Yale was represented earlier this year at the 2014 Sundance Festival at the screening of Finding Fela, a documentary on Afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938-1997). Directed by Academy Award winning Alex Gibney ’77, the film recounts the life of the Nigerian musician and illustrates how he used music as a forum to express opinions against his country’s dictatorial government in the 1970s and 1980s.
Finding Fela blends archival footage, interviews, and performances from FELA! The Musical to provide a cinematic look into the life of Nigerian icon.
FELA! The Musical itself came to life when another Yale alum, Stephen Hendel ’73, stumbled upon one of Kuti’s CD in 2000. Inspired by the artist’s rich music and commitment to social justice, Hendel set out to create a theatrical performance that would convey Kuti’s mission and values. He and his wife, Broadway producer Ruth Hendel, teamed up with Tony Award winning choreographer Bill T. Jones (the recipient of a 2009 honorary degree from Yale) and Tony Award nominated writer Jim Lewis to accomplish the task. The show opened in 2009 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, and has received 11 Tony Award nominations and three Tony Awards.
Stephen and Ruth Hendel served as executive producers to Finding Fela.
Another member of the Yale community, Professor of Ethnomusicology Michael Veal, also contributed to the film’s production and is even featured in interviews. Veal became interested in Kuti’s jazz-infused, Afrobeat music in the 1980s and even played as a guest in his band Egypt 80. While a Master’s student at Wesleyan University, he wrote his thesis on Kuti and later revised it into the book Fela: The Life And Times Of An African Musical Icon, published in 2000 by Temple University Press.
In the film, Veal draws upon his expertise as an ethnomusicologist to articulate how Fela’s music—its composition, rhythm, form— embodies and speaks to the greater historical and political context of post-colonial Nigeria. He also lent the makers materials from his archives and helped with the production and editing processes.
Finding Fela is a nuanced view into the complex life of a musical pioneer and political icon. The film will open at the IFC Center in New York City on August 1st and will play in select theatres nationwide.
For more information on the film and playdates, please visit http://findingfela.com/