Inside the music of Fela Kuti
Back in 2014, director Alex Gibney undertook the task of bringing the lives of two musical giants to the screen. Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, captured the spirit of one of the 20th centuries most influential musicians, while Finding Fela never really got to grips with what made Fela Kuti so special. Not that there has been any shortage of documentaries about Afrobeat’s biggest pioneer, but it felt like a wasted opportunity to bring Fela’s name to a wider modern audience off the back of Gibney’s name.
My Friend Fela takes a different stance, searching beneath the music in an attempt to understand the man and the socio-political influences that fortified every note he recorded. As we hear Fela say himself “My music is not for entertainment. It’s for revolution.” Cuban director Joel Zito Araujo tries to contextualise that further by journeying back through Fela’s life as seen through the eyes of his old friend, writer Carlos Moore, author of the authorised biography about the musician, This Bitch of a Life.
Just getting into Nigeria seemed problematic enough for Araujo, such is the tension still attached to Fela’s name due to a life spent standing against corrupt governments and their mistreatment of the people. Carlos acts as guide by introducing himself and giving an overview of his own story, speaking about his arrival in America from Cuba at the height of the civil rights movement, and how he became enlightened about his African ancestry through friendships with the likes of Malcolm X and Maya Angelou.
A second ‘chapter’ connects the dots to Fela, revealing how he spoke English from an early age and spent much of his formative educational years in England. It wasn’t until he arrived in Los Angeles and met Sandra Izsadore in the early 70s that his ideas were revolutionised and the Fela known by the world today was born. Before that he rejected ideas of Pan-Africanism and Izsadore remembers up until this point he was singing songs about soup, amongst other things. Moore also speaks to former band members, cover art designers and one of his sons, Seun Kuti, who recalls his childhood memories growing up in the Kalakuta Republic compound, a large communal house where musicians and Fela’s ever growing family lived together.
Also included in the interviews is Najite Mukoro, one of Fela’s 27 wives who lived in Kalakuta along with the other women. Occasional flashbacks to old audio and video footage of Fela hears him explain that polygamy in Africa was the norm and not understood by the west. Moore is also at pains to stress this point, explaining that the women were all there under their own volition. While that is no doubt true, it’s an uncomfortable portion of the documentary that avoids any direct criticism of the man in this respect. This stands in conflict with the feminist status afforded to Fela’s mother – Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti – and we never learn of how she saw her son’s domestic setup.
Depending on which way you look at it, Araujo is either being smart or too safe by leaving it up to the audience to decide. He deserves credit for devoting a decent amount of time to the subject, giving voice to two sides of the experience from women who dearly loved the man, but had different perceptions of the marital arrangements. The final act raises more direct criticism by focussing on the man Fela became after his mother was murdered during a police raid on his compound (seen as response to his political activities). It suggests he took on the role of dictator within his own compound (or as Moore says, the ‘Oba of the Yorubas’) where close friends who dared to disagree with him were set upon by hired security.
By choosing to place these doubts over its subject, My Friend Fela largely manages to avoid the usual bland platitudes that typically dominate music documentaries. If anything, the film is deserving of a longer runtime to emphasise his continued run-ins with the police, the savage beatings he faced as a result and the wider implications of his death from AIDS in 1997. As is so often the case with biographies, a film of any length probably isn’t enough and only an extended TV series could offer the in-depth analysis fans would hope for.
Whether aware of Fela’s music or not, anyone fascinated by complex figures of the past 50 years should be drawn to this documentary. His political focus gave a global voice to the long-standing effects of the colonisation of Africa that are still finding relevance with listeners today. It’s debatable whether Araujo’s film digs deep enough into those concerns and instead lets itself become side-tracked in other areas of his life, but he manages to draw a strong profile of the man and his legacy.
My Friend Fela plays at the London Film Festival.
You can read more of our LFF coverage here.
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