Fela Kuti brought back to life in Nigeria - Courtesy of the "Fela on Broadway" Show
Fela Kuti brought back to life in Nigeria -- just in time
The spirit of Nigeria's legendary musician and activist Fela Kuti comes alive in Lagos this week with a Broadway musical putting the late Afrobeat icon back on the stage in his proud motherland.The timing turns out to be perfect: President Goodluck Jonathan was declared winner of Nigeria's elections on Monday, and Kuti was a harsh critic of the ruling elite in a country long held back by corruption. From runs on Broadway and in London that drew rave reviews, the musical "Fela!" now comes home to raucous Lagos, aiming to invoke the passion of a man who was married to 27 women at the same time and formed a commune he declared independent from Nigeria. "Fela is a tornado of a man," said actor Sahr Ngaujah, who plays one of Africa's most well-known musicians and introduced the world to a funky jazz style still popular after his death in 1997.
"He was unique... I have loved Fela and his music since I was a child," the gap-tooted Sierra Leonean said before a weekend rehearsal for the show opening in a luxury Lagos hotel on Wednesday for a six-day run. As a tribute to Kuti and his fans last week, the show's organisers put on a concert version of the production at the New Afrika Shrine, the club run by the musician's family and which replaced his own now-defunct Shrine. Tickets for that show sold for about seven dollars but they will go for a hefty 33-233 dollars for the upcoming ones, earning criticism in an impoverished but oil-rich country where Kuti was among the loudest defenders of the poor. At Sunday's rehearsal for the main run of shows, Ngaujah's vocals and superb grasp of Kuti's mannerisms and skill with the saxophone drew enthusiastic cheers from 200 invited guests -- from fashion designers to academics. "I love Lagos, I love Nigeria and I love the Shrine," Ngaujah sang in Nigeria's pidgin English -- referring to Kuti's now-defunct club -- with back-up from a dozen rocking "Fela girls". At the rehearsal, Ngaujah's version of Kuti's famous "Rere-run", which means "Burst of Trouble" in the Yoruba language, went down particularly well, pulling the audience and even stage managers to their feet. "The things I share with Fela are his passion for work, his courage," the actor said before performing in a black tee-shirt on which was boldly inscribed "Naija man" -- pidgin for Nigerian man. A banner above the stage bore the images of other African icons: ex-Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah, Congo's Patrice Lumumba, Sekou Toure from Ghana, American rights activist Marcus Garvey and radical former Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara.
Also there was Fela's late mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a feminist and one of Nigeria's most prominent political activists. Executive producer Rikki Stein said it was a feat to bring the show to Lagos, a city of some 15 million people, little public transport and loads of logistic complications. "I feel challenged by the play being staged here, but I am happy about it too," the Briton said adding though that he was the right man for the job after his long partnership with the performer. "I was Fela's manager all over the world for 15 years until he died in 1997. I am also a self-appointed guardian of Fela's legacy," he said. The show rebroadcasts Kuti's messages for change that are still relevant, Stein said. "This play shows that Fela's message in his music is still valid today as it was when he was alive because nothing much has changed in Nigeria. "I share Fela's views on transparency, honesty, fight against corruption and mismanagement," he said.
The rehearsal was also a chance for reminiscing: another performer, Swiss-Nigerian flutist Tee-Mac Omatshola, revealed that the marijuana-loving musician had introduced him to "Natural Nigerian grass" in the 1970s. Fela was also famous for marrying 27 women the same day, most of them his dancers, and formed a commune, the Kalakuta Republic, that he declared independent from Nigeria. He died of an HIV-related illness in 1997. For lead dancer Jill Vallery, the Nigerian performances are a moving opportunity to visit the continent of her forefathers. "Being an African-American, I feel blessed for being part of the cast. For me it is homecoming to celebrate Fela," said Vallery, who has performed with the troupe in Europe and the United States. After Lagos, the musical will move to The Netherlands, Britain, United States, South Africa and Australia, Stein said.