Friday, 14 January 2011


This joyous musical came to our local Cineworld last night - the fifth National Theatre relay we have caught. The colours, the energy, the dance, the singing, the rhythm, the anger and the passion came across vibrantly even for a mainly middle aged, middle class, WASPish audience in Cheltenham. I was a little jealous, though, that the audience in the Olivier Theatre were having a rather better time: there was not much dancing in the aisles in Screen 3. And they had a better view of the subtitles than did we.

Eldridge Cleaver, who crops up in the story (what there is of it), said that if you were not part of the solution, then you were part of the problem. Fela Kuti's solution was to galvanise an ever-increasing number of African people to grasp at their roots, in order to set themselves free. This provoked a violent (African) response at many points. It also involved a rejection of the Christian heritage in which Fela's father was brought up, and reinstating something altogether more in tune with Nigeria's history and culture: the most sinister - and effective - passage in Fela is towards the end, when he journeys to commune with his dead mother's spirit.

Of my great-great-great-great-grandfather, who lived from 1749 to 1824, Markus Rediker writes, "Few people in the eighteenth century were better equipped to capture the drama of the slave trade than was James Field Stanfield. He had made a slaving voyage [as a common sailor], and a gruesome one it was, from Liverpool to Benin [which borders Nigeria] and Jamaica and back during the years 1774-76, and he had lived for eight months at a slave-trading factory in the interior of the Slave Coast." Stanfield, an educated man, actor and writer, and father of the artist Clarkson Stanfield (named for the anti-slavery campaigner, Thomas Clarkson) decided to write candidly about the horrors of the slave trade, a chapter of Rediker's "The Slave Ship, a human history" (2007, Viking) being given over to his life story.

So, this was a liberating, but also a disturbing evening, a world removed from the Bootleg Beatles.

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