- Associated Press - Sunday, February 6, 2011

LAGOS, NIGERIA (AP) - To a whiff of marijuana smoke and a bit of dancing, Nigerians again met Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti on Sunday, more than 13 years after his death.

About 400 people crowded into the New Afrika Shrine for Nigerians’ first glimpse of the award-winning musical. The venue, now the home of performance by Fela’s sons, Afrobeat performers Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti, stood electrified as a large-screen television showed a prerecorded performance by the National Theatre in London.

“It was a no-brainer that it would be nice to show this in Lagos, and in the Shrine, so the (National Theatre) provided a high-quality recording for us to show,” said David Higgs, country director of the British Council, which organized the event.

The “Fela!” musical is set in the original Shrine, which was destroyed while Fela was serving one of his many jail sentences. It was later replaced by the New Afrika Shrine. Run by his daughter Yeni Kuti, it serves as the new mecca of fans of Fela and Afrobeat, the musical genre he invented, a politically charged mix of Yoruba-language music and highlife cross-pollinated with funk and jazz.

Organizers acknowledged holding the event with diplomats in the Shrine remained a bit of a risque proposal, as youths openly smoked loosely rolled marijuana cigarettes during the event. A fight also broke out between a local photographer and a woman watching the performance.

“You can see that we don’t eat people here,” Yeni Kuti said in her welcome address. “So when you leave this place today, please spread the positive word.”

Fela’s daughter was echoed by Ngaujah Sahr, the actor who channeled the late Afrobeat star for his performance in London.

“Welcome at the Shrine,” the actor shouts sarcastically at the beginning of the musical. “It’s so good to see so many of you here … considering how dangerous this neighborhood is. And how dangerous we are.”

Fela performed regularly at the original Shrine with his band Egypt 80, surrounded by female dancers who wound their hips at neck-breaking speeds. As Sahr and the rest of the cast were scrutinized by the Shrine audience, two dancers climbed into two cages in front of the screen, a bit of live action for the screened performance.

“Seeing them dance makes me so happy,” said Olayinka Anjorin, who rhythmically shook inside a yellow track suit to the crowd’s delight. “I didn’t expect this kind of thing from them. I love them!”

Having studied in the U.K. and lived in the U.S. during the Black Power movement, Fela created a commune in the heart of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, where he lived with his 27 wives, most of whom were dancers as well. Eccentric as he was, Fela was beloved because he captured people’s anger toward rudderless military leadership. He highlighted the ordinary man’s grievances in songs like “Everything Scatter,” which was banned by the Nigerian government.

“This is just a copy of the original, but we are excited about it,” said Olayiwola Adeniji, a communications professional who raised his two fists at the screen to respond to Sahr. It was the same way that Adeniji used to respond to Fela when he used to frequent the Shrine in the ‘90s.

The applause got a bit more earnest as the play continued, as the characters became more real to the fixated audience. However, others remained focused on a flat-screen television airing a high-profile English soccer game between Chelsea and Liverpool.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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