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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