The hit Broadway musical about Nigerian musical legend and political radical Fela Kuti has just opened in London.
The production celebrates the music and politics of the afrobeat star. The show is a joy in itself, and it should act as a gateway into the world of Fela’s music.
The production highlights the witty and highly risky ways that he challenged the Nigerian dictatorship through the 1970s.
Fela’s mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a leading women’s rights activist. And his father, Israel, was one of the founders of the Nigerian teachers’ union.
In 1958 Fela arrived in London to study classical music, but found his inspiration in jazz—the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
By the late 1960s he was touring the US with his own band, and was heavily influenced by blues, funk and psychedelic rock. He was also politicised by the radicalism of the Black Panthers and other revolutionary groups.
On returning to Nigeria he set up the Shrine club in Lagos. People jammed in to see his band play. He mixed his love of performing with increasingly vocal opposition to the Nigerian government.
Fela’s music rapidly evolved from an occasionally clunky mix of R&B, jazz and funk into his own serpentine fusion of these sounds combined with African rhythms—afrobeat.
His songs became extended improvisations lasting half an hour or more. His band expanded until there were upwards of 30 musicians and dancers on stage.
Over driving rhythms he would call for black unity and decry those in power who had abandoned the struggle against imperialism.
Nigeria was a military dictatorship, recovering from a civil war in which more than a million had died. The corrupt elite was benefiting from oil wealth, but for ordinary people the hope that had come with independence was replaced by bitterness and anger.
Fela started to sing in pidgin English, so he could be understood by ordinary Nigerians and more of the poor across the continent.
His albums and concerts at the Shrine celebrated life. He mixed pride in African life with political defiance, sex and large amounts of cannabis.
Some of his views are less attractive, including polygamy and homophobia. And his political stance was based on rage rather than a worked out socialist position—and always balanced by a biting humour. But his challenge to the government was deadly serious.
He formed a commune—the Kalakuta Republic—which included a recording studio.
In 1977 his album Zombie directly attacked the regime and at the same time Kalakuta symbolically declared independence from Nigeria. The dictatorship responded with a frontal assault by 1,000 soldiers. The story told in Fela! focuses on these events.
Fela was beaten up, the commune was ransacked and his mother thrown out of a second floor window. She later died from her injuries.
The soldiers burned Kalakuta and the Shrine club to the ground. In a typically defiant response, Fela delivered his mother’s coffin to the presidential palace, and wrote a song, “Coffin for Head of State”, attacking the government’s actions.
He formed his own political party, “Movement of the People” and tried to stand for president in Nigeria’s 1979 election—his candidature was refused.
Fela died of an Aids-related illness in 1997, and more than a million people thronged to his funeral at the site of his Shrine club in Lagos.
Fela! the musical takes several of Kuti’s best known songs, including “Expensive Shit”, “Zombie” and “Water No Get Enemy”.
It shortens them and builds a narrative around them of Kuti’s confrontation with the government.
At first I resisted this attempt to neaten and rationalise the organised chaos of his best music. But in the context of the musical it makes perfect sense.
Here the enunciation is much crisper and more Western. This band has a mere 12 members, but fills the theatre with sound.
Sahr Ngaujah plays Fela, as he did in the Broadway production, capturing the singer’s charismatic magnetism.
Everyone should experience the afrobeat live, then listen to the full glory of Fela’s music on CD.
It recalls a real pride in African resistance, totally opposed to the despair that views Africa as a basket case. It would be worth remembering for that, even if it wasn’t filled with vibrant masterpieces in its own right.
Fela! is at the National Theatre Olivier, London until 6 January. Go to www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/felalondon
For Fela Kuti’s CDs—including a 27 CD box set featuring all his albums and the Fela! original Broadway cast CD—visit Wrasse records at www.wrasserecords.com