I’m under the impression that I’ve seen one of the greatest music documentaries ever, but one which is so great mainly because it goes beyond music. It fits the music into a broader context; the focus here is not only the musical start, but how he acts in the “public arena”, inside “the agora”, the Nigerian stage in which the music plays its social role.
In Fela Kuti’s case, it seems that we see in action an ideal of music as both a celebration and a protest, both a party and a riot. Fela Kuti’s songs are no downers; they’re supposed to uplift us into a joyous mood. He invites us, seduces us, into a luxurious world of colourful melodies and syncopated rhythms. There’s no asceticism here, only the spontaneous flow outwards of a will to joy. If we let it act, it’s epidemic: this music infects with joy and invites to dance with its powerful uninterrupted groove.
This man’s groovy hymns to joy, however, were somewhat mixed with an element of rebellion, of outrage. I suppose it’s hard to live in Nigeria and not be enraged, for instance, by being policed by highly violent and authoritarian soldiers, acting all for the sake of the wealthy oil men of the economical elite! Lagos is a megalopolis with some many problems – from malnutrition to several deficits in public health facilities – that it’s one of the cities analysed by Mike Davis’s important book Planet of Slums.
Fela Kuti, when he rages, I believe we can discover in him some anarchist traits, as well as a bit of a Christian Messiah Complex… He rages against authority, the State, like a shouting anarchist, but then he delights himself with his own power over his audience, enjoys being regarded as some kind of Black Messiah, celebrates through music a society in microcosm – happening himside his “Afrikan Shrine!” – in which is ideal is made flesh. The triumphs and tribulations of this bold artist, with outspoken political rebeliousness, is the theme of Alex Gibney’s biographical journey, which intersects with the Broadway spectacle devoted to Fela that the film also documents.
It’s a film about the struggles of existence, the politics of resistance and deviance, the joys and griefs of a human being who dares to go beyond moral prohibitions and aesthetic dogmas, and makes his own way. Like the dare-devil in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Fela Kuti choose the path of danger: a rope-dancer with his saxophone, over the abyss, as the Last Men down on the ground amaze at his courage and get some enthusiasm from this incendiary fountain of warmth and power. Zarathustra could have said to Fela what he adressed to the dare-devil: “Thou has made danger thy calling, therein there is nothing contemptible. Now thou perished by thy calling, therefore I will bury thee with mine own hands.”
It’s also a powerful emotional experience to “witness” as Fela grieves after the death of his mother, killed by the military Dictartorship of his country. It’s clearly a scar in his psyche, it’s the ultimate tragic experience that he lives through, and that could have killed him; it’s astonishing how he not only survives this terrible blow (a mother, thrown from a window to her death, killed by a gang of police because of the rabid persecution endured by Fela). We wonder how he could manage to gather energy to rise up from this grief, and from all his other griefs (at one scene, he shows his back and his butt to the camera for it to witness a whole series of terrible scars, inflicted by policemen, in several beatings Fela was “awarded” by Nigeria’s status quo). He managed to keep on writing music as weapons for social transformation – and existential celebration. Until AIDS brought him down.
One month ago, surrounded by the ancient walls of La Citadelle, in Québec, I was intensely amazed by a concert by Fela’s son, Seun Kuti; both father and son are great saxophonists, who play passionately, and with wildly loosened intensity. Then, Icould get a taste of what must have felt like to be inside the African Shrine during a Kuti cerimonial. The force of the his son’s music is such that it invokes a Dionysian response in the audience; it’s not exactly punk rock (even tough stuff like “I.M.F. (International Motherfuckers)” is punkier than most punk bands ever get to) but it certainly contains as much raw power as Iggy & The Stooges in the 1970s or MC5 some years earlier.
Seun Kuti, Fela’s son, with “I.M.F. = International Mother Fuckers”
Fela Kuti’s music – and his his son’s Seun keeps breathing life into it… – has a power to transcend boundaries and confines. It has already made the “leap forward”: it was from Africa, nowadays is already of the world, the whole wide world. Fela is all around the globe on the world music catalogues. The genesis of his sound, Gibney’s film documents, lies in a mixture between groovy North-American soul and funk (James Brown, Funkadelic, Parliament, Stevie Wonder) and rhythms and grooves born-out of native African soil. There’s something of the “born to be wild” attitude to him, very rock’n’rollish, and yet he was actually playing jazz. African jazz mixed with the popular grooves of the time, and then infused with radical political activism, influenced by Malcolm X, Franz Fanon, The Black Panther Party, and all sorts of revolutionary pamphletarism.
Fela Kuti is portrayed in the film as a cultural icon of massive proportion – similar to Bob Marley or Jimi Hendrix – in the ampleur of innovation and change that he produced on the cultural “scene”. Innovation never comes “out of the blue”, as a “fluke”, a lucky helping hand from fat: Fela Kuti struggled for it and mastered it. Music after Fela is not the same as it was before him. There would be no American bands sounding like the Talking Heads or Vampire Weekend, for instance, if it wasn’t for Fela and Afrobeat. Hip hop movement was certainly inspired by his example, also – and there’s a lot of Fela to be found in the art of grandfathers of rap such as Gil Scott-Heron or The Last Poets.
When he died of AIDS and a public funeral was set for him, more than a million people went to pay their respects and to say the last goodbye to Fela Kuti. His corpse was lying still, behind the glass walls of a transparent coffin. This huge crowd at the man’s funeral is enough proof of how much Nigerians loved him, and how they mourned his loss, the silence that death threw over his voice, his sax, his hips. Fela’s boldness is a rare virtue – most of us don’t dare to act in such a wild, outbursting mode, like a human volcano unafraid of expelling hot lava.
The film doesn’t idealize him totally, only partially; it’s also a critical appraisal, for example, of extravagant behaviour. Gibney’s film question the hyperbole of his sexuality – in a certain point of his life, he marries 27 wifes in the same day, like a rock star in a polygomous nation of his own. Some hardcore machismo is portrayed as Fela deals with her harem of groupies, turned-into-housemaids-and-sex-servants.
His “madness” is also hinted to: especially after his mother’s death, the grief turned Kuti into spiritualism, egyptology, excentric gurus (who might have been charlatans and oportunists…). It’s as if he can’t let go of some faith in the survival of his mother, and that explains the emotional force that lead Fela Kuti to participate in cults in which one of his wifes was supposedly “receiving” the spirit of his deceased mother.
One of the main virtues of Alex Gibbey’s film is that it never looks down at Fela with contempt or with moralistic reproaches: it rather tries to understand the events of his life and how he re-acted to them: even tough two of Fela’s brothers were doctors, he didn’t search for adequate treatment for HIV, denying until the last day the value of Western medicine, and relying instead in African remedies that, he believed, would never let him down. When he started getting skin lesions due to the advancement of the disease, he said he was merely changing skins – like a snake.
It might be said he under-estimated death. Or it can be said that he fought death like Muhammad Ali in a boxing-ring. Fela’s energy to live was astonishing, but his living organism had to finally give up to more powerful forces, who reclaimed him back to the bosom of the Earth. After having witnessing a synthesis of his life and work in 2 awesome hours at the Alex Gibney’s film, I fell Fela Kuti is an earthly plant which, while it existed, burned with intense fire, sang with enthusiastic melody, fought against apathy and conformity with all his strenght, sparking several “reactions” across the globe. Such a man is a power of Nature that can’t be ignored. More and more, this dead man become alivier and alivier to us, as the Afrobeat Dionysus, the Nigerian Saxophoenix, which lives on through his music and deeds.
After this film, more than ever, it seems that F(or) E(ver) L(ives) A(frica) won’t be soon forgotten.
Listen to some of Fela’s albums:
FELA FELA FELA (1960)
OPEN AND CLOSE (1971)
LIVE WITH GINGER BAKER (1971)
HE MISS ROAD (1975)
NO AGREEMENT (1977)