He was a lover, a fighter, a political activist, a polygamist, a thorn in the Nigerian government’s side, a bestselling recording artist, the basis for a hit Broadway show, a band leader, and most importantly, an African. Alex Gibney’s Finding Fela takes an in-depth look at the life and times of Fela Kuti, the legendary Afrobeat singer-songwriter who became a musical ambassador for his country and his continent.
Interspersing archival live footage of Kuti and his Africa 70 band with vintage interview clips, talking-head testimonials and a behind-the-scenes look at director/choreographer Bill T. Jones putting together Fela!, the 2009 Broadway musical that revived interest in the late Kuti and his music, the documentary presents a portrait of an artist as a fully committed, if flawed, man of the people. Both newcomers to Fela’s story and longtime fans will walk away with a handful of insights and unearthed info about the icon; here are five facts from Finding Fela that are worth singling out.
1. Fela’s world-beat music took inspiration from gospel music and Western jazz.
It’s not unusual to think that the father of Afrobeat developed his sound and artistic sensibility solely from Africa’s rich musical heritage, but as the documentary emphasizes, there were some important Western influences that helped shape Fela’s work. One was gospel music, which his biographer Michael Veal (author of the invaluable Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon) points out would have been introduced to Kuti at a young age; because Fela came from a well-to-do upper-middle-class family, they would have naturally been “Christianized” and thus familiar with the form.
If gospel heped to provide the “uplifting” sound of Afrobeat per Veal, it would be secular jazz music that would provide an even more significant influence. Having taken piano lessons since he was nine years old, the teenage Fela decided to study classical music at Trinity College of Music in London, after following his brother to Europe. It was in the city’s after-hours jazz clubs, however, that Fela discovered trumpet players such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, and ended up taking up the instrument in order to replicate the twists and turns of bop. He started playing jazz when he returned to Nigeria, and was leading a “cool” jazz band when he met drummer Tony Allen, who’d help Fela develop what would become the signature Afrobeat sound.
2. He became politically awakened not in Africa, but in Southern California.
Having traveled to Los Angeles in 1969 to perform and record an album, Fela began to fall in love with both the growing Black Power movement happening on the West Coast and the various nubile young Afro-American women he met during his extended residency. One object of his affection — author/musician/activist Sandra Izsadore (also known as Sandra Smith and Sandra Isidore) — would help awaken Kuti’s political consciousness to a staggering degree. In the film, Izsadore attests to “shaming” Fela into finding out more about his native land’s history of empowerment and turning him on to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the writings of Marcus Garvey and other key books. By the time Fela returned to Africa, he was ready to add a rise-up sense of urgency to his songwriting and pass on his knowledge to his audience.
3. Musicians such as Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown’s band were huge fans.
After returning from America, Fela proceeded to set up a number of bases of operations from which to compose his music and bring it to the people — including the Afrika Shrine, a club set up in a hotel that gave him a regular performance space and a pulpit. Visiting musicians would stop by, ranging from Stevie Wonder to various backing musicians from James Brown’s band (a nice cross-cultural exchange, given that Fela idolized the Godfather of Soul and borrowed a lot from the singer’s Afrocentric-funk playbook). But the most surprising testimony comes from Sir Paul McCartney, who caught a set at the Shrine and was floored. “We were the only white people there,” McCartney recalls on camera, “and it was very intense. When this music broke, I ended up just weeping. It was one of the most amazing musical moments of my life.”
4. Fela married 27 women out of a sense of “tradition.”
In the West, Fela is still largely known for two things: the influence of his Afrobeat music on artists such as Paul Simon and Vampire Weekend; and the fact that he married 27 women (!) in 1978 despite the fact he already had a wife. Not 27 women during the course of a year, but over the course of one day. The event made headlines and raised eyebrows all over the world, and the documentary features Fela explaining the decision in his own words: “I wanted it to be meaningful…to have a meaningful life. Tradition expects me to marry 27 women.” It’s a notion that Veal thinks is a bit suspect: “Polygamy exists in the traditional context with a very strict set of controls…it’s not like what Fela was doing, like you sing this funky music, and the young girls on the street love it and they flock to you, and you incorporate them into your household. That was a totally different thing.” One of Fela’s wives describes seeing another spouse on the bed with Fela, and when this other wife got up to leave, a third wife quickly jumped in and took her place.
5. Questlove “fears” the Afrobeat revival band Antibalas.
One of several celebrity talking heads that show up to testify to Fela’s greatness, Roots drummer/Tonight Show band leader/one of the coolest guys ever Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson recounts a story in which, having just relocated to New York from Philly, his website’s manager tells him he’s got to see this new Fela musical on Broadway. “I was turned off,” Thompson recalls, “and then she said the magic words: ‘And Antibalas [is] the band!'” The 10-piece Brooklyn-based collective have been the key players behind a burgeoning Afrobeat-revival movement; having modeled themselves after Africa 70, they were the ideal band to bring Fela’s complex, polyrhythmic sound to the stage show. “They are one of the few American bands that I fear,” Thompson admits, a surprising thing to hear from a guy who’s held his own with any number of top-notch musicians. Listen to the band perform a short set below, however, you’ll start to understand why the Roots drummer bows down before them.