A couple of nights ago I had the privilege of taking in an advanced screening of Alex Gibney’s ‘Finding Fela’ documentary and I came away thinking, “Yeah, yeah….Fela Anikulapo Kuti… people need to see this film.”
Over the years I’ve osmosed the various stages of Fela’s music, witnessed the various attempts by various major companies to cross him over into the mainstream, read the biographies that document the brutal response of Nigeria’s military to his outspoken lyrics, been saddened by his death from AIDS and watched with a degree of amazement at how the life of this complex musician has continued to blaze brightly in the 21st century, providing a beacon for others to follow in his footsteps should they be so brave!
While I’ve heard some folks deride the “Dead Fela Industry” I’m more than happy that the ghost, the spirit of Fela persists in residing amongst us. There is more music from the man out there and available than ever before and we now also have access to dozens of recordings by other African artists that were undoubtedly influenced by his afrobeat fusion. It’s clear that the Broadway musical ‘Fela!’ has led to an engagement with a brand new audience which includes America’s hip hop royalty. ‘Finding Fela’ the documentary is an offshoot of the musical – which I saw in London and thought was visually innovative, politically and musically powerful and well worth the visit. Alex Gibney’s film gives insight through archive footage and interviews just how the musical was crafted to convey the essence of the man, the music and his struggle.
Firstly, I’ve got to give props to Fela’s ex- manager Rikki Stein who has worked tirelessly to make a lot of this happen. His focus on the States and his commitment and belief in the musical, which began life off Broadway, has given a new life to Fela Anikulaop Kuti’s legacy. Secondly, I now have massive respect for Bill T Jones, who features large in the film and was responsible for both the musical’s choreography and, judging by the filmed discussions in rehearsals, the onstage creation of Fela as shape shifting, multi-dimensional character.
Though the evolution of the musical is woven into the documentary the real story is told through interview clips with Fela himself, archival footage from the Shrine and other concerts, news footage from the Sixties and Seventies in Nigeria and interviews with his children – Femi, Seun and Yeni – along with others who worked and played with him like Sandra (her story of landing in Nigeria only to discover he already had two wives is classic!), Lemi Ghaiokwu, Tony Allen and Dele Sosimi – who more than adequately describes Fela the bandleader. Micheal Veal who played in Fela’s band and wrote an in-depth biography is consitently on point with the music while and Carlos Moore who wrote ‘This Nitch Of A Life’ which seems have provided the template for the musical also features.
The film is a journey of discovery, and it attempts to peel back the layers to get to the essence of the man. Fela’s no saint. He is a one-off. He was scarred from the brutal beatings and the imprisonment and haunted by the murder of his mother by government troops. You had to wonder what those around him thought as he unleashed the next tirade against the powers that be. Hearing Femi talk the raid on the Kalakuta Republic and reflect, “What is this man going to bring down upon us next?” was revealing. The story in the film that recall’s Fela’s involvement with the Ghanaian dark magician Professor Hindu adds a legendary London episode to the canon of stories and also reveals that Hindu was instrumental in Fela’s eventual demise.
I’d love to pack a cinema with a posse of music making kids of African and Afro Caribbean origin along with their mates and play them this film on a big screen with fuck-off sound and see what their response would be. Basically, when it came to keepin’ it real and tellin’ it like it is, Fela was the business. He lived among the people who he aimed his words and music at. When it came to his funeral no-one was sure how many people – if any – would turn up to pay their respects. But turn up they did… go and see the film.