segunda-feira, março 28, 2005

Thank you Mr. President!

All throughout the month of October 2004 the Barbican Arts Centre held numerous events in honour of Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Fela Kuti aka the Black President is probably one of the biggest African artists and icons of the twentieth century. His strong political activism allied to his original rhythmic Afrobeat turned him into one of the most influential men in Africa.
Fela Kuti was born in Nigeria in 1938 and soon showed interest in Music. In the late 50’s Fela moved to London to enrich his musical knowledge and to develop his skills in playing the trumpet, sax and keyboards. Here he encountered racism and began to be aware of his black condition. Back in Nigeria Fela invented a new musical genre, the Afrobeat that soon spread around all the country and the rest of Africa. This new sound was strongly influenced by Fela’s 10-month tour in the USA. In America Fela discovered new rhythms such as Jazz and Funk and new political ideals from Malcolm X and movements such as the Black Panthers. These influences changed not only his sound but also his lyrics and his understanding of the world, which would be crucial for his role as a political and human activist.

This festival in memory of Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a seven week season featuring a major art exhibition, six unique concerts, films, spoken word and free events. It was actually the first time in England that an African Musician receives such exposure and examination. This festival gives us not only a spectrum of Fela’s Art but also a deep understanding of his struggle against exploitation, corruption and racism.
Being an African and a Nigerian, Kuti experienced oppression from the military force that ruled the country during the 70’s and 80’s. He soon stated that he refused to live his life in fear and used his lyrics and his music as a weapon against dictatorship. He adopted an unusual lifestyle by marrying 27 of his dancers and was known for his promiscuous sex life and for smoking large quantities of marijuana. His peculiar and strong personality made him be adored by a great amount of the Nigerian population and at the same time be hated by some more conservative parts of society. Even after his imprisonment, the destruction of his nightclub The Shrine and the murder of his mother, Fela continued to raise his voice against the installed force. In his different tours around Africa Fela always made sure he got his political ideology across. During his speeches Kuti always spoke about his Pan-Africanist utopia, and how a unified Africa would be the only way to solve all the continent’s inequalities and problems.
Fela was seen by many as a visionary and as an example to follow. He embodied the ‘African power’ and his charismatic personality left a mark in the African culture. He exalted black and African values and was totally against skin bleaching and the westernization of Africa. Fela combined elements of pure artistry, political perseverance and a mystic, spiritual consciousness in a way that no other individual ever has.

It is interesting to notice that Kuti’s Afrobeat was his tool to fight for a better and fairer Africa. It is therefore also important to understand the power Music has always played in the African culture. According to Blacking ‘musical change should signify a change of mind (…), musical change may epitomize the changing conditions and concerns of social groups’. The musical symbols and rhythm contribute extensively to the African experience and state of well-being.
Kuti was so incisive because his music was threatening and carried in its rhythms and beats his rage against social inequalities. Seven years have passed since Fela has died victim of AIDS and his music and his messages continue to be as meaningful as ever. Some artists like Mos Def, Common, The Roots and Cinematic Orchestra are strongly influenced by Kuti’s sound. Fela’s sons Femi and Seun Kuti are the new Afrobeat’s ambassadors and proceed their father’s legacy by keeping it alive and expanding it to younger generations. The tribute that the Barbican has paid to Fela is the proof that his struggle was not in vain and his desired equality can still be reached.
The news we get from Africa show us a continent with a fragile democracy where corruption is dominant. It is therefore important that characters such as Fela Kuti are not forgotten. Fela believed that Africa had to find its own identity to progress, in his view all Africans should unite to achieve peace and freedom in their different countries.
The Barbican tried in a metaphorical way to achieve Fela’s ideal of equality by inviting 34 international artists (most of them from countries around Africa) to create works inspired by the musician’s charismatic and complex personality. In this exhibition we can see different approaches to Fela’s Art. While some artists focused on Kuti’s political side or in his visionary utopia others opted to get inspiration from his role as an unabashed sex symbol or as a musical pioneer.
In the concerts there was a ‘miscegenation’ of artists and there were many special guests from all over the world.