Fela! Giving new life to the Afrobeat legend, the award-winning musical celebrating the life and works of the Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti is coming to London. Metro talks to star Sahr Ngaujah and Fela’s son Femi.
In a small room in London’s National Theatre, Sahr Ngaujah is showing how he transforms himself into Fela Kuti. ‘It’s all about how he holds his cigarette,’ he says, by which I assume he means a big fat joint. ‘How he would pout his lips. And his voice. Each sentence curls into a deep, slow “yuuuurr”… you have to be bloody chilled out to talk like that.’ His voice sinks several octaves and for a second it feels like Nigeria’s legendary Afrobeat pioneer is in the room, legs spread out and sporting red underpants.
Ngaujah has been channelling the spirit of Fela Anikulapo Kuti for the past four years, ever since Broadway choreographer Bill T Jones asked him to audition for a proposed musical based on Fela’s life. From its humble beginnings off Broadway, that show become a word-of-mouth, celebrity-backed cult hit (Jay-Z is a co-producer), then a Tony Award-winning sensation, and now arrives at London’s National Theatre.
Fela’s son Femi, an acclaimed Afrobeat artist in his own right in Britain this month to tour his new album, Africa For Africa, says there are plans to take the show to Nigeria. ‘The show has to come home,’ he says. ‘Of course, really it has to go everywhere. The more people who understand the struggle the better.’
Fela! is no ordinary musical, mainly because Fela Kuti was no ordinary musician. It’s both a slick piece of Broadway entertainment and the story of a man whose music once resembled the voice of protest within an impoverished, repressive Nigeria and who, after his death in 1997, spawned one of the few enduring late 20th-century musical mythologies.
Fela was priest and shaman, folk hero and master showman; he was arrested and beaten more than 200 times and famously married 27 women on the same day. In 1977 he delivered his mother’s coffin to the presidential barracks after 1,000 soldiers raided Fela’s compound and threw his mother out of the window; in Lagos he was known among residents as ‘the newspaper’ because he was always able to tell them what was going on.
Trying to unlock these epic life forces and some of Fela’s more unpalatable opinions (his views on women and homosexuality are dodgy at best) is not just a challenge for Ngaujah but a massive responsibility. ‘He stands for the courage of an individual to face their own fears,’ he says. ‘He made music he believed in and was brave enough to let his body come in between. He was a rock star, man.’
Still, the show – which has changed a little in transfer, in recognition of the fact Fela is better known here – controversially avoids the politics and concentrates mainly on the music. Brought to life by Ngaujah, a troupe of female dancers and a live band, it makes for a sublime, limb-shaking, show-boating spectacle. Ngaujah, who was born to a Sierra Leonean father and grew up in Atlanta, first heard Fela when he was six.
‘My dad is a DJ and it was just mind-boggling when he explained the song ITT to me [ITT stands for International Thief Thief and was a scathing attack on Western multinationals],’ he says. ‘I had never encountered music layered like that. Great party music too.’
Yet both he and Femi are well aware of the irony of a musical celebrating Fela’s pan-African idealism for a continent that is even poorer and perhaps more corrupt than it was in 1978. Femi is full of fury at the incompetence of African governments and the Western corporations that continue to exploit Africa; the mass poverty and a barely functioning education system means a generation is growing up not understanding its own history. ‘If my dad were alive today he’d have had a heart attack,’ he says grimly.
Music, too has changed: its power as a political platform has rapidly declined. It’s a subject close to Ngaujah’s heart: his one-man show, Conversations With Ice, draws connections between the blood diamond trade in Sierra Leone and hip hop’s bling subculture.
‘So much media is now consolidated among a few people that the messages coming through are very controlled,’ he says. ‘It just takes me back to the thing I really appreciate about Fela and his life: the things Fela had to say and how far he was willing to go.’
bY CLAIRE ALLFREE for METRO UK News.