Finding Fela makes European premiere April 25

Posted: April 23, 2014 in art/entertainment

fela 2Starting Friday, April 25 and through to Sunday, April 27, the European Premiere of the much-hyped film Finding Fela opens first at the Sundance Film Festival Hub at Brooklyn Bowl.

This will be in addition to the Sundance London’s hosting of a free performance by Dele Sosimi, one of the original members of Fela Kuti’s band Egypt 80 (1979-1986) on the last day Sunday at the same venue, in conjunction with the film producers.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti created the musical movement Afrobeat and used it as a political forum to oppose the Nigerian dictatorship and advocate the rights of oppressed people. The film is the story of his life, music, and political importance.

Many believe that no single individual better embodies African music of the 1970s and ’80s, and its pivotal role in postcolonial political activism, than Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

After quickly taking Nigeria storm, the pioneering musician’s confrontational Afrobeat sound soon spread throughout the continent and beyond, even as it made determined enemies of the repressive military regime. As a result of continued persecution, increasingly unorthodox behaviour, and, eventually, complications due to HIV, Fela’s final years saw his musical output and influence wane.

Within the past decade, however, a resurgence of interest in his work has posthumously repopularized Fela, culminating in the massively successful Broadway show Fela!,On Broadway written by Jim Lewis and directed by Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones.

This new effort Finding Fela by Academy Award–winning director Alex Gibney interweaves that show’s skillful staging with a treasure trove of period interviews and hypnotic performances to recapture the essence of the man, his music, and his enduring cultural and political relevance.

The director, Academy award winner Alex Gibney, known for his gripping, deeply insightful documentaries, is one of the most accomplished nonfiction filmmakers working today.

His earlier film, Taxi to the Dark Side, received the 2008 Academy Award for best feature-length documentary. Gibney had previously earned an Academy Award nomination in 2006 for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which screened at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and received an Independent Spirit Award. We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks screened at the Festival last year

The music and fame of the Afrobeat pioneer and rights’ activist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, is no doubt experiencing a revival in the United States’ market.

The rising popularity of Fela, the Nigerian artist who created the Afrobeat genre and invigorated the world music scene with his blend of jazz, funk and Yoruba music, exemplifies how a great thing can go relatively unnoticed by a wide audience.

From the late 1960s until his death in 1997, Fela was slowly building a name for himself not only as a musical innovator but as a political activist. His critically-praised music often integrated his anti-colonial and anti-corruption ideals. There was a lot to admire about Fela. But unfortunately, unlike his peer Bob Marley, Fela’s message and music never really caught on in the United States or Europe let alone Asia and South America, until recently that is. In 2009, the musical Fela! hit Broadway and ignited major interest in the life and music of the man who was known as the “James Brown of Africa.”

“The Broadway show is such a watershed,” said Maurice Bernstein, co-founder and CEO of Giant Step, a marketing and promotion company which has worked on marketing efforts for Kuti’s music for over a decade. He describes his popularity in terms of BC and AD (before the play and after the play).

According to Bernstein, before the play, those who were familiar with Fela’s music were world music fans and deep house fans who were part of the underground dance clubs. “You had select celebs like Flea who really knew who Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was. Outside of that, you said his name, and it would just be a blank,” he said. “You’re talking about one of the greatest musicians and one of the greatest body of works and you’d literally draw a blank from people.”

Fela’s 8-minute-plus long songs certainly did not help him get airplay. The length of the songs rendered him unfriendly to radio deejays so his popularity essentially flourished amongst niches of music enthusiasts. “His music and message have been passed on through word of mouth from friend to friend, brother to sister, teacher to student,” said Manuel Pila, a co-host of world music radio show Global Gumbo. “Fela has become part of The Essentials. As such, he has been prominent in that culturally aware crowd for at least a couple of decades. Folks in the know will always know. The world’s musicians, dancers, artists, activists, writers, and students will always seek out the Great Ones, the Ellas and Billies and, yes, the Felas.”

In April of 2011 at the New Expo Hall of the Eko Hotel in Victoria Island, Lagos, the Broadway hit show Fela! was performed before a sell-out Nigerian audience, thus making it the first Broadway show to be performed in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Concurrently with the Broadway production, Fela! opened and triumphed at London’s Royal National Theater for a three-month sold-out run. That production was nominated for three Olivier Awards, London theatre’s highest honour, including Best Musical, Best Actor (Sahr Ngaujah) and Best Choreography (Bill T. Jones). This Nigerian engagement was the first since the closing of the Broadway and London productions and the NTLive performance which was broadcast to in 370 cinemas worldwide.

According to the organizers, the aim of Fela! in Lagos was to unite and connect Africans in spirit and unity, to serve as a catalyst for cultural revival in Nigeria, and to celebrate Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, for the contribution he has made to Nigeria and the world.

Recall also that top African-American Rhythm and Blues singer and former member of the defunct music group Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé Knowles, had also claimed that her album titled; 4 was strongly influenced by late Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

“I recorded more than 60 songs: everything I ever wanted to try, I just did it. I started off being inspired by Fela Kuti. I actually worked with the band from Fela! (the Broadway musical based on his life) for a couple of days … what I learned most from Fela was artistic freedom: he just felt spirit.”

Incidentally, Beyoncé’s husband, Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter, was a co-producer of the Fela! musical.

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