Nigeria’s soul rebel and Afrobeat innovator conquers the Great White Way
Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a musical pioneer and a social rebel whose art and life were inseparable. Fela’s recordings and legendary performances embodied his outlook and way of being in the world. He created a new hybrid genre, Afrobeat, out of traditional Nigerian music and American jazz and funk, and used that churning, driving, irresistible music to raise consciousness, agitate, and entertain. He scorned bourgeois propriety, in his sex life (he was an unapologetic polygamist), dress (he mocked Africans who wore Western business suits, and often performed only in briefs), and in his prodigious consumption of igbo, i.e., weed.
In his music and public pronouncements, Nigeria’s leading pop star excoriated his country’s corrupt military leaders and wielded his music as a weapon against political repression and economic exploitation. Persecuted by the Nigerian government, adored by his mainly poor and working class audience, and admired by musicians worldwide, Fela Kuti died from AIDS in 1997, at age 58.
Sounds just like the raw material of a Broadway musical, right?
But Fela!, the most improbable of Great White Way entertainments, turned out to be the most exciting entry in Broadway’s 2009 season, a brilliant and original amalgam of dance, music, and theater. Directed and choreographed by the innovative, boundary-pushing Bill T. Jones, the show boasts an outstanding ensemble of singers, dancers, and musicians led by Sahr Ngaujah, an American-born actor of Sierra Leonean descent, who superbly incarnates the Nigerian star. (Because the role is so demanding, Ngaujah alternates performances with another actor, Kevin Mambo. But as the main “Fela,” Ngaujah has gotten all the media love, as well as a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical.)
Fela! works its juju before the show even starts. The interior of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre has been repurposed as a dazzling simulacrum of the Shrine, Fela’s Lagos nightclub, with the addition of video projections and other embellishments. The band, comprising members of the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas, is already on stage casually jamming as the audience enters. Before Ngaujah, his lithe figure encased in a powder blue jumpsuit, speaks his first lines, you’re primed for an amazing evening -- I know I was -- and Fela! fully delivers.
The original cast album can’t, of course, capture all the excitement. For one thing, it was recorded in a studio rather than onstage. I would’ve preferred a live recording, a la the cast album of another unconventional Broadway musical, Stew’s Passing Strange. But as a document of the production, it will please fans and hopefully will introduce the uninitiated not only to the show, but to the source material, Fela’s own indelible work.
As he does on stage, Sahr Ngaujah rules the roost here. He hits all the notes, musical and dramatic, expertly replicating Fela’s speech and vocal tone. In the narrative passages that provide much of the exposition, he registers Fela’s sly wit, righteous anger, earthy sexuality, and quasi-messianic sense of self.
Bill T. Jones and his collaborator Jim Lewis have structured the show as a concert -- Fela’s last appearance at the Shrine. They’ve built a loose biographical storyline around the songs, opening with “Everything Scatter”, a broadside against Nigeria’s military leaders. In “BID (Breaking It Down)”, Fela explains how he created Afrobeat from traditional Yoruba music, jazz, and the syncopated funk of James Brown. “Expensive Shit” and “Zombie”, two of Fela’s greatest and most confrontational hits, respectively recount a bizarre encounter with the authorities involving ingested igbo and the singer’s feces, and mock Nigerian soldiers as mindless creatures who unquestioningly obey orders to shoot and kill civilians. “Lover” evokes Fela’s intellectual awakening via an African-American woman, Sandra Isidore (“Sandra was turning me on…to ideas”); “International Thief Thief” calls out the multinational corporations exploiting Nigeria.
Fela’s mother, Fumilayo Kuti, a remarkable woman who was a left-wing intellectual and feminist, exerted a powerful influence on her son. (She died from injuries she sustained when soldiers raided Fela’s compound and threw her from a window.) Some of Fela!’s most powerful moments come in the numbers featuring Broadway veteran Lillias White as Fumilayo -- “Trouble Sleep”, and especially “Rain”, a non-Fela composition written for the show.
Although Fela! is staged as a concert, it’s not an entirely faithful recreation of Fela’s music-making. Many of his recorded numbers run over 10 minutes; live, they could stretch out to a half-hour or more. This wouldn’t work on Broadway, of course, so the show’s musical director and arranger Aaron Johnson -- who also conducts the band and plays trombone and keyboard -- has edited the material. The expansive jams “Expensive Shit” and “Zombie” have been trimmed to a lean but effective four minutes. That said, the arrangements and playing are generally true to the originals. The ten-piece band is smaller than Fela’s ensembles, but large enough to recreate his trademark layered and rhythmically complex sound. Drum kit and African percussion keep the polyrhythms roiling, the horn section is full and assertive (saxophonist Stuart Bogie handles Fela’s fiery solos, which Ngaujah mimes onstage), and the guitarists lay down the strummed funk patterns and finger-picked ostinatos that were a distinctive, even defining aspect of Fela’s sound. The only element that’s downplayed is the somewhat cheesy electric piano sound of Fela’s '70s recordings, and that’s no great loss.
But there’s no denying that this is a cleaned-up, more “accessible” Fela, with some of the rougher edges -- of both the man and his art -- smoothed off. Some hardcore fans have grumbled, but Fela’s son Femi Kuti has given his blessing to the changes. (He liked the show so much he pleaded with the producers to bring it to Nigeria, and they’ve agreed.) In the end, Fela! remains both a theatrical milestone and a great introduction to the music and life of that extraordinary rebel Fela Anikulapo Kuti.