Fragmented Frequencies March 2015

Finding Fela: Music is the Weapon (Madman) is a 2014 documentary by Alex Gibney (Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson). You’d think that an extensive telling of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, the legendary pioneer of Afrobeat, an incredible fusion between funk and traditional African music, is long overdue. After all between his radicalisation via the black panthers, beatings from the military, marriage to his 21 backup singers, time in jail for illegally taking currency overseas, declaration of his compound as a separate state and incendiary concerts, there’s a wealth of material.

The problem is that Gibney bases his film around the making of Fela the musical, a 2011 Broadway production, which is pretty much Fela karaoke despite the presence of New York’s Antibalas as the house band. There’s so much footage of their backstage angst about how to capture his spirit, that you can only assume that the financing came directly from this production and they were obligated to use a percentage of footage. Gibney uses this as a spine to explore the developments of Fela’s life, integrating archival material, and interviews with former managers, band members including Tony Allen, and Fela’s children – which is all quite fascinating. It’s those first person accounts, such as both managers saying that their lasting memory of Fela is watching him comb his hair, that bring the man to life. His children’s accounts are also telling. If you can stomach the stage show it’s a fascinating account of one of the truly iconic and inspiring musicians of our time.

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Fragmented Frequencies Feb 2015

In 1969 UK composer Gavin Bryars was teaching at an art college in Portsmouth. Whilst Bryars had already composed the Sinking of the Titanic, his most famous piece, featuring the voice of an unknown tramp, Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet was still two years away. Teaching weekly classes, at first they did a few John Cage pieces before one of the students hit upon the idea of a classical orchestra, and the Portsmouth Sinfonia was born.

What makes the Sinfonia so interesting is that no one knew how to play their instruments, and to be fair the result sounded somewhat akin to an orchestra falling off a cliff. But much funnier. Even musicians who joined, like Brian Eno, played instruments they were unfamiliar with and though they played earnestly, the results were dire. They performed only popular songs, like the William Tell Overture because it was the theme song to the Lone Ranger and Blue Danube because it was in Kubrick’s 2001. They made a classical album before moving onto rock and demolishing tunes like A Day In The Life and Leader of the Pack.

“There was this album of something like the London Symphony Orchestra playing Switched on Rock classics and we thought this was the worst orchestra in the world and there couldn’t be a worse one than us so we had to make our own album,” Bryars told me recently. Whilst Bryars is a guest of the Adelaide Festival next month, keep an eye out for the Portsmouth Sinfonia. There’s nothing else like it.