Saturday, August 02, 2014

Fela On Film

"But I say I didn't die, because my name is Anikulapo. I have death in my pouch. I can't die." - Fela Anikulapo Kuti

There was a minor Facebook kerfuffle among my circle a few years ago when an old college friend reported that he had seen Fela! on Broadway and the dancing was "better" than when he had seen Fela in concert back in the 80's. This confounded many of us. By what metric could you compare the professionally trained dancers performing top-flight choreography by Bill T. Jones to the moves of the women, many his wives, who danced on stage with the real Fela?

This conundrum is at the heart of the divide between music as it arose in Africa, where it was a part of daily life, and as it came to be established in Europe, where it develped into a profession with a rigid structure of training and performance. Although it is only glancingly addressed, the conundrum is also at the center of Finding Fela, a new movie about the Nigerian musical legend directed by Alex Gibney.

The film begins with Fela on stage in Berlin in 1978, so magnetic you can't look away, proclaiming "I want you to look at me as something new, that you don't have any knowledge about. Because most - 99.9% - of the information you get about Africa is wrong." After a tantalizing snippet of performance, we get a brief introduction to the shambles (and shame) of post-colonial Nigeria, the violent context from which Fela emerged.

Then we cut to the team that created Fela!, working on the show two years before it debuted. This kind of access is to be expected from Gibney, known for politically charged documentaries like Taxi To The Dark Side and We Steal Secrets. From there the movie proceeds to go back and forth between Fela himself, detailing his life and career, and Fela! the show, with both backstage footage and long clips of a performance.

Much of what we see on both sides of the story is fascinating. Few musicians in history have lived a life like Fela's, and there is no doubt that Jones and his talented crew were utterly sincere in their quest to bring that life and his music to the Broadway masses. However, that didn't prevent a nagging discomfort I had throughout the film, the feeling of being sold to, as if there was something vaguely promotional about the enterprise. As a reel for investors in Fela!, it's hard to imagine something better than Finding Fela - not that it needed any help, as the show was boosted to Broadway by the deep pockets of Jay-Z and Will Smith.

To be fair, that nagging sensation was easily put to the side as I became absorbed in the archival footage, some of it from Music Is The Weapon, a 30 year old documentary based around Fela's bid to become President of Nigeria. We see him in Kalakuta, the compound in which he effectively seceded from Nigeria, educating and employing dead-end young men, and performing at The Shrine, his club. We learn about his middle-class Christian upbringing, and his school days in London, where he got bitten by the jazz bug. By all accounts he was a mediocre trumpeter and a terrible student - "He was a dunce," says his son Femi.

When he returned home, he connected with genius drummer Tony Allen, forming a jazz band that was going nowhere fast. For many years, the dominant music in Nigeria was High Life, a Ghanian import and mainly lighthearted sounds for dancing. As it began to fade, there was active competition among musicians to create a successor. Fela hit on a combination of American funk, mainly via James Brown, and Afro-Cuban rhythms along with the dying strands of High Life, to create Afrobeat, which took off like a rocket.
It quickly becomes clear that Fela's main talent was as an architect, synthesizer and collaborator. In fact, there was no one thing that he was best at. His voice had a limited range and sometimes wavered around the key. While his tone on the sax was distinctive, his intonation was questionable and his solos often revolved around a few stock phrases. On the organ, he could deploy odd chords and harmonies that never quite settle into the songs. While he was always in the groove, unlike his hero James Brown he was not a great dancer. His mastery was in how he brought everything together, orchestrating the intricate rhythms, conducting the horns, driving on the band with his unstoppable energy and natural charisma.

Gibney seems to almost parcel out that charisma, as if to avoid giving too much competition to Saha Ngaujah, who created the role of Fela for the stage. While Ngaujah is undoubtedly terrific, it's hard not to see the artifice when confronted with the real thing. The music is also somewhat parceled out, by necessity as the average Fela song is about 20 minutes long. However, as the ubiquitous Questlove points out, "The more it repeats, the more it affects you," so the question remains what first-timers will ultimately take away from the film. Hopefully, they will investigate further - and with a classic like I.T.T. or Sorrow Tears & Blood, instead of the movie soundtrack, which is a good listen but mostly contains edited versions of his songs.

As successful as his early Afrobeat singles were, Fela didn't really hit his peak until he defined himself in opposition to the powers that be following a drug raid on Kalakuta. His first confrontational song (and probably the first in Nigeria) was Alagbon Close, which detailed then harsh conditions in the prison of the same name. From then on, he became more and more outspoken against the corrupt government and military. They didn't take it lying down, responding with a brutal attack on Kalakuta, during which the police burned the place down and savagely threw Fela's mother from a second story window, causing the injuries which claimed her life a year later.

Tony Allen is asked if Fela changed after this devastating experience: "No. He became triple or double of whatever he could be before, you know? No, this time, now he's really...mad." Mad as in angry and also a little crazy. Less than a year after the attack, he married 27 women in one ceremony, claiming the desire to live "a meaningful life" in line with Yoruban tradition. Michael Veal, author of Fela: The Life and Times of an African Icon and one of the well-used talking heads in the film, explains that Fela's approach to polygamy was far from traditional. While some of the mechanics (mostly scheduling) of the domestic arrangements are discussed, the film glides by the discontinuity between Fela's attitude toward women and his message of freedom and sovereignty.

Complex, contradictory, confounding - Fela was all of these things and more. But the music rarely faltered. When nearly every member of his crack band Africa 70 quit over financial issues, he had Egypt 80 up and running in no time. From his first official album, Open & Close, in 1970, until the last in 1992 he released nearly 45 albums, many of them excellent. Thanks to a couple of comprehensive reissue programs, they're all available (I have nine on my iPod now, including the great posthumous release, Live In Detroit 1986) on CD and LP, not to mention Spotify and Bandcamp, so there is no reason Fela shouldn't be an essential part of your musical life, as he is for me.

Since I am already a fan, it's quite possible that I'm not the precise audience for Finding Fela, although it always rewarded my attention and certainly deepened my understanding of the context of his music. As Bill T. Jones states near the beginning of the movie, his impetus in creating Fela! was to stem the growing tide of ignorance about Fela's life and music in the years following his death from AIDS in 1997. While that's an honorable impulse, and the musical served to inject some Afrobeat back in the culture, there's also the matter of what you give up about an artist as powerful and individual as Fela when you advocate for them via a different medium.

The structure of Gibney's movie had me hoping he was going to address that issue, and the contrasts between art and artifice that I brought up above. He comes very close during the end credits, when we see a performance of Colonial Mentality by the Broadway cast, featuring a very special guest: Femi Kuti on saxophone. He's more of a virtuoso on that instrument than his father was and he blows the roof off, in a stunning solo that totally collapses the difference between the imitation of a performance and performance itself.

So in the the end Finding Fela may not be as incisive as I hoped, but see it. And don't stop there - keep going until you find the real Fela.

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