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August 18, 2014

Finding Fela Kuti

On the Trail of the Afrobeat Pioneer with Longtime Confidant Rikki Stein

Finding Fela delves into the uncompromising life of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian band leader of Africa 70 and Egypt 80, who fused together the tight-trousered funk of James Brown and the high-life jazz of his home to create a new musical form: Afrobeat. He stood up against the oppression of the Nigerian state, speaking before gigs at the Shrine, the venue in Lagos that became the center of his music. In retaliation he was beaten, his mother was attacked and his house was burned down. But in the midst of the chaos surrounding him, Kuti is remembered as much for his humor, strength of character and lavish lifestyle that included his marriage to 27 women in 1978. Former manager Rikki Stein has helped look after Kuti’s musical legacy since the artist died from an AIDS related illness in 1997: in recent years he has served to bring the Broadway musical Fela! to the world and worked as consultant on director Alex Gibney’s new documentary, excerpted here for the first time. Below, Stein looks back on his time with the man who changed the course of African music.

How did you come to manage Fela?
Rikki Stein:
We met at the very beginning of the 80s. Someone played his music to me, and I was completely gobsmacked. I went to see him, to propose a project to him. It was the winter, so I was wearing a hat and a coat and a sweater and a scarf. I went into this unbelievably hot room because he used to carry additional heaters around with him. He was in his Speedos surrounded by lovely ladies, and the hat, coat, scarf and jacket came off.  The thing that impressed me most about him was the candor with which he operated. Everything was as clear as a bell, which is not easy to find in the world unfortunately. He had such amazing courage. He took licks from the Nigerian authorities—the guy had scars all over his body, but it didn’t ever stop him. He just said, “Ah well, they didn’t kill me.”

What was it like to try and manage him at that time, when he was at the center of a constant, violent political storm?
RS:
You just rode the wave with Fela. He was a great deal of fun to be with. He loved telling stories and had a deep sense of irony, pointing out the ridiculousness of much human endeavor. He wasn’t a cynic, but an optimist, and he insisted on excellence. If you were an audience member, you had to listen to what was going on, and play what he called the ‘Underground Spiritual Game,’ which involved everybody. If you were a follow-spot operator, he’d work your ass off because the guy was everywhere on stage. He enjoyed life. He was somebody who just wanted to make music and fuck and eat. When he came to London he’d perform at the Academy in Brixton. I would say 90 per cent of the audience were Nigerian. I remember him saying, in front of 5,000 people, “Oh, I’m staying at the Russell Hotel, room 439, if anybody wants to come by.” He was looking for ladies, but he accepted anybody. Whoever you were he’d let you in, look at you and say: “Sit down.”

Is he still held up as an important figure in Nigeria?
RS:
Yes, definitely. Taking the musical Fela! to Lagos was an amazing experience, because when we put on that show in London or New York it’s a story, but in Lagos it’s history. Young people know Fela and his music but they don’t know much about him. Presenting the show there, we effectively took Fela home. It was a very moving experience.

Do you think he contributed to real change in his country?
RS:
The mess in Nigeria during the 70s and 80s I am afraid to say is still there. But when the Nigerian government removed the oil subsidy two years ago, which doubled the price of petrol, people from one side of the country to the other came out on the street and shouted: “Listen to what Fela was saying 30 years ago—it’s still true today.” His music became anthemic to that process. The part of Fela’s legacy that is most significant in Nigeria is that all those licks he took for speaking his mind, people are now speaking their mind without getting the licks.

Finding Fela opens in cinemas September 5.

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Laibach: The Whistleblowers

The Provocative Slovenian Industrial Group Return With a Visual Manifesto

Taken from Laibach’s uncategorizable forthcoming album Spectre, the rousing synth-pop of “The Whistleblowers” is inspired by provocateurs such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, continuing the band’s long-established critique of power and political freedoms. “They predicted the downfall of Yugoslavia through their music,” says Norwegian director Morten Traavik of his most recent collaborators. “Now they’re back in sync with what’s happening.” Formed in 1980 in Trbovlje, Slovenia, Laibach started the Neue Slowenische Kunst art movement, which eventually became a ‘virtual country’ complete with its own passport, amassing a vast collective body of work that was showcased at London’s Tate Modern in 2012. The nostalgic and utopian feel of today's song is matched by a video that stars a group of young athletes from Riga, Latvia. “It was shot using a one-of-a-kind LOMO camera lens from the Soviet Union,” says Traavik. “This resulted in this extreme widescreen format, much like a three-stripe national flag with the video as the middle stripe.” The director’s 2012 clip of a North Korean accordion band performing A-Ha's “Take On Me” shared the group’s playful exploration of patriotism and nationhood, while accruing two million YouTube views: “We felt straight away that this is a Laibach-kinda person,” say the band.

Spectre is Out March 3 on Mute.

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Spotlight

Soko: Love Letter

Aaron Rose Animates Late Artist Niki De Saint Phalle’s Drawings on Desire For MOCAtv

The beguiling illustrations of Niki De Saint Phalle come alive to the sound of French starlet Soko’s “Love Letter,” a song directly inspired by the late Franco-American artist’s 1988 book, My Love, Where Shall We Make Love? “When the idea first came up to do a film based on Niki’s artwork, Soko was the first person I thought of, as there is something very tough and tender in everything she does,” says artist, curator and filmmaker Aaron Rose, who made the short based on the drawings found in Saint Phalle’s accordion-folding book that muses on the quirks and intricacies behind human devotion. “The way Soko took the feeling of the text in the book and completely transformed it into her own just blew me away.” The video forms part of a collaborative series of art-inspired lyric videos created by Rose and MOCAtv: he has so far worked with LA-based musician Sam Spiegel, hip-hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy and Brazilian-American songwriter Kool Kojak on a lyric video based on the graffiti of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and on a film based the work of conceptualist Sol Lewitt with Tim Armstrong from US punk group Rancid. “The whole idea is to package an artist’s writings in a pop format,” says the filmmaker, whose 2008 documentary Beautiful Losers looked at the art movement that he helped to spearhead along with Harmony Korine and Shepard Fairey. “Sometimes their words are only heard in lectures or read in the pages of academic catalogues; I thought it would be fun to reframe them and turn people on to writings that they would never have read before.”

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