For almost two decades now the name Fela has been bubbling at the heights of the underground ready to burst onto popular culture. Fela Kuti, aka Fela Anikulapo Kuti, aka Fela Ransome-Kuti, aka just plain Fela is, arguably, the greatest musician Africa has ever produced. Yet, he's virtually unknown in the west. A 2009 Tony-nominated musical produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith, a re-release of 45 of his albums by the biggest music company in the world and various biographies have barely cracked the ceiling to the mainstream. But what's more fascinating than his music is his life story, which (to borrow a quote from the excellent new documentary, Finding Fela, directed by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) is "completely insane and at the same time very inspirational."
Born in Nigeria to an upper-middle class family that included a feminist mother involved in the anti-colonial movement, a Reverend father who became the first president of the country's teacher's union and a first cousin, Wole Soyinka, who became the first African to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, Fela Kuti would grow up to become what could be best described as a combination musical genius and political madman, a sort of hyper fusion of James Brown and Malcolm X.
Initially inspired in the late '50s by a combination of Nigeria's "Highlife" music and the jazz that he would listen to at night clubs while studying classical music at London's Trinity College of Music, Fela's early songs lacked the political bite that would eventually become his trademark. It wasn't until a trip to - wouldn't you know - the U.S. in 1969 that he became acquainted with the Black Power movement and, as his one-time girlfriend, Black Panther member Sandra Smith, hilariously reveals, he stopped singing about the soup he just had and started getting serious.
Not that he wasn't serious about music-making otherwise. The biggest criticism from western ears - mostly those attached to music executives - is that his songs are too long, thereby making Fela anything but radio friendly. Fair enough. But the Afrobeat he would eventually invent is at times so sophisticated and complex (while being catchy and danceable) that - much like classical music - the structure of one fourteen-minute song with its gestating progression, peaks and valleys, is at times much more rewarding than the dozen two-minute ditties that can normally fill up an album. Plus, the length allowed him to not just write songs, but to expound political manifestos through his lyrics. Sometimes an extension of his Yabi Sessions - a sort of town hall meeting held at his night club on Friday nights where everything from politics to sex was discussed with his audience - his songs became Molotov cocktails aimed at the oppressive Nigerian government.
And the Nigerian government fired back. Literally.
Finding Fela does a fine job of documenting Fela's trajectory from ordinary citizen to artist to revolutionary while revealing the eccentric, complex, contradictory and oftentimes alienating and maddening man underneath. How does a man who fights for human rights justify having twenty-seven wives who seem little more than concubines? As one of his biographers states (and I'm paraphrasing here), in his acquisition of wives, Fela isn't exactly going through the legal and culturally traditional channels that need to be respected in polygyny society. He's picking the women off the street.
If there's a (small) bone to pick with Finding Fela it's with the time spent on the above-mentioned 2009 Broadway show, Fela! The scenes of the show itself add little more to the doc than what they are: highly stylized, fictional interpretations of Fela's life. Having said that, the show's Tony Award-winning director, Bill T. Jones, does offer some invaluable insight into his subject. His explorations with the show's crew on how to depict what they find to be the complexity that is Fela serve as an incidental framework with which we can try to understand Fela despite our contemporary, politically correct eyes.
But if anything...trust your ears...
Finding Fela! plays at The Nuart until Thursday, August 21.