For over 20 years Femi was the personal photographer of the late Nigerian Afrobeat icon and social activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He is one of the participating artists in the exhibition "This is Lagos: Yabis Night, Music and Fela" currently on view at Skoto Gallery through September 20th, 2003.
Femi's works are also included in the exhibition "The Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti" presently at The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York through September 28th, 2003
Three times that I can remember, I cried over the death of people I did not know and had never met. One of them was Nigerian afropop pioneer Fela Kuti, who died in August of 1997. I found out about it while driving to Northampton to see a concert at the Iron Horse. Fela had died earlier that day, and our NPR station was devoting two hours to a retrospective and discussion about him.
I had first heard of Fela in 1989, a year after his last visit to the US - perversely, to play a concert in Boston. Despairing of his ever making another tour outside Nigeria, I was on the verge of deciding to go to Nigeria myself to see him. Nigeria, with 115 million people, is the world's tenth most populous country, and Africa's first by a wide margin. There, from all I've heard, Fela was bigger than Elvis or the Beatles ever were in the US. Every Nigerian I've ever talked to knew and loved Fela, and seemed to remember him with reverence. He was a national hero.
He started out playing "highlife" music in the 1950s, added jazz, and after a tour of the US in the late 1960s, combined elements of highlife, Nigerian traditional music, American jazz, and 60s protest music, to form what he named "Afrobeat". Over the next three decades he influenced countless other musicians, directly and indirectly, in combining African and western music, and made over a hundred recordings in so many countries on so many different labels, no definitive and complete discography exists as far as I know. Fela's bands were huge, with call-response singing, dancers, big fat brass sections, guitars, and percussion. Many of his songs were 10-20 minutes long, and he usually stopped playing each song once it was recorded.
Fela played the saxophone, trumpet, piano, and drum. He composed, led the band, and sang lead. Many of his songs were half-story half-song, improvised and re-told in different ways. With his voice he could comfort, excite, soothe, exhort... he could sound old or young, gravelly or smooth. He would move from sustained high power to the delicate variations of an old storyteller, and back. He led his funky horns section and took off on sax and trumpet solos that called to mind an African parallel of a cross between John Coltrane and Maceo Parker, the full power of funk nuanced by jazz and improvisation. His style varied from songs like Lady, a tight funky piece about African women, to long anthems like ITT and Beasts of No Nation with a powerful social and political punch presented in Fela's versatile and dynamically expressive voice, seamed with call and response - all of them with horn solos interspersed.
To Nigeria, Fela was much more than a musical phenomenon and pioneer. An activist and agitator as well as a spiritual leader, he was in constant conflict with successive military regimes. He declared his nightclub, The Shrine, a sovereign nation, and twice it was burned by the military. On one attack, they killed his mother. In 1983 he ran for president, but another military coup landed him in prison 1983-1986. His concerts at The Shrine were, from what I've heard, indescribable experiences for the people who saw them in person. To me he was, and is, a musical force of nature. A funk band sound bigger than James Brown, a social force on the order of Bob Marley, and a life more colorful than most rock stars.
If you're in New York, you can see two exhibits featuring Fela Kuti this month. I hope to make it to at least one of them. Tonight, Friday September 5th, is your chance to see Fela's photographer speak, and hear a band led by one of Fela's drummers (or at least, that's how I interpret this press release).
Our Culture, Our Voices, Our Vision ==================================================================== Fela's Photographer The AFRican in association with Skoto Gallery cordially invites you to "An Evening with the Nigerian photographer Femi Bankole Osunla" on Friday, September 5th, 5:00 - 8:00pm at the Skoto Gallery. SKOTO GALLERY 529 West 20th Street, 5FL. New York, NY 10011 212-352-8058 For over 20 years Femi was the personal photographer of the late Nigerian Afrobeat icon and social activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He is one of the participating artists in the exhibition "This is Lagos: Yabis Night, Music and Fela" currently on view at Skoto Gallery through September 20th, 2003. Femi's works are also included in the exhibition "The Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti" presently at The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York through September 28th, 2003 Over the years, Femi has built one of the largest portfolio's available today on the life and times of Fela. His painstaking and intimate documentary photography of episodes on Fela's controversial and effervescent life makes him one of the most significant historical photographers of note today. These photographs provide valuable insights into the relationship between tradition and the individual African artist. An evening with Femi Bankole Osunla is a unique opportunity to meet this outstanding photographer and acquire his highly collectible photographs. "Femi Bankole Osunla's photographs document not only a singular life but also an important span of African cultural history." -Holland Cotter, New York Times art critic. August 8th, 2003 Fela drummer Ola Jagun and his Ancestral Rhythms will provide an interlude of sounds and melodies that are sure to transport you to the motherland.