F-E-L-A: For Ever Lives Africa

Released last month, this two-CD special has an intriguing title: Finding Fela. The title is questionable, for whether Fela Anikalapo Kuti has ever been lost is surely debatable. Review by Stephen Williams.

For Fela’s music and message, his whole legacy in fact, has lived on since his death in 1997 – admittedly reinvigorated by the hit musical Fela! that hit Broadway in New York, the US and has since travelled the world to great acclaim.

It was perhaps inevitable that the whole Fela! concept should make the move from stage to screen – and this is the result. Directed by the Academy Award-winning film-maker Alex Gibney, whose previous work such as Taxi to the Dark Side, The Smartest Guys in the Room, Mea Maxima Culpa and The Armstrong Lie, mark him out as one of the world’s leading documentary creators, it is a feature-length film that celebrates the Nigerian musician, band leader and songwriter’s life and legacy.

Gibney bought to Lagos an 80-strong group of cast and musicians to join a local film crew to shoot more than 1,200 hours of film, and then cut a near two-hour biopic, using the opening of the Kuti family’s New Afrika Shrine and the Eko Exhibition Hall where the full production of the musical was staged and filmed. The result is a tour de force that works on a number of levels. Not only do we have the musical – powerful, inspiring and utterly danceable – but original interviews with Fela himself, as well as some of his friends and fellow musicians.

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It has always been a fascinating aspect of Fela’s life that it took a trip to the US for him to be politically awakened, and for that we must thank Sandra Izsadore who introduced him to America’s Black Power Movement. A ready convert to what might also be called Black Consciousness, the radicalised Fela took his politics back to Africa and Nigeria and devoted his life and work to speaking truth to power throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

With the definitive documentary that is Finding Fela being screened in cinemas from this month, and hopefully to be broadcast at some point across Africa and the world, the actual soundtrack is a powerful adjunct to the project. The double album includes 15 of Fela’s classic tracks that span the decades when Fela’s output was at its highest. Also included is the Fela! band from the musical which delivers a version of ‘Colonial Mentality’ recorded live at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, with Femi Kuti (Fela’s son) on saxophone.

Fela’s legacy is lovingly underpinned with both the documentary and this, the official soundtrack album, and together with the film this will undoubtedly serve to introduce another generation to the genius and courage that was Fela’s creative spirit. The music is as fresh, powerful and accessible as it ever was – age has not dimmed it – and, it might be said, the message is as appropriate today as the time when it was first recorded.

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It should not be forgotten that Fela’s life was never easy – he suffered for his work, and in particular his radical political stance that saw him come up against a particularly brutal military machine. His Lagos home and club were he performed, which he called The Shrine, was also home to his band and close family members – including his mother who lost her life after being thrown out of a window by soldiers during a military raid.

Fela’s manager and friend, Rikki Stein, who still looks after Fela’s family’s business affairs must have approved the editing of eight of the double-CDs’ 15 tracks – Fela was well known for recording lengthy tracks – and this has been done with both sensitivity and great care. That means that the recordings serve as a brilliant compilation of Fela’s extraordinary output, and if you were to choose just one collection of the man’s music, this one is probably the one to go for.