Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon
Reviewed by Aaron Shuman
Thursday, September 20 2001, 12:52 PM
This book is the best biography I've ever read, as essential an introduction to Nigeria as it is to the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the bandleader/activist whose fiery Pan-African polemics and fierce opposition to state power earned him the title "The Black President."
Veal, a professional saxophonist and assistant professor of ethnomusicology, performed with Fela and his band Egypt 80; consequently, Veal carries a few more credentials than most biographers of musicians have in their wallets. The portrait that results is not softened by Veal's familiarity with the subject, as is too often the case when bandmates or associates attempt biography. On the contrary, Veal creates a remarkably objective portrait by dissecting the factors that fed Fela's rise to an international symbol of resistance, uncovering layers of substance and distortion at every border crossed, while noting the personal flaws and contradictions that would ultimately undermine him.
Veal sets Fela in the full context of his culture and his times -- a statement that sounds banal, until you see it done this well. Culturally, Veal possesses a comprehensive understanding of Nigerian music, which enables him to explain Fela's place in and reactions to it. Take for example, Fela's condemnation of the practice of "praise singing," because of its traditional alignment of musicians with the elite; a practice which Fela, in a sense, inverted by cussing out the latest dictator, grafter, or piranha upon the people. The result is to fully restore the radicalism of Fela's music -- a distinctive blend of Nigerian highlife, American funk and soul that he named 'Afrobeat.' Historically, Veal is able to map the influence of his mother's anti-colonial politics, and the lessons learned as a student in England and a musician in America at the height of the Black Power movement. Veal traces this to the project Fela devoted the remainder of his life: building an autonomous community at Lagos' 'the Shrine,' a performance space, infoshop, and base of dissent against Nigeria's military rulers.
Readers accustomed to the cut n' clip of conventional music biographies -- essentially, extended p.r. pieces -- may tire of the thick chunks of text Veal introduces on Nigerian history. But it is precisely the book's comprehensiveness that both impresses and appeals to the widest audience. Anti-globalization activists will have their understanding of economic colonialism greatly enriched by Veal's synoptic look at the oil boom 'n' bust in Nigeria and its effect on national culture. Music fans will learn to look critically at their consumption of world music, after Veal takes on the West's efforts to transform Fela into "the next Bob Marley" and Fela's resistance to such packaging. And artists of all ideological stripes will draw inspiration and lessons from Fela's efforts to turn music into a weapon.
Fela is available from Temple University Press