A new musical celebrates the life of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musical revolutionary. Sahr Ngaujah, above, plays the role of Fela, father of the Afrobeat movement.
A new musical celebrates the life of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musical revolutionary. Sahr Ngaujah, above, plays the role of Fela, father of the Afrobeat movement. Monique Carboni
Kevin Fitzsimmons/Courtesy Wexner Center for the Arts
Choreographer Bill T. Jones uses movement and multimedia to tell Fela's story. His company — which was created in collaboration with dancer and choreographer Arnie Zane — addresses social issues through dance.
Choreographer Bill T. Jones uses movement and multimedia to tell Fela's story. His company — which was created in collaboration with dancer and choreographer Arnie Zane — addresses social issues through dance. Kevin Fitzsimmons/Courtesy Wexner Center for the Arts
Ngaujah, whose family is originally from Sierra Leone, heard a lot of Fela's music as a child. He grew up in Atlanta, where his father was a DJ.
Ngaujah, whose family is originally from Sierra Leone, heard a lot of Fela's music as a child. He grew up in Atlanta, where his father was a DJ. Monique Carboni
Fela Kuti was a Nigerian music revolutionary — he pioneered Afrobeat, a style of music blending African harmonies and rhythms, jazz, funk (and even a little James Brown) with satirical lyrics that he used to criticize the Nigerian government. His controversial life and legacy is the subject of Fela!, a new musical by director and choreographer Bill T. Jones.
Fela was born Fela Ransome Kuti in Nigeria in 1938; he dropped his given middle name because of its colonial associations. His parents sent him to London for a medical education, but he chose music instead, studying piano, composition and theory at Trinity College of Music.
Fela became an activist after bringing his band to the U.S. in 1969; he met Angela Davis and The Last Poets and learned about Malcom X and other black nationalists.
He returned to Nigeria and became a star throughout West Africa — in part because he sang in a kind of English that could be understood across national and tribal barriers. He became a musical spokesman for the poor — and a thorn in the sides of governments beyond Nigeria.
But Fela Kuti was not a saint, and he isn't portrayed as one in Fela! His songs extolled the virtues of igbo, Nigerian marijuana, and the socially aware political activist bragged about his womanizing.
Jones says it can be tricky to present a complex figure like Fela on stage.
"With all of his warts and all of his difficulties he's got to come across the [foot]lights to us — and that means people of any description," Jones says. "If you have a protagonist, their inner life has got to be laid out in such a way that [audiences] can see some connection to it."
'Space For Fela Kuti To Live'
The job of bringing Fela to life for the audience falls to actor Sahr Ngaujah.
Ngaujah is Fela in the off-Broadway show; he sings, he roars, he spins. Ngaujah's family is from Sierra Leone, but he grew up in Atlanta, where his father was a prominent DJ.
Ngaujah heard a lot of Fela's music as a child; he says when he got the call to audition for the part he turned to Fela for help — even though the musician died in 1997.
"On my way into New York," Ngaujah says, "I was talking to Fela. I said, 'Look man, I'm really excited that you're asserting your presence in this way. And if you want me to do this, then fine. I will make space for Fela Kuti to live, you know?'"
'You Feel It, Or You Don't'
Jones says putting Fela! together has been a learning experience, in part because of the way "theater people" think of the dance world.
"They don't see it as drama," he says. "They don't see it as theater with the same psychological edge that theater likes to pride itself on being able to deliver through text."
Jones has been using text in his dance pieces since the 1970s; he says he's always been interested in the nuance of language in relation to the power of movement. In Fela!, the words of some of the songs and key facts are projected on the corrugated metal that lines the walls of the set — representing Nigeria's corrugated tin shacks.
For Fela!, Jones says he needed to let go of what he calls the snobbishness of the dance world — and learn that it isn't as easy as it seems to tell a story in musical theater. Jones says you don't have to explain to people what a movement means.
"You feel it, or you don't feel it," Jones says. "In art you don't have to explain what every dot and dash and color change means. It has another level of unity in your consciousness."
'Beauty And Horror'
Even through the language of music and dance, Jones says it is hard to communicate to American audiences exactly what Fela went through.
His opposition to the Nigerian government got him arrested countless times. In 1977, soldiers attacked his compound and threw his 82-year-old mother — also an activist — out of a window. This horrific scene is presented in Fela! through a mosaic of mug shots and text as the characters stand on a darkened stage.
Ngaujah says the production's ability to juxtapose joyous music with sometimes chilling words and visuals can be unsettling.
"This is the reality of Africa," Ngaujah says. "Very extreme: Beauty and horror."
One moment, audience members are dancing in their seats. The next, they are frozen as Fela delivers his mother's coffin to the main Nigerian army barracks. Jones says he hopes it carries a message to the audience.
"Fela at the end says, 'Whose coffin are you willing to carry?' It's not meant to be a guilt-driven, morbid inquiry. It's actually a statement of purpose: How do you live life properly? ... Whose coffin are you willing to carry?"