by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis, in which we see rehearsals and performances with an actor/singer striking- the characteristic arms--upraised pose portraying Fela.

"Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense," a 59-minute 1984 documentary about Fela produced by BBC TV, has a sharper focus and the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe to boot.

In Gibney's film, we learn that Fela was the well--educated child of political activists and was close to his mother, who fought for justice and women's rights in post-colonial Nigeria.

Inspired by African-American music, especially the soul-rock fusions of James Brown and the jazz of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, and such civil rights and social reform figures as Malcolm X and Bob Marley, Fela merged a musical genre known as highlife with jazz, protest music and traditional West African chants and created a fiercely politicized, poly-rhythmic music dubbed Afrobeat.

In Fela's hands it was more than music to dance to (a single song often ran for 30 minutes or more). It was music composed by a self-described revolutionary and designed to bring down the government.

Fela was also a libertine and pothead, whose caveman--like views on women and polygamy (in one scene he marries 27 women, all of them band members) must have outraged his beloved mother. She died a year after she was beaten by the police during a raid of her son's Lagos ghetto compound.

Because we hear so many descriptions of Fela, some of them contradictory, an unclear image of the artist emerges. Nigeria is a former British colony, and Fela performed in English but also in Yoruba and pidgin, along with dancers, a chorus and nine-piece horn section.

His statements concerning spiritualism and his association with a magician-guru from Ghana named Professor Hindu cast further doubt about his judgment later in life. Tony Award winner Jones says it best when he describes Fela, who died in 1997 of AIDS, as a "sacred monster."

Drummer Tony Allen may give us the best guidance, recommending focusing solely on the music, which Fela described as "the weapon of the future," because that is Fela's true legacy.

("Finding Fela" contains drug use and profanity.)

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(c)2014 the Boston Herald

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Source: Boston Herald (MA)


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