Film My Friend Fela brings complexity to Nigerian musician
Note from BW of Brazil: When I first became aware of Nigerian Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti in 1998, he had already died. But after reading an article about the musician/political activist who had over 20 wives and ended up dying from complications of AIDS, the little I discovered fascinated me. And as with other topics that I take a liking to, I had to know more about this man who had been described as the “Nigerian James Brown“. So, I started off by buying some of his music and after hearing songs such as “Gentleman”, “Fefe Naa Efe” and “Confusion”, I was completely hooked. As I had grown up on the extended funk jams of James Brown and his extended musical family, the P-Funk mob, Kool and the Gang, Ohio Players, etc., it was a given that I would eventually consume almost all of Fela’s catalog.
It seems that it wasn’t just me was getting into Fela and right around the same time, the late ’90s. In the Hip Hop world, Fela’s work started popping up in songs of artists such as Mos Def, Common, Nas and others. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of Fela before, but then, I didn’t start really getting into World Music until about the late ’90s. As it turns out, I had at least seen the name Fela years before, I just didn’t know it. In a memorable scene from Spike Lee’s 1987 film School Daze, one of the extras wore a t-shirt with the name “Fela” on the front of it.
And as I didn’t discover Fela until a year or so after he died in 1997, it shouldn’t have been surprising that Brazilians hadn’t heard of him when I started visiting the country in the year 2000. But that would start changing some time between 2005-2010 as I started noticing “Fela-brations” popping up in various states around Brazil with dances and parties dedicated to Fela’s music. I remember watching a Fela documentary in a São Paulo movie theater, probably in 2012 or 2013, and being a little surprised when I the lights came on and seeing about a 98% white audience. What did that mean? In Fela’s arrival to Brazil, would his image and music catch on with a white audience in the same way in which it happened to Bob Marley?
It was also somewhere in this period when São Paulo’s Museu Afro Brasil featured an exhibit on Fela’s thought-provoking album cover art. Yes, Black Brazil had discovered the Afrobeat legend and that was cool, after all, Brazil was the recipient of between 4-5 millions Africans used for slave labor and the Yoruba had left a lasting impression on the state of Bahia.
I haven’t seen this new film by director Joel Zito Araújo so I can’t really offer a review here, so instead I will present two different views on the film, one that sees a few problems with it and another that offers praise. If I get a chance to watch the film, I will most def be back to offer my own analysis, but for now, check out what Matheus Mans and Carlos Alberto Mattos had to say about the film.
It’s All True 2019: My Friend Fela brings complexity to Nigerian musician
By Matheus Mans
Biographical documentaries always have a serious format problem. It’s very easy to fall back on the obvious, the banal. In 2018, some films managed to escape this fate, like the poetic documentary about Torquato Neto and the interesting A Vida Extra-ordinária de Tarso de Castro (The Extraordinary Life of Tarso de Castro). In the 2019 É Tudo Verdade (It’s All True) contest, another movie manages to break the formula of interviews, archive footage and emotional testimonials. It’s Meu Amigo Fela (My Friend Fela), a feature film about the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.
Directed by the Brazilian Joel Zito Araújo (director of the film Raça), the feature film focuses on the life of the Nigerian who, in addition to making good music, became a symbol of the country’s resistance against the military dictatorship. However, instead of following conventions and re-telling Fela’s life, the filmmaker chose to pick up the musician’s biographer, Carlos Moore, to go out there and understand the various facets of the singer and composer. Something similar to what Cristiano Burlan did in Mataram Meu Irmão. No history. Just facts, from the particular perspective of each of the interviewees. It’s almost a kaleidoscope of opinions.
From this, and some preambles made by the script, Meu Amigo Fela is going over the contradictions, complexes and stories that surrounded the Nigerian. There is no definite chronology, or anything of the sort. These are stories that pile up, such as polygamy practiced by him or the escalation of violence at the end of his life, which brings an interesting complexity to the character. They are layers of stories that go together to form something bigger, more powerful and much more differentiated.
However, there are a few points to emphasize. In the eagerness to bring several points of view and several stories, the documentary ends up getting a little more rushed than it should have been. A lot of important, little known, passa batido – as is the case, for example, in the way that Fela died or, also, the various prisons in which was jailed. These are interesting facts, which are not available to the general public, and which would give a special seasoning. It would have been more interesting than spending time talking about Malcolm X. Of course it’s part of Fela’s training as a person, but do you need so much?
Thus, Meu Amigo Fela is a movie that breaks paradigms and is correct in not betting on the obvious of the subgenre. However, it ends up getting lost in the middle, talking about more things than it should and, in this way, emptying a little of the biographical importance of the film as a whole. It’s worth it for fans of the musician and for people who like to immerse themselves in black culture and activism that exists around the world. People disinterested in both subjects, however, may be frustrated with the end result.
Fela Kuti up close
Meu amigo Fela (My friend Fela) shakes up the ‘É Tudo Verdade (it’s All True) festival with ‘afrobeat’, the contestation and contradictions of the Nigerian musician.
By Carlos Alberto Mattos
In one of the excellent archival materials collected by Joel Zito Araújo in Meu Amigo Fela (My Friend Fela), Fela Kuti arrives in a room, takes off all his clothes except some tiny trunks, sits in an armchair and, surrounded by some of his wives and his saxophone, says things like: “In the case of Africa, music cannot be made for pleasure. It has to be for revolution.” The scene condenses the whole spirit of a character as fascinating as he is contradictory (at least for our standards).
The Nigerian Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti (1938-1997) brought together in himself a few paradoxes of an African man who had one foot in modernity and another in tribal traditions. He graduated from London but made a career in Africa. He combined American jazz influences with the sub-Saharan suingue (swing). He confronted dictatorships with the message of Malcolm X and at the same time was the omnipotent owner of a voluntary harem of up to 27 simultaneous wives. He was a political prisoner for almost two years and had his commune (the “Kalakuta Republic”) destroyed but was also accused of pocketing the payment of his musicians. He tried to run for the presidency of Nigeria and spent time worshipping a guru from Ghana who was the imposture in person. He died of AIDS due to sexual promiscuity.
In It’s All True in 2014, we watched the documentary Finding Fela, by Alex Gibney, from a Broadway show about Fela Kuti. It was a beautiful and classic work of cinebiography, but it didn’t have the power that we find now in My Friend Fela. Instead of accumulating information from heterogeneous sources, Joel Zito let himself be guided by the memories of some key people in the life of the musician. The main one, that serves as an anchor, is Carlos Moore, Cuban social scientist, Fela biographer and former security guard Malcolm X, who now lives in Brazil. Also noteworthy are Sandra Izsadore, the Black Panther wife who made her head of Africanness; Najite Mukoro, wife of his harem; drummer Tony Allen and two cover designers of his albums.
The glaring aesthetics of the covers gives the nickname for the visual treatment of the film, an important part of its powerful empathy. The beat of afrobeat breaks loose as we gain an intimate and complex view of the “mercury man” who challenged both the oppression of the powerful and the moral and religious standards of his time. Pan-African militancy (neither Marxist nor capitalist) led to severe reprisals by the military, who in 1977 attacked his commune, raped women, beat Fela and caused the death of his mother.
At the same time, we know details of the conduct of a typical African “king” with his court of submissiveness, who ordered women to be beaten and ordered the beating of an opponent which was done to death.
My Friend Fela debuted at the Rotterdam Film Festival and won the Paul Robeson Award for best film about the diaspora at the largest African film festival in the world, the Fespaco of Burkina Faso. The recognition that Joel Zito has been receiving for this film is not only due to the perspicacity with which, together with the editor Isabel Castro, he added those testimonies full of life and emotion about Fela.
It is also due to the way in which he inserted the character in the context of resistência negra (black resistance) inside and outside Africa. A remarkable lineage extends from Malcolm X, Fela Kuti’s fundamental inspiration, to African heroes who have fallen or been persecuted for their ideas. That this genealogy ends in Marielle Franco is just another statement that the struggle for identity and rights, with or without music, continues.