Monday, September 26, 2011

Fela Kuti in the words of Gilberto Gil

"Africa, with her many peoples and cultures, is where the tragi-comedy of the human race first fatefully presented itself, wearing a mask at once beautiful and horrendous. The Motherland, the cradle of civilization, acknowledged as the original birthplace of us all, where the body and soul of mankind sank earliest roots into the soil--Africa is, confoundingly, also the most reviled, wounded, and disinherited of continents. Africa, treasure trove of fabulous material and symbolic riches that throughout history have succored the rest of the world, is yet the terrain that witnesses the greatest hunger ever, for bread and for justice.
This is the scenario into which Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Africa's most recent genius, emerged and struggled.
I was privileged to meet Fela in 1977 in his on musical kingdom, the Shrine, a club located in one of Lagos's lively working-class neighborhoods. It was during the Second FEstival of Black and African Arts and Culture (FESTAC), and on that evening the great Stevie Wonder was also visiting.
Fela was the brilliant incarnation of Africa's tragic dimension. He was an authentic contemporary African hero whose genius was to make his scream heard in every corner of the globe. Through his art, his wisdom, his politics, his formidable vigor and love of life, he managed to rend the stubborn veil that marginalizes "Otherness." Deeply torn between the imperative of rejecting a legacy of subordination and the need to affirm a new liberation future for his land and people, Fela ended up creating a body of work that is incomparable in terms of international popular music that expresses the cosmopolitan--and "cosmopolitical"--spirit of the second half of the twentieth century.
Fela was possessed by an apocalyptic vision, wherein he saw how tall were the walls that had to be broken down. Thus, he engaged in a messianic rebellion. He was enthralled by the haunting lamentations that emerged from the diaspora of uprooted black slaves, reminding him of his own outraged sense of deracination in his native Africa--a land increasingly usurped by neocolonial self-interest. He was divided between the awareness that a universal future for all mankind was inevitable and the awareness that there was danger in denying Africa its own place in that future. Therefore he determined to rescue, both for his own people and for the world, the wise traditions of tribal Africa, having in mind that we might one day constitute a global tribe.
Arming himself with a Saxon horn--a saxophone--Fela made music that harked back to days of yore, when his forebears were warriors and cattle herders. Yet putting into the balance his virtuoso improvisation, his poetic outburtsts, he made everyone swing in the Shrine, in the whole of Lagos, in every reservation, in every shantytown, in every township of the black planet.
Today, some time after his passing, we are at a juncture at which we recognize and acknowledge Fela's work. But we must confer another form of acknowledgment, one that goes beyond the careful, reverential attention that, increasingly, is afforded his music--an acknowledgment in a wider intellectual sense: one rooted in a careful analytical interpretation of what Fela and his work stood for.
This book is among those that are aiming to fulfill that mandate.
At a time when, all over the world, we are engaged in the huge and (who knows?) perhaps final effort to establish a viable humanist legacy for the generations still to come--in an era that I may call posthuman--it is indispensable to be able to rely on books that bestow on those efforts a true dimension of legacy.
We need books that will tell us, now and here, and that later on will also tell the builders of posthumankind, about those notable men and women of our recent past, such as Fela Anikulpo-Kuti.
We need to know who they were and what they were how they have enriched us."

Translated from the Portuguese by Tereza Burmeister

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