FELA: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AN AFRICAN MUSICAL ICON, by Michael E. Veal (Temple University Press), 313 pages, $37.50 paper. Rating: NNN
It's been a hectic year for Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who died in 1997.
After years of languishing in obscurity, his best records out of print, the afrobeat innovator's work got a major-label reissue, his son Femi helped spread his music through a younger club crowd, and now he's the subject of a major biography.
It's hard to believe that an artist of Fela's influence hasn't been written about before, but Philadelphia ethnomusicologist Michael E. Veal certainly seems like the man for the job. He studied and played with Fela in the mid-80s, and this book is an expanded version of his thesis on the saxophonist.
Veal spends most of the book placing Fela within the larger context of post-colonial West African culture and politics. He traces the evolution of the bandleader's polyrhythmic afro-funk out of 50s and 60s juju and classic American soul, but he also explores how the music, and Fela's propensity for shit-disturbing, were at constant odds with the rest of Nigerian society.
Veal repeats the familiar stories about Kuti -- his legendary weed intake, his marrying of 27 women at once and his notorious battles with Nigeria's police state -- but the emphasis here is much more on analysis than on simply retelling classic stories. At times, you wish he'd spend more energy on the madness surrounding Fela's compound and less on what it meant.
He tends to react to Fela's explosive music on an analytical rather than emotional level. Reading Veal is worth the effort, though, because Fela: The Life And Times Of An African Musical Icon makes you want to listen to the records themselves. You can't ask more from a book.
write to books at email@example.com