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"Fela!" brings life of legendary musician, provocateur to stage

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Tuesday, February 14, 2012

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Rikki Stein, Fela Kuti’s longtime manager and friend — and the “self-appointed guardian” of the late Nigerian legend’s legacy — was surprised, and skeptical, when he was received a proposal for a stage musical based on Kuti’s life and music.

“I went, ‘Eh?’,” Stein recalls. “I get all kinds of things that come through the door, as you can imagine, a lot of which are dubious. So I didn’t pay an awful lot of attention, to be honest.

“I have to confess, you get a bit blasé on these issues as time goes on.”

But after seeing a script, Stein quickly changed his mind. A good thing, too.

“Fela!,” which opens a 20-day stand this week at Detroit’s Music Hall Center, has been a worldwide smash since it opened Off-Broadway in 2008.

Its Broadway run drew more than 500,000 people in 15 months and snared 11 Tony Award nominations — winning three, for Best Choreography, Best Costume Design and Best Sound Design.

It’s also played in London and is touring North America, and it’s made its way to Africa starting with an emotional visit last April to the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria.

“I was surprised by how many people throughout the world, when they heard we were doing to do this, said that, ‘It’s going to be crap’,” recalls Bill T. Jones, the show’s director, choreographer and co-writer. “And it wasn’t only Nigerians, but many people who say ‘Fela is underground, a radical. You can’t do him justice on Broadway!’ Until they come and see the show. ... People speak of it now in terms of really being something.

“Did I expect any of that to happen? I didn’t. I tend to be a glass-half-empty kind of guy, so everything was a wonderful surprise.”

Black president

As an adventurous musician and equally fearless political provcateur, Fela Kuti’s story certainly doesn’t seem a likely subject for a Broadway musical, of course — a drama, perhaps, or a documentary, but not necessarily treading the same boards as “The Sound of Music” or “Jersey Boys.”

Born Olufela Olusegun Oluddotun Ransome-Kuti, he was the son of a Protestant minister-school principal father and an activist mother. Fela was on track to study medicine like his brothers, but during the late ‘50s he switched to London’s Trinity College of Music, exploring both jazz and African styles.

During a 1967 sojourn to Ghana to study with Hugh Masekela, Kuti crafted a vision for Afrobeat — a synthesis of High Life and other West African styles, jazz, funk, soul and rock — while during a 1969 tour of the U.S. (without a work permit), Fela was exposed to the Black Power movement via Black Panther Party member Izsadore (Sandra Smith), who’s prominently depicted in “Fela!” and had a marked influence on his art.

He returned to Nigeria with a new name for his band, Africa ‘70, and a fresh purpose for his music.

“Music is about change,” Fela (played by Tony-nominated Sahr Ngaujah) says during the show. “I’m going to change Africa. I’m going to change the world!”

His songs dealt with political and social issues, protesting colonial imperialism in Africa, government corruption and inequitable distribution of wealth while championing a democratic, Pan-African society — even embracing indigenous traditions that at one point allowed him to have more than two dozen wives (most of which were divorced by the mid-’80s).

One Australian newspaper described him as “Che Guevara and Bob Marley rolled into one person.”

Jones explains that, “He felt his music should be something that was aggressively political. That’s what extended his notion of composition and arrangement.”

Fela’s vision, not surprisingly, rankled authorities in Nigeria who began raiding his home, which he called the Kalukuta Republic, and his Afrika Shrine nightclub in Lagos. The most memorable assault came after the release of his particularly scathing 1977 album “Zombie.” The Kalukuta Republic was burned, Fela himself was brutally beaten and his mother died after being thrown from a window.

Fela didn’t back down, however; his music remained provocative, while in 1979 he formed a political party called Movement of the People, and made an unsuccessful run for president of Nigeria. In 1984 he was jailed on a trumped-up charge of smuggling currency and spent 20 months in jail until human rights groups pressured his release.

Fela continued making music into the early ‘90s with his band, rechristened Egypt ‘80. He quietly faded out of sight, however, and on Aug. 3, 1997, he died from AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma. Fela’s funeral, attended by more than a million people, was held at the site of the Afrika Shrine.

BID (Breaking It Down)

Fela’s legacy continued and even grew after his death thanks to the efforts of manager Stein and other supporters, including mainstream musicians such as the Roots and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. One late convert was Stephen Hendel, an oil dealer who became hooked after he purchased a Fela compilation album.

“He just became obsessed, first with the music and then the message,” Stein says. “He said, ‘Oh God, I want to do something but this,’ but he didn’t know exactly what. He finally came to the idea of doing a musical.”

As it happened, Hendel shared an attorney with Jones, who put the two men together in 2004. Recruiting playwright Jim Lewis, they worked up a treatment that Hendel then presented to the skeptical Stein. “I opened it, and the first thing that jumped out and hit me in the eye was the name Bill T. Jones — that made me take it more seriously,” says Stein, who was acquainted with Jones’ award-winning work with the American Dance Asylum, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and other troupes.

“Then I started reading the thing they’d written, and I said, ‘Damn, this is good. Stephen and I met for a coffee, and he said, ‘I consider Fela to be the most important musician of the 20th century — certainly the most courageous, alongside (Dmitri) Shostakovich. I want to do this thing. Will you help me?’

“It was a simple plea, and obviously so heartfelt, I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ I helped him get the rights from the family, and it went from there.”

Working at New York’s 37 Arts complex, Jones and Lewis moved “Fela!” forward, bringing in musicians Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean to work on musical arrangements and additional lyrics to complement Fela’s — which were mostly written in Pidgin English — with assistance from Brooklyn’s Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra from Brooklyn. “We had to actually ask, ‘What are these songs saying if I don’t speak Pigdin English,’ “ Jones explains. “We had to translate it, and in some instances write approximated lyrics for, one, the English-speaking audience and, two, to help with our storytelling.”

Set circa 1977-78, at the height of the star’s popularity and potency, “Fela!” uses a night at the Afrika Shrine — where Nigerian citizenry and government and military officials could all be found enjoying the music — as the vehicle for that tale. The music and choreography, of course, drive the production. But visuals and the script, which incorporates voices from throughout Fela’s life and allows Ngaujah’s Fela to espouse his viewpoints and philosophy, make it more than an Afrobeat version of a jukebox musical.

“This is a work of imagination. We’re not doing reportage,” Jones says. “We conceived this as if you’re going to a Fela concert and you’ll get the Fela experience, complete with the shimmying girls, the hot band. ... But Fela always talked to the audience, preached to them, and through that you find out these other things.”

And for Jones, Fela’s uncompromising vision and the toll it took are what truly resonate in the production. “People ask me, ‘What is the show about?’ “ he says. “And for me, it’s about how much freedom can we have? We can have as much freedom as we’re willing to pay for. You can see in our show we’re talking about Fela paying for the freedom he fought for.”

Everything scatter

“Fela!” opened on Sept. 4, 2008, and quickly built a buzz — thanks in part, Stein says, to the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson.

“I knew him already and knew he was a great Fela fan,” Stein recalls. “I said, ‘I’m glad you made it. You’re going to help us with it.’ And the guy went home and did a blog after the show, an extraordinary piece of writing. He said, ‘the only excuse for not going to see this place is if you’re dead.’ ”

The recommendation brought out other stars, including Jay-Z, Beyonce, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Alicia Keys and David Byrne.

“The show just caught fire, man,” remembers Alex Harding, the Detroit-born baritone saxophonist in the “Fela!” band. “People kept talking about it. The next thing you know, the whole buzz of the city is about this show called ‘Fela!’ ” The popularity encouraged the team to move the show to Broadway, with Jay-Z and the Smiths putting their money behind it — and their names on top of the bill.

“We have to be real; a lot of people don’t know Fela from a hole in the wall, but they certainly know those people,” Stein says. “They might say, ‘We don’t know who Fela was, but we have respect for what those people think, and if they’re involved in it we should probably go and see it.’ ”

The Broadway run’s success was muted only by one particular loss at the otherwise successful Tony ceremony.

“We were nominated for 11 Tony Awards, but of course there’s only really one, which is Best Musical, and we didn’t get it,” Stein says. “I remember coming out of Radio City Music Hall ... after the most excruciatingly boring night of my life. I dialed (Hendel’s) number and said, ‘Steve, we’re on Broadway but we’re not [i]from[/i] there.’ ‘Memphis’ is what they wanted ... what they think their audience wants.”

Yet “Fela!” the show, with its international and touring success, has made people want to know more about Fela the man. In the wake of the musical, Knitting Factory Records issued a new collection, “The Best of the Black President,” and re-released 45 Fela albums. Focus Features is putting together a biopic starring British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (“2012,” “Love Actually,” “Endgame”). The “Fela!” touring company is booked into mid-June, and the Music Hall Center has worked on a series of educational programs, including exhibits at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History through April 1 and at the Virgil Carr Center through April 9.

"There's definitely a bigger following for Afrobeat now," says Femi Kuti, Fela's oldest son and a recording artist who also built the new Afrika Shrine in Lagos. "Even people who knew about my father, now they can marry the history and what was going on in the 70s, 80s, 90s and now. There's a greater understanding of this history, definitely.

"And a lot of producers of hip-hop are great fans of Afrobeat, so we never know what will develop, musically."

Stein -- who's bringing Fela's oldest daughter, Yeni, to Detroit for the opening of the Music Hall Center run -- feels that "Fela!" will continue to draw and affect audiences as long as its subject's message feels authentic -- which is certainly the case in light of the Occupy movement and recent protests in Nigeria.

"I do believe that Fela's message, unfortunately, is as relevant today as he ever was," Stein says. "What was he talking about? Transparency. Honesty. Corrupt government. A lot of the things he was discussing in his music are issues that are as relevant here (in the U.S.) as they were, and are, in Nigeria.

"I just feel privileged to have had the chance to contribute to spreading that word by getting this amazing catalog of work out there and being associated with this extraordinary show that everyone's proud of...and is very true to what the man was about, and his mission."

Fela!” runs Feb. 14-March 4 at the Music Hall Center, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $27-$97. Call 313-887-8500 or visit www.musichall.org.

Web Site: www.musichall.org

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