Fela Becomes FELA!


felaI’m not one to keep up with the brights lights of Broadway, so I was surprised to learn on Monday’s Colbert Report that Bill T. Jones and the astonishing band Antibalas have launched a Broadway production based on the life of Fela Kuti.  If you’re unfamiliar with him, Fela was a Nigerian musician and political activist who invented the musical genre Afrobeat, a fusion of American jazz, rock, and, more than anything else, funk with the jazzy Western African music called highlife.

The structure of Fela’s music was almost always the same: long, long, long grooves built on snaky guitar lines over the tightest rhythm section known to man (his drummer Tony Allen is a mindblowingly great talent) with a horn section sometimes laying down the melody and sometimes hitting the Memphis-style R&B punctuation.  Fela played the organ or the sax, and the first six or so minutes of a given song was often taken with a Fela solo.  Then he’d start singing in pidgin English, which he chose to spread his message to as many listeners as possible.  The songs would build in intensity with a call-and-response between Fela and his back-up singers.  I haven’t even mentioned Fela’s dancers, who would shake and writhe as if possessed, sometimes for the whole length of the song.  And these songs could stretch to 45 minutes or more.

Fela made his most powerful music throughout the 70s, and he was not alone in breaking the boundaries between jazz and funk and everything else that struck him as important.  Miles Davis was making similar music at the same time, as were James Brown, Funkadelic, and, on the other end of the funk-art axis, Can.  But Fela, unlike these other musicians, lived in a country suffering under a corrupt military dictatorship, and Fela was uniquely situated to live his art.  For instance, the song covered on the Colbert Report last night, “Zombie,” was a 1978 diatribe against the Nigerian military that led to horrible retribution.  The military burned Fela’s compound, which was known as the Kalakuta Republic, and savagely beat Fela and his family, even throwing his elderly mother from a second story window.  She lived, but her injuries persisted and led to the complications that killed her not long after.  One of the most powerful moments in the documentary Fela: Music Is The Weapon comes when Fela, uncharacteristically quiet and morose, describes seeing his mother thrown from the window and knowing that his actions had led to this.

This didn’t stop Fela from speaking out against the dictatorship.  Two years later, Fela attempted to run for the Presidency of Nigeria, although the government eventually rejected his candidacy.  He continued to name names in his music, talking about how the military and Nigerian oil interests were robbing the people blind and accusing Western leaders of allowing apartheid to continue unabated in South Africa.  But for all of the good he did, no one would mistake Fela for a feminist.  He bragged about his sexual prowess in the documentary, married 27 women in a mass ceremony in 1978, and later rotated 12 wives at a time before divorcing all of them in 1985.  This aspect of his life might go unmentioned in the Broadway musical.

But that’s neither here nor there.  The American Civil Rights Movement was filled with men with similar dim views on gender relations, but that didn’t stop them from changing this country.  Western musicians loved to pepper interviews in the late 60s and early 70s with vague ideas about how rock and jazz could lead to revolution.  At this point I think it’s safe to say that music will not change our politics.  Not here, at least.  But Fela’s music changed the politics of Nigeria.  Unfortunately, the man died in 1997 from complications related to AIDS, a mere two years before a democratically elected government returned to power.

Expect all of Fela’s many, many albums to be reissued in the next year.  My favorites are Gentleman (1973), Confusion (1975), Expensive Shit (1975), and Zombie (1976).  But every album has great music on it.  If you have the opportunity, be sure to check out the music of his sons Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti.  And anything by Antibalas, also known as the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra.  Anyway, here’s the clip of the cast of FELA! (with Antibalas as the band) singing “Zombie” on the Colbert Report.  Afterwards, there’s two clips of Fela performing at an unidentified time (definitely the 1970s, though, because his Farfisa identifies the bands as “The Africa 70”), each runnin gabout a half-hour, to give you a sense of the expansive joy of his music.  Note that Fela doesn’t start singing in the first one until after the 16:00 mark.  If you like it, click on the second part for the next half-hour of music.  If anything, it’s even better than the first.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Fela! – Zombie
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Author: Hayden Childs

Hayden Childs is the author of Shoot Out The Lights, a book about Richard and Linda Thompson's album of the same name, which is part of the 33 1/3 series. His writing has appeared in the Oxford American magazine and the Austin American-Statesman, and online at The Screengrab, which was Nerve.com's movie blog, and on The High Hat, which, coincidentally, he owns and co-edits. He lives in Austin, TX, where his hobbies include procreating, sweltering in the heat, and dreaming up elaborate fantasies of revenge against those what done him wrong.

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