World Music
11:00 am
Tue August 21, 2012

Fela Kuti, On Film and In Concert

Fela Kuti is considered the founder of the musical style known as Afropop, which employs a very large band with a jazzy horn section and African rhythms. Kuti is not only a composer, but multi-instrumentalist, human rights advocate and political agitator. 

The Fela Kuti Double Feature Documentary and Concert DVD is hypnotic watching, beginning with the chain smoking Fela introducing himself. 

The BBC-produced film “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” intersperses interviews, musical performances and riveting historical film footage. A very young, Queen Elizabeth is seen on a state visit to Nigeria. There are also many scenes from the first years of Nigeria’s independence and a state visit by President Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana. 

In between, Fela talks about his style, with frequent concert outtakes and commentary about the racial problems that he encountered in London, England and in the United States. Furthermore, Fela and his band had to leave the U.S. due to visa issues in the 1960s. 

Back in Nigeria, his musical messages became increasingly more political and hostile towards the government. When oil was discovered is Nigeria, with no benefit towards the hoi polloi, his lyrics made very clear the corruption that was evident in the country. There’s some very interesting color footage of Lagos at this particular time, showing the contrast between the affluent and the impoverished masses. 

The Nigerian Government was incensed by Fela’s inflammatory lyrics and disdain for their corruption. He was frequently targeted by them, including one particularly violent episode when his mother was thrown out of a second story window, to her death. His house and all his instruments and master tapes were burnt. He responded by composing two songs, “Coffin for the Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier.” The government denied any involvement and said the perpetrators were unknown. 

Fela’s songs were sung in pidgin English, a language which reached many more people in Africa than the multiple ethnic languages spoken on the continent. Apart from his open and direct criticism, Fela also behaved flamboyantly, at one point, he married all the female members of his band, twenty seven in all, justifying the act by comparing the situation as being akin to a harem. The documentary ends with one of his two brothers, both physicians, talking about Fela’s fragile health after another imprisonment. 

The second disc of this set includes a concert from Berlin 1978. The mainly white audience is obviously entranced by the seductive Fela. Many can be seen singing through out the program. The ‘wives’ are also part of the show; they display some rather interesting dance moves, not to mention elaborate make-up. 

This was a DVD I watched twice, and liked just as much the second time around. 

Fela Kuti died August 3rd 1997 from Kaposi’s Sarcoma as a result of AIDS. His funeral drew crowds of over a million people.