The award-winning musical “Fela!”, an homage to the musician who spoke out against the military dictators who plundered his oil-rich nation, will be performed April 20 through April 25 in his home of Lagos. Producers said Monday the show will include the actors from its original Broadway run, including Sahr Ngaujah, who portrayed the talented and troubled Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
“Our accent may not be perfect. Our dance steps are not Nigerian dance steps,” producer Stephen Hendel told The Associated Press. “But I do think we have managed to bring out sort of the core truths of what Fela stood for and what he was.”
The Tony Award-winning musical saw Ngaujah, backed by the Afrobeat band Antibalas, channel the saxophone-playing musician for songs like “ITT (International Thief Thief)” and “Zombie.” Those driving rhythms can still be heard in the aging taxi cabs and battered buses that crowd the potholed streets of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital of 14 million people.
Fela’s music represented an open challenge to the kleptocratic leaders who ruled Nigeria during his life. Fela suffered through numerous arrests and attacks, with his mother dying following a beating by soldiers. Fela later carried her casket to the presidential estate in Lagos _ a bold protest in a country cowed largely into silence by military rule.
But Nigerians also love Fela for his irreverence, whether it came from lighting up loosely rolled marijuana cigarettes during performances or his marriage to 27 women. Fela died in 1997 of complications brought on by AIDS, a disease that sapped his energy to perform in his last years as he became increasingly fascinated with mysticism.
The performances will be held at the Eko Hotel, a massive complex powered by diesel generators to ensure constant electricity for a revolving crowd of diplomats and oil executives. Fela’s Shrine, the music venue he played in, burned to the ground during the constant security crackdowns targeting the musician and his entourage.
Today, Fela’s son Femi Kuti plays in the New Afrika Shrine, a relocated version of the Shrine that their father lived and played in. A performance by the Broadway actor may take place there before the official Lagos run starts.
“We’re excited that it’s coming to Fela’s home,” daughter Yeni Kuti told the AP.
The Nigerian performance will come to the country in April with the support of the Lagos state government, another irony for a musician who fought against politicians. The performances will begin just after a crucial set of state and federal elections in the nation, including a presidential poll. Meanwhile, many of the same problems Fela called out in song, whether it be a lack of drinking water or police brutality, still crush the nation’s teeming poor.
“People say artists are ahead of their time. I think Fela speaks more globally today than he spoke” then, Hendel said. “I think one of (Nigeria‘s) greatest son was without question one of the great composers and musicians and activists of the second half of the 20th century. He’s as much of a global figure and a global artist as anybody.”
By Elaine Donnelly
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