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Finding Fela - story of a musical revolutionary

Thursday, August 14, 2014
A scene from the movie Finding Fela which screened in Port-of-Spain on the eve of Emancipation.

Wesley Gibbings 

American producer Alex Gibney’s portrait of the late Nigerian musical icon, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, is an attempt at honestly exploring the contradictions of a man whose messages of self-awareness, defiance and liberation cohered with a penchant for misogynistic expression and a lifestyle of apparent reckless abandon. 

It helped that son and musical protégé, Seun, had been in town for Emancipation Day celebrations in Port-of-Spain and the coup staged by the T&T Film Festival (through the amazing work of Atillah Springer) which on July 30 brought to a local audience a special viewing of the Fela documentary in the presence of a first person participant to some of the action described in the film. 

Citing “cultural context”, in an interview with T&T Guardian, Seun explained his father’s several faces and the fact that none of them had actually been a mask. In fact, Gibney’s portrayal bespoke ideological conviction mixed with the foibles and excesses often permitted geniuses. 

Moving freely from Fela!, the stage musical, to Fela the father, son and, to some, holy spirit of African nationalism, Finding Fela offers a unique insight into both the life and times of the Fela phenomenon which spanned four decades of musical and political discovery and has found revivalist fervour within recent years. 

The film is neither an adoring paean to the father of Afrobeat who died from complications associated with HIV/Aids in 1997, nor a clinical critique dissecting ideological consistency or pedagogical value. It is an honest narrative voiced by some of the key players of his time, including colleagues, lovers, family and friends. 

Fela! director, Bill T Jones is moved to tears at one point. He ponders the emotions evoked by Fela’s anthemic rhythms as rendered by the mixed-heritage Antibalas band which he considers to be among the best at capturing the emotions of Fela’s unique sound. He is recorded impatiently insisting on more precise portrayals of the artist’s frenetic steps on stage. 

Fela’s mother, the feminist activist Funmilayo Ransome Kuti would not have approved of the musician’s 27-bride marriage ceremony in 1978, the year of her death from injuries sustained during an army raid of Fela’s self-declared “Kalakuta” republic premises in Lagos. Her death, Finding Fela surmises, served to inspire even more radical actions by Fela to drum up support for his campaign against oppressive Nigerian regimes and the promotion of Pan-Africanist activism. 

He marches more than one year later with a replica of his mother’s coffin which he lays at the doorstep of a military barracks. 

His son, Femi, speaks of fake sleep when his father calls on everyone to join him on a march destined for violence. There is blood and pain and arrests. “This man,” his now famous son says in the documentary, “just cause trouble, trouble, trouble for everybody.” 

In true, unconventional style, Fela was to offer himself up as a presidential candidate in 1979—a campaign stymied by the fact that he was eventually deemed ineligible by election officials to stand as a candidate. 

The heady 70s—filled with the smoke of marijuana and the bustle of spousal appointments designed to accommodate his many wives in bed—gave way to a period of reflection and a re-formulation of his music and his message of defiance in the 1980s. 

He had spent almost two years in a Nigerian prison on what appeared to have been a trumped up currency smuggling charge. The care-free, meandering rhythms of the 60s and 70s became purposeful, hypnotic refrains and he now embraced a different level of spiritualism. His clearly charlatanistic spiritual advisor “Professor Hindu”, a Ghanaian witch doctor who Fela claims performed miracles, had come and gone—chased away by an increasingly sceptical and concerned family. 

The inspiring drummer and co-developer of the Afrobeat sound, Tony Allen, had already left the band as one of its most authoritative leaders. His wives were leaving one by one. 

By the time the 1990s rolled around, the gush of music slowed. There was an unsuccessful murder charge. There was talk that he was very ill. He refused to deal with his illness. His brother, Dr Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, had earned fame as a leading Aids advocate. Fela is pictured shaking and in discomfort during a ritual of some sort. 

Daughter, Yeni Kuti, recalls private moments with her father. Early American lover and Black Panther activist, Sandra Isidore, who follows Fela back to Nigeria after his 1960s US sojourn talks of love and betrayal and love again. 

In Finding Fela, the man who gave the world Afrobeat and universal messages of black struggle and liberation is not romanticised as a flawless revolutionary demi-god, but portrayed as a flesh and blood human being whose weaknesses were recognised by many around him even as his greatness as a musical innovator and messenger of freedom resonated and created new space for confidence and change in the worlds of politics and music. 

“As far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment. Music has to be for revolution,” a bare-back Fela says on camera. Finding Fela makes the point sensitively and eloquently and is recommended viewing. Now to see if Fela! ever finds its way to this neck of the woods.

‘Fela Kuti tried to figure out who he was’

Finding Fela director Alex Gibney shared his thoughts on making the movie with the LA Times, here’s an excerpt from that interview. 

LA Times: The movie takes an unconventional approach to Fela’s life by using the musical as an entry point. How did it take shape?
Alex Gibney: It was organic. The film started out as a straight-ahead, cinéma-vérité film about the musical and taking the act to Nigeria—Americans performing a play in front of Nigerians. But along the way, the real Fela interposed himself and demanded to be heard. I realised my journey was the same Bill T Jones had been on—it seemed an interesting way of framing the life of somebody who died some time ago, and we’re rediscovering him now and what made him tick. As we wrestled with the material and structure, it also seemed to have relevance to Fela’s own life—he went on his own search trying to figure out who he was, and maybe he got lost along the way. 

LA: Where did the idea for the documentary come from? 
Gibney: I had seen (“Fela!”) on Broadway and loved it. I got a call from (producer) Stephen Hendel about doing this—following the cast back to Lagos. That doesn’t become clear until the end of the movie. There were a couple of performances that we shot with the Broadway cast and crew, but the original idea for the documentary was Stephen’s. 

LA: Can you describe what the reaction in Lagos was like to the musical? 
Gibney: It was suddenly like he was alive again. I think the cast and crew were properly terrified by the reaction. They’re Americans—would they be accused of inauthenticity? There was some initial skepticism—it was a vibe in early press conferences. But they were quickly overcome by a spirit of generosity and humility.

LA: How long did it take to make the documentary?
Gibney: Over two years, and that doesn’t even count footage that wasn’t shot by me of the off-Broadway workshopping. (LA Times)


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