"Like Womad on Crack": The Exhilarating Fela!
This story was first published in the March 2015 issue of Metro.
Sometime around six o’clock one morning in 2008, New York musician Questlove wrote in a stream-of-consciousness email to friends and influencers that he had “witnessed a miracle tonight”. He’d just seen an off-Broadway show about the Nigerian afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Questlove’s passionate rant, peppered with assertions like “BEST MUSICAL EVER CREATED” and MMMMMEEEEEDDDDDDIIAAATLY”, did its job: people flocked, Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith came on as producers of Fela!, and the high-octane musical ran for several years on Broadway.
It’s a mind-blowing, exhilarating experience, blending music, politics, dance, hilarity and horror.
Now, Broadway is one big, fat hit-or-miss hyperbole, but buoyed by feedback from unusual quarters, I went along one sultry New York night and joined the typical Broadway audience: mostly white, mostly well-to-do, mostly stiff-hipped. It’s hard to get white people’s hips swinging freely (yes, I’ve heard it said), but from the moment the show started, the transformation in the stalls was profound. It was like Womad on crack.
The exclamation mark in the title is a pretty good guide to what you can expect in Fela!. It’s a mind-blowing, exhilarating experience, blending music, politics, dance, hilarity and horror, set during one wild night at the Shrine, the Lagos club where Kuti and his band played for years.
The Auckland festival is bringing a concert version of the show to the Civic this month, and even if you think Afrobeat isn’t your thing, give it a whirl.
Fela Kuti is widely acknowledged as the founder of the Afrobeat sound (he had help — legendary drummer Tony Allen was right alongside him). A son of Nigeria’s leading female activist at the time, Kuti was encouraged to educate himself in London, but his studies gave way to a life in music.
Early on, he recorded in the highlife-jazz style, but when his band travelled in the United States, that changed. They saw the ultimate showman, James Brown, they met the Black Panther movement, and their sound took on a militant edge, layering jazz and funk with chanting and traditional Nigerian Yoruba drumming. Afrobeat was born and, with it, a political movement against colonial aggression.
Shows about musicians tend towards sentimental tribute or faithful impersonation, but Fela! is quite different: a sensuous, angry, joyous, non-stop Afrobeat rave. The Civic will become a nightclub, a marketplace, a courtroom, a commune, a prison, a cemetery. (Kuti, who died in 1997 of an Aids-related illness at age 58, was arrested many times, his home destroyed by the military police; his mother was a victim of state violence.)
Because the concert version of the show coming to Auckland lacks some of the full dramatic moments I won’t go all-caps-Questlove on your asses, but I will say see it. Documentary footage will stand in for some of the biographical set pieces from the original; in Auckland, it’s all about the music.
And the stage will be crowded. A 10-piece band — percussion, guitars, horns and more — includes original members of Brooklyn-based Afrobeat heroes Antibalas, who helped to develop the musical with choreographer Bill T Jones and co-creator Jim Lewis.
Theirs is a non-stop job, keeping up a wall of sound from start to end. Just as vital are the dancers: wild, kinetic women with individual flair. Afrobeat is nothing if you’re not moved by it — literally. Bring your dancing shoes and don’t complain when the people in front of you stand up.
At the centre of it all is charismatic dancer-actor-singer Adesola Osakalumi as the magnetic, complicated star, an electrifying mass of muscle resplendently dressed in Kuti’s signature style (at least until the shirt comes off). When he calls, you respond. Yeah, yeah!
Fela! The Concert: The Civic, until March 22. aucklandfestival.co.nz