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[FELA!] producers...sued [for $5m] for 'ripping off' writer
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Publish-date-icon July 18, 2011
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Attached to this post is the interview conducted by Tenisio Seanima with Stephen Hendel.  Simply click "play" to hear it.  Also, the "black pages" from Dr. Carlos Moore's book are included at the end of this article.


Tenisio Seanima - The-Latest EXCLUSIVE

Fela Kuti: row over new show

Award-winning musical Fela! has been caught up in controversy after a $5m lawsuit was filed in New York on Monday. Writer and scholar Carlos Moore, the official biographer of world famous Afrobeat star Fela Kuti on whom the show is based, claims the producers have breached his copyright and is suing for compensation.


Moore told The-Latest he is aggrieved that Fela!, which opened at London's National Theatre on November 6has failed to credit his book as a source. He said: "I felt hurt and humiliated. It was a slap in the face."

Moore's $5 million-plus copyright suit says he was offered $4,000 for the rights to his authorized biography of the late Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in 2007.After he turned down the offer as "grossly insufficient" and demanded "an advance and participation in the royalty pool," Moore says "no further offer was ever made."His Manhattan federal court filing charges that playwright Jim Lewis, director Bill T. Jones used the book anyway to develop the Tony award-winning musical without Moore's "knowledge, authorization or consent."
FELA! spokesman Richard Kornberg said he was "really shocked" by the suit because Moore took part in publicity efforts for the show.

Moore's $5 million-plus copyright suit says he was offered $4,000 for the rights to his authorised biography of the late Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in 2007.

After he turned down the offer as "grossly insufficient" and demanded "an advance and participation in the royalty pool," Moore says "no further offer was ever made."

His Manhattan federal court filing charges that playwright Jim Lewis, director Bill T. Jones used the book anyway to develop the musical without Moore's "knowledge, authorisation or consent."

FELA! spokesman Richard Kornberg told the New York Post he was "really shocked" by the suit because Moore took part in publicity efforts for the show.

The Tony-winning big cast production opened on Broadway less than a year ago to glowing reviews. As a diehard fan of the musical genius and Nigerian revolutionary, I was excited to see the life of the legend depicted in such an incredible show. And yet something didn’t seem quite right.


West End stage production

Fela!, the musical, pays no credit in its playbill to its most likely source, Fela: This Bitch Of A Life, the only biography authorised by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. First published by Allison and Busby in 1982 - during Kuti’s lifetime - and reissued last year, the book is the work of Carlos Moore, a highly-respected African-Cuban scholar based in Brazil with a long track record of advocating for international Black causes.


Surprised by the playbill’s omission, I decided to re-read Moore’s book -based on hours of in-depth interviews with the artist and the women in his life - and I found the similarities to be uncanny. With each turn of the page, I discovered significant overlap between the development of Kuti’s character in the book and in the musical.

A quick internet search confirmed I was not alone in assuming the producers’ debt to Moore. Adriane, a blogger on the MTV website, wrote:

“Choreographer Bill T. Jones directed and co-wrote the musical with Jim Lewis, who based the scenes on the biography by Dr Carlos Moore.” 

On the Afrofunk Music Forum, reviewer David McDavitt said: “Written by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, the story relies heavily upon the best source on Fela: the transcribed interviews by Moore in Fela: This Bitch Of A Life."

In her story for the New York Times, Felicia Lee reported that “much of [the performers’] information about Fela and his queens came from Fela: This Bitch of a Life, a biography by Carlos Moore, an ethnologist and political scientist who knew Fela.” Lee also noted that Moore had met with Jones and the play’s cast.


Author Dr Carlos Moore

It seems Moore was initially associated with the musical in some capacity and then later distanced himself from it. He had even produced an enthusiastic testimonial about the musical’s production quality for the official Fela! website. That video, however, was recently pulled from site without explanation, although it can still be seen on YouTube.


I decided to explore the matter further, talking with anyone who had seen the play and read the 1982 biography. I discovered most were in agreement that Fela! seemed to owe a debt to Moore’s book. Marva Allen, owner of Harlem’s Hue-man Bookstore and Café, put it most succinctly: “I thought the entire musical was based on Dr Carlos Moore’s book.”

Others were more specific. Both Earl Davis, the former director of the Institute of African-American Affairs at New York University, and Dr Marta Moreno Vega, author and president of the New York-based Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diaspora Institute, noted the inclusion of Kuti’s deceased mother as a character in the Broadway musical. Davis said: “Clearly, there is a close relation between how the play depicts Fela’s relationship with his mother and what is contained in Moore’s biography.”

The original 1982 pressing of Fela: This Bitch Of A Life - available only in Europe, in both English and French - includes two chapters excluded from the 2009 American edition. Those chapters, titled Afa Ojo and commonly known as the Black Pages, concern a visit by Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, from the spirit world to dissuade her son from committing suicide and encourage him to continue with his activist work.

Fela! employs a strikingly similar conceit to explain Kuti’s development as a revolutionary. In the musical, Funmilayo’s character is depicted as an “Orisha” (in Yoruba spiritual culture, a personified attribute of God) whose name is “Afa Ojo (She Who Commands Rain).” The spirit visits Kuti and delivers the message that he must stay in Nigeria and continue to fight for the people.

Vega, of the Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diaspora Institute, also noted overlapping stories regarding Kuti’s relationship with his mother, citing “the story about Fela being reborn as the child that originally died, because it was named Hildegart”.

Since the ghost mother character and her relationship to Kuti is so key to the musical, I decided to interview Fela! producer Stephen Hendel about it on the Atlanta-based radio station WRFG on June 24 2010.


Under fire: Stephen Hendel

Asked about the sources used to conceive the musical with director Bill T. Jones and scriptwriter Jim Lewis (who that month received a Tony nomination for best script), Hendel said: “When we were putting the theater piece together, we were…trying to figure out what were the key relationships in his life and the key relationship we could depict on stage… We settled on his relationship with his mother.”



Director Bill T. Jones


Pressed for more details, specifically with regards to Moore’s book, he added: “We went from…a workshop in 2007 to the off-Broadway production in 2008, [and] we settled on using his search for his mother in the spirit world as… one of the key moments of the show. When Carlos Moore came and met with us… he said that: 'The thing I am really impressed with, and I congratulate you [on], is how accurately you got his relationship with his mother' - which is something that we did not know and which we sort of intuitively arrived at.

”Several days later, Moore presented a contrasting version of the story during a dialogue at the National Black Arts Festival event in Atlanta. I attended the event titled Fela: A Celebration of Life, in the hope of securing an interview with Moore, who declined.

In lively conversation with Malaika Adero, vice-president of Atria Books and a senior editor at Simon and Schuster, Moore said: “[In] the American edition of the book, which came out last year, I wasn’t sure that an American public would connect with this story of a spirit speaking to her son, because the book opens and closes with the mother speaking to the son and the son speaking to the mother..."


Hero worshipped star

He added: "At the end… the son is talking about… killing himself and it’s the mother who comes and tells him, ‘No, you are not supposed to commit suicide.’ So that is how the book ends. I thought an American public would not relate to this…so we took it out.”


Moore went on: “I think it actually triggered something… Those people who, you know - Bill T. Jones, or whoever - who were thinking about the play. It was the [Afa Ojo] soliloquy that really triggered off this whole thing, because the play actually is woven around this whole thing of this…dead mother who is speaking to the son and convincing him.” 

In her follow-up, Adero remarked: “I’m holding onto my first-edition copy with dear life because it does have the Black Pages, as they are referred to, with the soliloquy, which I recognised in the Broadway play.”

Mary L. Turk, an Atlanta-based social worker at the event, had this to offer: “The spiritual connection of Fela to his mother and his people were definitely in Carlos Moore’s book. Fela’s coming back to life from being a previous child who died, is also mentioned in the musical. A chapter called Abiku (The Twice-Born) mentions this story in Moore’s book. Lastly, in the play, each individual wife is highlighted in a similar fashion as how they are previewed in the book.”

Seventy-one pages of Moore’s book are composed of individual interviews with 14 of Fela’s former wives; the chapter is titled My Queens. Turk said she only realised Moore hadn’t been credited as a source when she read the show’s playbill.

The Atlanta event also featured cast members Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Kuti in the musical, and Saycon Sengbloh, who plays Sandra Iszadore, Kuti’s muse. Both acknowledged the influence of Moore’s book on their work. 

Ngaujah said: “Bill T. Jones and the producer…had been in discussion about the idea for, I guess, maybe two and a half years before they started to put things on its feet. Then I became involved in the project. We did a series of workshops that would last two to three months at a time over a four-year period before we opened it off-Broadway.”

He added: “I read Carlos’ book. I read as many books as I could get my hands on… Once we got to off-Broadway, then people like Carlos [started] coming around.”

I tried to investigate deeper, but neither the musical’s producers nor Moore responded to interview requests. Moore’s Atlanta-based literary agent Janell Agyeman did admit that “there are serious issues” but refused further comment.

The producers of Fela! are already facing legal worries as a result of a recent lawsuit filed by New York photographer Marylyn Nance claiming that one of her images was used without permission as a backdrop in the show. Nance, like Moore, is seeking damages for copyright infringement.

Tenisio Seanima is an Atlanta-based African-American radio-journalist host of a popular radio programme promoting African music in the United States.

Seanima, T. (2010). Producers of top musical sued for 'ripping off' writer. The latest. Retrieved from http://www.the-latest.com/producers-top-musical-sued-ripping-writer



 (1982 EDITION)


Chapter 1

AFA OJO (Part 1)

She Who Commands Rain


I was once called Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti. For you mortals I died in Lagos on 13 April 1978, at the age of seventy-eight. What possible meaning could this date, this name, hold for me now? When my soul discarded its carcass of flesh, bones and entrails and assumed the form of a Spirit; and when, in the space of a few hours, my body had decayed and been devoured by worms, I was free at last. I am now a Spirit: Afa Ojo (She Who Commands Rain).


My dwelling, the Universe of Nine Domains, knows neither body, time, nor distance. Nothing that is temporal. For me, only substance exists. Substance is Spirit. The true life. That which neither perishes nor decays.

Seldom do I descend among mortals. Only an insistent plea can compel me. It is then I 'mount' a body whose soul is pure. But only those who have grasped the meaning of their lives on earth are able to receive me. Spirits do not like being disturbed for trivialities. But it was Akwete1 who called me. He is one of those rare beings who knows my ofo (incantations), my true name, my favourite colours, the chant, the number and intonation of bata2 beats, the libations I need and the animal to be sacrificed so that I may 'descend' among mortals. Fettered as you are in your perishable bodies, haunted by the fear of death, hemmed in on all sides by ignorance, living only for the present and the past, what could you mortals possibly comprehend?


Let us speak nonetheless of those fetters. The present. The past. Naught but artificial categories. Words without meaning: centuries, decades, years, months, weeks. Or days, hours, minutes, seconds... grains of sand slipping through an hourglass, signaling in their flow the inevitable ageing of the body.


The body. That entity wherein mortals invest their every hope. Object of admiration or of covetousness. Source of vanity, hatred, violence and fear. Fear of being but a mere speck of dust in the vast universe of Spirits. Fear of no longer being. It is thus that mortals 'live', haunted as they are by the spectre of the body's death. Obsessed with the body. Obsessed with death. Theirs is a quest for totality. Who but they long to know everything? To master everything? And to what end? A search for wisdom, or an obsession to categorise? Mastery, knowledge and understanding are within the reach of all. Not so with wisdom. Only those who have first learned that the abandonment of the body is the beginning of true life shall ever attain it.


But what could there be of interest in the words of a Spirit? Why evoke that which lies outside the grasp of mortals? Was it not to speak of my son that Akwete called upon me? Ah, mortals! You prefer dwelling in the past – what has been, what can no longer be changed – rather than contemplating the future; what you will become. But what does it matter? I will speak to you then of that son whose first name means He Who Emanates Greatness...


My name was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti when my fourth child – Fela – was born. The first-born was a girl. We named her Oluwadolupo (The great being has brought all the good beings together), but we all called her Dolu. After, came our son Olikoye (The man who acquires distinguished titles) whom we called Koye. Their father was overjoyed. For us Yorubas, the birth of a son is always greeted with rejoicing, the birth of a daughter being of lesser importance. His happiness was thus complete when, in 1935, a second son was born. This time we allowed a German missionary in Abeokuta to choose the name of this child and to become his godfather. He named the boy Hildegart. None of us knew the meaning of this name. And we were to pay dearly for our mistake. O, Olódùmarè! Forgive us! Two weeks after his birth, Hildegart suddenly died. A Babalawo of Abeokuta, whom l secretly went to consult, told me that three years would elapse before I would become fertile again and be honoured by Olórun with another child. For three years my womb was to be barren!


In 1938 was born he whom we named Fela. This child could not but be He who emanates greatness. After Fela came another son, Bekololari, which means Greatness is not what you see with your eyes. We called him Beko. He was to be my last child. For there was something my dignity refused: injustice. In the face of injustice I could not remain indifferent. It was like a fire which devours the bush. Thus, in spite of myself, I was caught up in a relentless current: the desire and need to arouse the women around me and make their voices be heard.


Thus it was that, shortly after FeIa's birth, my marriage began showing signs of weariness. Day after day, I watched the children's father grow increasingly distant. And I, too, felt the distance within myself becoming greater. The river of our communal life was gradually drying up and soon only the barren bed would remain. What had happened? Neither he nor I myself knew, unless it was this constant tug-of-war I was waging between my family life and a struggle I could no longer abandon. None of the other children ever knew anything about our differences. This was in 1945 and the great war of the oyinbo5 was coming to an end. Fela was seven years old at the time. He was the only one who worried us. And it was he, more than any other of the children, who would know the sting of the atori.6 Ever since he was born we had been troubled by what we saw in his eyes: haughtiness, stubbornness, unbridled recklessness, arrogance, lasciviousness... I feared these many signs could only spell misfortune and malediction. Thus, in the stealth of the night, I went to consult the Babalawo.  And this is what the oracle revealed: "The child will be stubborn, impetuous, unbridled... his path will be strewn with pitfalls... turbulence and violence... his wives will be numerous... he will live in poverty alongside beggars and thieves. His friends will be fugitives... and he will be branded an outlaw. For he will flout laws, go counter to the taboos of men and the god of the oyinbo. And he will perish by their hand." Shattered, I cried aloud: "O Lord, why have we been so cursed?"


There are burdens no one can carry alone. Upon returning home, I recounted what had happened to the children's father. For once he did not even reproach me for having gone to the Babalawo. Burying his head in his hands, he plunged into a deep meditation. When he raised his head I read a firm determination in his eyes. "With the help of God we will try to change Fela's destiny!" he said. Above all, he would have to be taught to fear his parents. For is it not written in the scriptures that the fear of God is the beginning of man's wisdom? And was not the stick our only means of instilling in our children a respect of the laws of men and the Commandments of God? Besides, had not the Ransome-Kuti family been Christian for two generations? The children's father and I had always agreed on one thing: the Ransome-Kuti children would be examples of righteousness for all Abeokuta and the neighbouring towns. Even if somewhere in our hearts we mistrusted the white man, we were convinced that only his religion, his knowledge and customs would allow us to retrieve the sceptre of power he had ravished from our people.


The years passed, etching deep lines across our faces and strengthening the fierce look in Fela's eyes. That deeply disturbed us. With what we knew about him, was it not our duty to inculcate in him a sense of caution to restrain his recklessness? Was he not born in the midst of a vanquished people whose hour had not yet come? The tales of our forefathers were still engraved on our minds: Odùduwà... the seven kingdoms... then, the coming of the great tragedy: the arrival of the oyinbo... the wars... the defeats... the bleeding of Yorubaland... As many of ours as there are trees in a forest were captured, enchained, driven to the coast and whipped aboard boats. Bound for which unknown world? For which hell...?

None of this, though, would we discuss before our children. Still we anticipated the day when one after the other would ask: "How did it come about that the oyinbo and his armies govern our people?" And we knew beforehand that only Fela would be unsatisfied with our answer. We had wanted to protect him against evil. But the acts of mortals are perceived and judged differently, depending on whether one is a mortal or a Spirit. What does he, my son, have to say?

32, 33


--------------------------------- 000 ------------------------------



Chapter 25

AFA OJO (Part 2)

She Who Commands Rain


O my son, I have listened and heard. Olumo Rock is my witness. The words you have spoken overwhelm me with sadness. And this heart – which Spirits also harbour – is torn asunder and bleeds. None but we of the Universe of Nine Domains can fully feel the intensity of the deeper sentiments. Hearing is thus understanding. So it is that you, my son, are pursuing the whys and wherefores, the imponderables of mortal existence: suffering... evil... death... and destiny. Lend an ear, then, to the voice of time everlasting. The voice of wisdom. The voice of those who can only speak the truth. The voice of a Spirit. Know that every man is born with a mission which he either accomplishes or betrays. And the reason for this is what I shall now reveal.


One day, a very long, long time ago for you mortals, there dwelt in the realm of Olórun, the owner of the heavens, the creator, the master of destinies, the one with many names, a certain orisha who was in constant disaccord with himself, his fellow orishas and with He who is the father of the heavens. Day in and day out he was besieged by a question of his own making: "Why should I not be as powerful as Olórun, the Creator himself?"


Thus it came to pass that while Elédà was one day fast asleep, this tormented orisha, taking advantage of the slumber of his master, stealthily crept up upon him and made 666 attempts at usurping the breath which creates life (emi). Caught, though, as he was, in the very act, the orisha was instantly divested of his sacred name. And from that time onwards, he came to be known by the number 666. A number which you mortals designate by the name of lbi: Evil!


Banned forever from the domain of the orishas, Evil was made to err until Olódùmarè had created for him a completely separate world: Earth. A world where, with loneliness as his punishment, Ibi would dwell entirely alone. And thus it was. Until the day when, suddenly, his pent-up fury was unleashed on earth. Evil devastated forests, wrested the soul from trees, razed fields; poisoned the air, plundered the seas, spoiled rivers; displaced the most formidable of rocks and shattered mountains. Not a living thing was left untouched. Evil had wreaked destruction on the creation of Elédà and in the wake of his wickedness there lay but the rubble of devastation. Then, with his gaze defiantly fixed on the heavens, lbi proclaimed in a loud, triumphant voice: "Behold, Olódùmarè, the remains of thy creation! Behold the greatness of my might! Thou hast the power to awaken. I have the power of forever putting to sleep. Which, I ask, is the greater?"


Now, when Olórun, owner of the heavens, beheld the abominable waste wrought by Ibi, he was dumbfounded. Elédà knew that the fallen orisha possessed a power not even held by the creator himself. Ibi could destroy life. Evil had conjured forth... Death! Never before had there reigned such disarray in the domain of he who creates life with his breath. Stunned and profoundly distraught, the Master of Destinies summoned together all his orishas. It was Odùduwà, the elder

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