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Jeff Moehlis: Fela — and His Cause — Dances On

London-taped musical highlights the late musician's defiance of Nigerian authorities

On Thursday night, Afrobeat filled Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West, courtesy of National Theatre Live’s high-definition broadcast of the musical Fela!, which was taped earlier in the day in London. And although the Hahn Hall audience decorously stayed planted in its seats — even when the performers got their live audience to dance along — I’d like to think that most of the Hahn Hall audience was dancing on the inside. I know I was.

Afrobeat is a rhythm-heavy, hypnotic mix of James Brown-style funk, jazz, Cuban and traditional West African music. It was pioneered by Nigerian musician and composer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the subject of the musical. (Curiously, the contributions of Fela’s longtime drummer, Tony Allen, to the development of Afrobeat were not mentioned — a pity, since Fela himself stated “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat”.)

Fela’s Afrobeat songs typically ran more than 10 minutes long, and were often more than 20 minutes. The lyrics, featuring call-and-response with a group of female background singers, were sung in Pidgin English so as to connect with the masses in and beyond Nigeria, and gave scathing critiques of the Nigerian government and military, which got him into big trouble with Nigerian authorities.

But before going into these troubles, it must be mentioned that Fela’s Afrobeat music supported what is arguably the show’s strongest feature: the amazing dancing, which was honored by the 2010 Tony Award for Best Choreography (given to Bill T. Jones). Most memorable to me is when Fela, portrayed brilliantly by Sahr Ngaujah, calls out numbers between 1 and 12, to which his sexy, colorfully clad female entourage thrusts its hips according to the corresponding position on a clock. Fela describes this as “the most beautiful 24 hours I’ve ever seen.”

The musical is set in 1978, and Fela is playing what he claims will be his band’s last performance at his club, The Shrine, in Lagos. People unfamiliar with Fela’s story may not realize until the second act that he is considering leaving because his compound, the self-declared independent state called the Kalakuta Republic, had been brutally raided by more than 1,000 Nigerian soldiers. This attack, which later in the musical was described via photos of the victims and projected text about the atrocities that they suffered, included his beloved mother, Funmilayo — a notable women’s activist in Nigeria played by Melanie Marshall — being thrown from a second-floor window. She later died from complications from her injuries. Fela’s struggle with his mother’s death is a recurring theme in the musical, as are his problems with the Nigerian authorities.

At first, the problems with authorities are treated subtly. Fela almost seems to be joking when he says “too much cake can give you rotten teeth, too much Nigeria can give you broken head.” He also talks of the “fair-skinned guests” who came to his country as colonists, stating that, as often happens when guests come, things went missing — things like towels, bathrobes, petroleum and people.

Instead, the initial focus is on the formation of Afrobeat music, and, in parallel, Fela’s ideology. Fela’s family wanted him to study medicine like his siblings, but when he got to London he instead studied music. He soaked up different musical styles there and in a later trip to Los Angeles, where he met Sandra Smith Izsadore (played by Paulette Ivory), who introduced him to the ideas of Black Power, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In the musical, Fela acknowledges that he “had to go all the way to America to understand things that my mother had been trying to teach me all along.” When he returned to Lagos, it is with the goal to change Africa, using music as the medium.

One personal change was his surname, to Anikulapo-Kuti from Ransome-Kuti. Fela considered Ransome a “slave name,” whereas the Yoruba name “Anikulapo” means “he who carries death in his pouch.” In other words, Fela was declaring that he has control over death.

Fela’s conflict with authority becomes a stronger focus of the musical when he tells, while puffing on a mega-joint, how Nigerian authorities tried to plant a (presumably smaller) joint at his compound so they could bust him. But Fela managed to grab and swallow it, thinking he had destroyed the “evidence.” However, he was jailed and had to produce a stool sample that could be analyzed. He managed to secretly clear his system before the official sample was produced, which came back clean of marijuana. He later wrote the song “Expensive Sh**” based on this experience.

Such problems with authorities didn’t slow Fela down. He went on to write a hit song named “Zombie,” which provocatively compares the Nigerian military grunts to unthinking zombies, something effectively and somewhat amusingly portrayed by the dancers. It was this song that ultimately led to the horrible raid on his compound in 1977.

Fela also recorded an album called International Thief Thief to criticize the president of Nigeria and the chairman of International Telephone & Telegraph, which like the album title has the initials ITT. During this song in the musical, the cast carries signs saying things such as “BP” and “Haliburton,” which updates the sentiment to more modern times. (Probably no big deal, but this is one place in which the chronology seems to be a bit off — this ITT album came out in 1980, two years after the time that the musical takes place.)

In a different sort of jab at authority, in 1978 Fela controversially married his 27 background singers and dancers, portrayed as a smaller but feisty group in the musical.

The musical culminates by tying together Fela’s mother’s death and his defiance toward authorities: he leaves his mother’s coffin on the steps of the barracks of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, the military ruler and head of state of Nigeria. The cast also stacked up smaller coffins labeled with words such as “Fear,” “Doubt” and “Sudan,” as his song, “Coffin for Head of State,” played.

The musical successfully captures Fela’s indomitable spirit, which was never conquered by the abuse he received from Nigerian authorities. Sadly, while Fela died of complications from AIDS in 1997, government corruption is alive and well. Maybe Fela’s story, which is reaching a wider audience because of the musical, will help to inspire more people to fight the good fight.

There will be another screening of Fela! at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Click here for more information from UCSB Arts & Lectures.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.

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