There’s a New Show on Broadway, the likes of which has never been seen on the stage before! Fela! by
Bill T. Jones, famous director and choreographer, along with others have brought to the story of outspoken Nigerian Afrobeat musician and revolutionary social activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti to the American stage!!
Bill T. Jones does a great job of explaining his understanding of Fela and the reason he has brought his life to the Broadway stage. Personally, I have only seen clips on TV and Youtube, but I can see that the show is spectacular! The choreography showcases some of the most fantastic and energetic dancers and singers, and the multitalented Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Fela takes command of the role and becomes the man Fela!
The Broadway show starts with the performers slowly and sensually walking through the aisles of the theater to the stage, hips swaying as they pass the audience–hinting at the excitement to come. First Fela’s female dancers, then Fela and his male dancers who encircle Fela, dancing bent over at the waist while Fela dances, standing upright. The whole scene portrays Fela as being larger than life! The performer, Sahr Ngaujah, reeks of gorgeousness and sexiness! He’s one black man from whom you can not tear your eyes!! HOT and Cool!! This performer captures a bit the excitement and brilliance and contradiction of Fela Kuti!
As for the rest of the performers, I read a review here that sums it beautifully!!
SO WHO WAS Fela Anikulapo Kuti? A Broadway show cannot begin to encompass the man. Choreographer Bill T. Jones understood that fully.
Fela was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria into a middle-class family on October 15, 1938. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement, and his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, who was a Protestant minister and school principal, was the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers.
FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI (25 October 1900 Abeokuta, Nigeria – 13 April 1978 Lagos, Nigeria), born Francis Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas to Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas and Lucretia Phyllis Omoyeni Adeosolu. She was a teacher, political campaigner, women’s rights activist and traditional aristocrat. Ransome-Kuti’s political activism led to her being described as the doyen of female rights in Nigeria and was regarded as “The Mother of Africa.” Early on she was a very powerful force advocating for women’s right to vote. She was described in 1947, by the West African Pilot as the “Lioness of Lisabi” for her leadership of Egba women on a campaign against arbitrary taxation of women. That struggle led to the abdication of the Egba King Oba Ademola II in 1949. Fela adored his warrior mother Funmilayo, for her powerful activism for women rights in Nigeria, yet Fela himself was considered chauvinistic and he was a polygamist!
Fela was sent by his parents to London in 1958 to study medicine, but he decided that he would study music instead at the Trinity College of Music. While there, he formed the band, Koola Lobitos, and they played a fusion of jazz and highlife music. In 1960, Fela married his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor, with whom he would have three children (Femi, Yeni, and Sola).
In 1969, Fela took the band to the United States. While there, he was introduced to the Black Power movement through Sandra Smith (now Izsadore)—a partisan of the Black Panther Party. The Black Power Movement in America greatly influenced his music and political views. He renamed his band, Nigeria ’70.
He later formed the Kalakuta Republic, a commune, a recording studio, and a home for the many people connected to the band. He later declared the Kalakuta Republic independent and sovereign from the state of Nigeria. Fela also set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, and named it the Afrika Shrine, where he and his band performed on a regualar basis. Many artists the world over has visited the Afrika Shrine–Hugh Masakela, Roy Ayers, Paul McCartney (who didn’t want it known that he visited)–for a little taste of the creativity, the danger, the excitement, the sexiness and madness of it all!
Fela was continually developing his political stance through his music. What I respect about Fela is that he was struggling to recapture his “African-ness”, a battle that many of us are fighting. He wanted black people to reclaim their black culture and, he wanted to help “re-Africanize the people through the music” He decided to change his middle “slave name” from “Ransome” to “Anikulapo” which means, “he who carries death in his pouch”.
Because Fela’s music spoke to the issues of oppresion of the people, it became very popular among Nigerians, and of course good protest music speaks to all people, so Africans across the continent became big fans as well. In fact, he made the decision to sing in Pidgin English so that his music could be enjoyed by individuals throughout Africa. As his music gained popularity with the masses of black people, he was hated more and more by the Nigerian government for his open condemnation of them and their tactics.
In 1977 Fela and the Afrika ’70 released the hit album “Zombie”, a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers, using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of the Nigerian military. The album was a smash hit with the people and infuriated the government all the more. The government retaliated with a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic, during which one thousand soldiers attacked the commune. Fela was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, which caused fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Fela’s studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed.
Fela and his band retreated to a residence in the Crossroads Hotel along with his commune. In 1978 Fela married 27 women, many of whom were his dancers, composers, and singers to mark the anniversary of the attack on the Kalakuta Republic. Later, he was to adopt a rotation system of keeping only twelve simultaneous wives. The year was also marked by two notorious concerts, the first in Accra in which riots broke out during the song “Zombie”, which led to Fela being banned from entering Ghana. The second was at the Berlin Jazz Festival after which most of Fela’s musicians deserted him, due to rumours that Fela was planning to use the entirety of the proceeds to fund his presidential campaign.
Despite these massive setbacks, Fela was determined to make a comeback. Interestingly, he formed his own political party, called “Movement of the People”. In 1979 he put himself forward for President in Nigeria’s first elections in more than a decade, but his candidature was refused. During that time, Fela created a new band, and called it Egypt ’80. He kept it all moving and continued to record albums and tour the country.
He further infuriated the political establishment by dropping the names of ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph, Nigeria Ltd) vice-president Moshood Abiola and then General Olusegun Obasanjo at the end of a hot-selling 25-minute political screed titled “I.T.T. (International Thief-Thief)”.
I was happy to find the following vimeo on Fela. The title is “The Music Is The Weapon” and in it Fela talks openly about corruption in Nigeria, colonialism and its effects, culture and music. He and his Queens also talk about the attack they suffered at the hands of the government, and how they attacked and destroyed the compound. The film is one hour long, but very interesting and informative–well worth watching in its entirety. The narrator gives it a slight bit of a racist spin, but it’s easy to ignore. In this vimeo, you can see Fela’s passion and love for his people–the film gives one a fuller understanding of the man. I should warn that there are a few graphic photos when they speak of the Biafran War.
In 1984, Fela was again attacked by the military government, who jailed him on a dubious charge of currency smuggling. His case was taken up by several human-rights groups, and after spending 20 months in prison, he was released by General Ibrahim Babangida. On his release he divorced his 12 remaining wives, saying that “marriage brings jealousy and selfishness.” Once again, Fela continued to release albums with Egypt ’80, made a number of successful tours of the United States and Europe and also continued to be politically active. In 1986, Fela performed in Giants Stadium in New Jersey as part of the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope concert, sharing the bill with Bono, Carlos Santana, and The Neville Brothers. In 1989, Fela and Egypt ’80 released the anti-apartheid Beasts of No Nation album that depicts on its cover then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and South African Prime Minister Pieter Willem Botha with fangs dripping blood.
The musical style performed by Fela Kuti is called Afrobeat, which is a fusion of jazz, funk, psychedelic rock, and traditional West African chants and rhythms. Afrobeat also borrows heavily from the native “tinker pan” African-style percussion that Kuti acquired while studying in Ghana with Hugh Masekela, under the fantastic Hedzoleh Soundz. Afrobeat is also characterized by having vocals, and musical structure, along with jazzy, funky horn sections. The endless groove is also used, in which a base rhythm of drums, shekere, muted guitar, and bass guitar are repeated throughout the song.
Kuti thought that it was very important for Africans to fight European cultural imperialism, and he was a supporter of traditional African religions and lifestyles. He was also a supporter of Pan-Africanism, and called for a united, democratic African republic. He was a candid supporter of human rights, and many of his songs are direct attacks against dictatorships, specifically the militaristic governments of Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s. He was also a social commentator, and he criticized his fellow Africans (especially the upper class) for betraying traditional African culture. The African culture he believed in also included having many wives (polygamy) and the Kalakuta Republic was formed in part as a polygamist colony. He defended his stance on polygamy with the words “A man goes for many women in the first place. Like in Europe, when a man is married, when the wife is sleeping, he goes out and f**ks around. He should bring the women in the house, man, to live with him, and stop running around the streets!”
Rumours started spreading that he was suffering from an illness for which he was refusing treatment. On 3 August 1997, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, already a prominent AIDS activist and former Minister of Health, stunned the nation by announcing his younger brother’s death a day earlier from Kaposi’s sarcoma brought on by AIDS. (Their younger brother Beko was in jail at this time at the hand of Abacha for political activity.)
More than a million people attended Fela’s funeral at the site of the old Shrine compound. A new Africa Shrine has opened since Fela’s death in a different section of Lagos under the supervision of his son Femi Kuti.
In 2008, an off-Broadway production of Fela Kuti’s life titled Fela!, began with a collaborative workshop between the Afrobeat band Antibalas and Tony award winner Bill T. Jones. The show was a massive success, selling out shows during its run, and garnering much critical acclaim. On November 22, 2009, Fela! began a run on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Jim Lewis helped co-write the play (along with Bill T. Jones), and obtained producer backing from Jay-Z, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Stephen Hendel, and Stephen Semlitz. The show received rave reviews from The New York Times, saying that the musical “Fela! doesn’t so much tell a story as soak an audience to and through the skin with the musical style and sensibility practiced by its leading man.” Sahr Ngaujah was cast as the magnetic lead role, and Antibalas continues to provide the music, taking on the role of the Nigeria 70. On May 4, 2010, Fela! was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical for Bill T. Jones, Best Leading Actor in a Musical for Sahr Ngaujah, and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Lillias White.