Living as I do in New York City, I’m frequently quizzed by relatives and out-of-town guests about “what shows to see”. While I do enjoy plays, there are few things I’d rather do less than shell out $150 to see a modern tourist-friendly Broadway musical. To spare myself humiliation, I lie and tell people to go see Wicked. (I’ve never seen Wicked.)
So it was against all my defensive grumblings when I went to see the Jay Z and Will Smith co-produced Fela! On Broadway musical a few years back. My only regret is that I only saw the show once.
Documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer) uses this recent production as a framing device to tell the story of Fela Ransome Kuti, the pioneering forefather of Afrobeat, who died in 1997 at the age of 58. While not exactly a stylish film (one can catch this very straightforward doc on VOD or home video without fear of missing anything) Finding Fela is certainly thorough. Without underselling his musical achievements, Kuti’s life as a political dissident in Nigeria is a fascinating microcosm of post-colonialism. But political movements always go down smoother when they have a danceable beat.
Kuti was born to an influential family. His father was a school headmaster and Protestant minister. His mother was a trailblazer for women’s rights in Africa. His older brother attended medical school in the UK, but Fela and studying never quite connected. He was drawn to music and basically created his own genre when he took elements from local dance music (known as Highlife) and mixed it with jazz (Kuti could wail on the sax) and the tightly disciplined soul of James Brown.
He discovered this third element during a 1969 trip to Los Angeles, in which he also encountered the Black Power movement. He then returned to Nigeria, formed his legendary band Africa ‘70, and produced an enormous amount of material, including many deep groove jams that lasted entire album sides. He built his own club (the Shrine), where he’d perform his lengthy, high energy sets, complete with dancing girls and political raps.
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