May 4, 2010

Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway


The book is a compilation of essays, interviews, photographs, and cartoon illustrations that pay tribute to Fela's life. Editor Trevor Schoonmaker begins by remarking, "Mention the name Fela to someone who knew him and a passionate string of monikers and opinions will quickly follow. Prophet. Hero. Rock Star. Troublemaker. Trickster trickster, a mythic figure common among Native North Americans, South Americans, and Africans. Usually male but occasionally female or disguised in female form, he is notorious for exaggerated biological drives and well-endowed physique; partly divine, partly human, Playboy. Rebel. Martyr. Visionary. Revolutionary. Baba ('father'). Chief Priest. Abami Eda ('the strange one') ... Black President, King of Afrobeat "(p. 1). An independent curator in New York, Schoonmaker is cofounder of a monthly Fela club night and director of the Fela Project. Most other contributors to the book knew Fela personally, and all have been deeply affected by his life and music. Through their essays, they reveal how they learned to better understand Fela, and how through Fela they have come to better understand themselves.

Schoonmaker's introduction provides a brief overview of Fela's life. Following this introduction are twelve essays, several only a few pages in length. The essays might be divided into two broad categories: essays that are primarily descriptive and those that are more analytical. The former outweigh the latter. Several essays are reprints of earlier newspaper or journal articles. Knox Robinson provides a sense of what it is like to emerge into Fela's world: his commune the Kalakuta Republic Kalakuta Republic was the name musician and political activist Fela Kuti gave to the communal compound that housed his family, band members, and recording studio in Lagos, Nigeria. , modern-day Nigeria, and his music. Fela's friend and biographer Mabinuori Kayode Idowu (aka I.D.) describes his mother's confrontation with Fela about his influence on her son, Fela's clash with the Nigerian government during Festac '77, and Fela's controversial 1978 performance in Berlin. In two essays, Vivien Goldman Vivien Goldman is a British journalist, writer and musician. She was born in London, the child of two German-Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. She studied English and American literature at the University of Warwick. She began her career as a PR officer for Island Records. tells about Ghanaian magician Professor Hindu, Fela's friend and advisor, reviving a dead man in London and explores the eroticism and meaning associated with Fela's dancers, his Queens. Ghariokwu Lemi describes his work as Fela's jacket artist, and John Collins presents the 1977 diary he kept while serving as "Inspector Reynolds" in Fela's biographical film Black President (damaged in the fire that destroyed Kalakuta and thus never released). Drawing upon his experiences growing up in Nigeria and as art editor and political cartoonist for the Lagos Daily Times, dele jegede uses his essay and cartoons to describe differing phases of Fela's musical development and influence in Nigeria. LaRay Denzer offers insight into the women who most impacted Fela's life: his mother, his first wife Remi, his African-American friend and lover Friend and Lover Sandra Izsadore, and his Queens.

Among the most engaging contributions is that of Nkiru Nzegwu, who explains how she and her schoolgirl friends were able to appreciate Fela's music while recognizing his "false conception" of African woman. Through a critical reading of songs such as "Lady," Nzegwu argues that Fela's model of the "African woman" reflects Western perspectives more than African traditions. Also more analytic are articles by Joseph Patel, Sola Olorunyomi, and Yomi Durotoye. Music critic Patel examines Fela's influence on hip hop, R&B, and Afro-house. He speaks about times when musicians have looked toward Fela and times when perhaps they should have. Olorunyomi takes readers into Fela's nightclub, the Shrine, and explores his performance as ritual. Finally, Durotoye draws upon Fela's lyrics to discuss phases in his "politics of resistance" (p. 179), from Fela's promotion of Black Pride in the early 1970s to his increasing opposition to the Nigerian government and to Christianity and Islam in the 1970s-80s.

Also included in the book are transcriptions of a 1983 interview with Fela by Barney Hoskyns and a 2002 interview with Fela's son Femi (also an internationally renowned musician) by Jerome Sandlarz. Fela responds to questions about racism, his spiritual beliefs, his musical influences, his wives, and Nigerian politics. Femi discusses his experiences as Fela's child, his perspectives on polygamy and pan-Africanism, and his efforts to carry on his father's legacy. In addition to a few photographs and cartoons included in the essays, the book features two sections of color and black-and-white photographs of Fela, his home, his performances, his family, and his funeral. The book concludes with two cartoon excerpts from the Nigerian Daily Times, a timeline of Fela's life, and a map of Nigeria.

If there is a common theme in the book, it is that Fela's life and music should be more widely recognized and that his work and messages remain as relevant today as in the past. Listeners and artists can continue to gain from his music, people around the world still struggle with political oppression, and AIDS, the disease that killed him, is affecting more people than we can fathom. Some readers will appreciate that the book is an easy read, a result of the descriptive nature of so many of the essays, the casual tone in which most of the authors write, and the intriguing nature of the subject--Fela. Other readers may be frustrated that the essays do not provide a more critical reading of his life. Nevertheless, if only for the added attention it draws to Fela's music and for the personal insights it provides into his life, the book remains a valuable contribution to the growing body of literature on Fela in particular and African music more broadly.


From Publishers Weekly

Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti became a global superstar in the 1970s with his "Afrobeat" fusion of funk, jazz and Yoruba motifs. A counter-cultural icon, he scandalized Nigerian society with his pot-smoking, his sexually explicit lyrics and stage act, and his marriage to 27 of his dancers and back-up singers at once. And he was a staunch opponent of the Nigerian dictatorship and Western neo-colonialism in Africa (one song denounced water and electricity shortages, the United Nations Special Program for Third World Countries and the replacement of food crops by cash crops), a stance that earned him a series of beatings and imprisonments. This collection of essays and interviews explores the larger-than-life persona of Fela and his impact on world music and Nigerian culture. Joseph Patel posits Fela's music as the "primordial mass" from which house, techno and hip-hop sprang, tracing his influence through the minutiae of never-released recording sessions. John Collins gives a disturbing glimpse of life at Fela's Lagos commune, where he regularly had his acolytes beaten, while dele jegede paints a vivid portrait of the singer's charismatic stage presence. Yomi Durotoye applies heavy-handed critical theory to Fela's political lyrics (the line "Notin special about uniform" achieves "the obliteration of the space between the binary oppositions of domination"). The most interesting essays debate Fela's oft-expressed opinion that authentic African women are subservient to men, a view vigorously contested by Nkiru Nzegwu, who notes the traditional independence of Nigerian women. While the collection leaves open the question of whether drugs, sex and Afrobeat contribute to a coherent world-view, it provides a fascinating window onto the cultural politics of the developing world.


"...the book's diversity of perspectives is part of what makes it click."-Malcolm Venable, Black Issues Book Review

"...a fascinating window onto the cultural politics of the developing world."--Publishers Weekly Annex, 7/21/03

"Fela Anikulapo Kuti was James Brown, Huey Newton, Rick James, Bob Marley Duke Ellington and ODB all rolled up in one black African fist. The protest artist as a real live, awake and hungry human being. Africa's original rock superstar. The importance vitality and power of his work can not be overestimated. A pure blend of ancestry and modern marvel . If you don't know about Fela you surely need to find out now...!" -- Mos Def

“An amazing compendium of work about the seminal 20th century African musical icon and activist.” --Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, author of Willow Weep for Me

“This is an excellent collection of articles on FELA, it gives so many angles for us to understand one of the most crucial African figures of this age.” -- Angelique Kidjo

"This book is a trippy excursion into the world of conscious hero and musical icon Fela Kuti -- a must-read for all music lovers and people who care about the history and future of Africa and Africans around the world." -- Ahmir 'uestlove Thompson, The Roots

A must-read for all music lovers who care about the history and future of Africa and Africans around the world -- Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson, The Roots

An amazing compendium of work about the seminal 20th century African musical icon and activist. -- Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, author of Willow Weep for Me.

Excellent collection… it gives many angles for us to understand one of the most crucial African figures of this age. -- Angelique Kidjo

Fela…One black African fist…The importance, vitality and power cannot be overestimated. A pure blend of ancestry and modern marvel. -- Mos Def

@Amazon I:
Afrobeat is a marriage of funk and jazz mixed with Yoruba and Highlife music. Considered the father of the Afrobeat style, Fela Anikulapo Kuti is as famous for his music as his personal life. These essays investigate his life, his art and his legacy, including the controversial issues.

Knox Robinson explores the cult of Fela as it exists today, Mabinuori Idowu recounts the key events in the life of the legend and Joseph Patel discusses Fela's influence on hip hop and dance music. In her first of two essays, Vivien Goldman looks at his spiritual life and in the second she writes about the visual aspects of his world, like fashion, dance etc.

There are also interviews with Fela's son Femi (by Jerome Sandlarz) and an interview with Fela from 1983 by Barney Hoskins. A 1977 diary of John Collins that he kept while acting in the film Black President is included. Other contributors include Delede Jegede who writes about cultural aspects of Lagos and Ghariokwu Lemi, the artist who designed Fela's album covers.

The book concludes with an index and a Fela Timeline from his birth in 1938 to the latest related events in 2003 after his death in the late 1990s. There are 11 color photographs and about 30 black and white ones. The many illustrations include cartoons and a map of Nigeria.

This is a great book that illumines the life and work of this fascinating Nigerian musician and counterculture hero. His lyrics are quoted extensively but there is no systematic rating or reviews section for his albums. The inclusion of a discography would certainly have enhanced the book, especially as a reference source.

@Amazon II:
This book is a collection of essays about Fela's history in music and politics. It also contains information about his lifestyle, which was unique, to say the least. The perspectives are so varying that one can't help but conclude that he was enigmatic, sometimes brilliant and other times misleading or delusional.

Fela's music was introduced to me 20 years ago by a roommate from Ghana. I was lucky enough to see Fela in concert. He was incredibly charismatic and his music took over the unsuspecting audience at The Greek Theater in L.A. I didn't know he'd been tortured when I saw that concert, but it makes sense to me now, after seeing the fierceness with which he carried himself. The man had a Muhammed Ali type confidence that he backed up with an incredible show.

My goal in buying this book was to learn more about the man. After reading these essays, I was delightfully puzzled and realized that nobody really understood him--I wonder if he understood himself. Regardless, his music was groundbreaking and remains unique. It's still fresh.

Product Description

Combine elements of Bob Marley, Malcolm X and Patrice Lumumba you get a sense of the power of the world's wildest rockstar. Fela created Afrobeat, an infectious mix of American funk and jazz with traditional Yoruba and highlife music, and used it to rail against the corrupt, hypocritical Nigerian government. Repeatedly targeted by police and military for his rebellious, counter-culture lifestyle, he created a political party and seceded from the Nigerian state, renaming his commune the independent "Kalakuta Republic." Cultural icon and beloved hero of the pan-African world, Fela loomed large: captivating enormous crowds with electric performances (in Speedos or superfly suits), cherished by musicians from Paul McCartney to Mos Def, mourned by millions after his death from AIDS in 1997. These essays explore his fiery life and ever-growing legacy.

Book Description

The charismatic Nigerian musician and political leader Fela Kuti is a cultural icon and beloved hero of the pan-African world. These essays explore the life and ever-growing legacy of Fela, creator of Afrobeat, a potent mix of American funk and jazz and traditional Yoruba music. Repeatedly targeted by police and military for his rebellious, counter-culture lifestyle, he created a political party and seceded from the Nigerian state, renaming his commune the independent "Kalakuta Republic." Articles from Joseph Patel, Vivien Goldman, and others explore Fela's impact on culture and politics, and chronicle personal memories of the activist-musician.

About the Author

Trevor Schoonmaker is an independent curator living in New York. He is director of the Fela Project, a multimedia project on the influence of Fela Kuti.


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