FELA! The Shrine Truth

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According to felaonbroadway.com, FELA! is the most critically acclaimed new musical of the season, received three 2010 Tony Awards®: Best Choreography, Best Costume Design for a Musical and Best Sound Design of a Musical! His story inspired a nation. His music inspires the world. FELA! tells the true story of the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, whose soulful Afrobeat rhythms ignited a generation. Motivated by his mother, a civil rights champion, he defied a corrupt and oppressive military government and devoted his life and music to the struggle for freedom and human dignity.
FELA! is a triumphant tale of courage, passion and love, featuring Fela Kuti’s captivating music and the visionary direction and choreography of Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones.Everybody say yeah yeah!

Fela Anikulapo Kuti – The Biography
Fela was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria into a middle-class family. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome- Kuti was a feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement and his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, a Protestant minister and school principal, was the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT). His brothers, Beko Ransome- Kuti and Olikoye  Ransome-Kuti, both medical doctors, are well known in Nigeria. Fela was a first cousin to the African writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, the first African to win a Nobel Prize for Literature.Fela was sent to London in 1958 to study medicine but decided to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music. There, he formed the band Koola Lobitos, playing a fusion of jazz and highlife. In 1960, Fela married his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor, with whom he would have three children (Femi, Yeni, and Sola).

In 1963, Fela moved back to Nigeria, re-formed Koola Lobitos and trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He played for some time with Victor Olaiya and his All Stars. In 1967, he went to Ghana to think up a new musical direction. That was when Kuti first called his music Afrobeat. In 1969, Fela took the band to the United States. There, Fela discovered the Black Power movement through Sandra Smith (now Izsadore)—a partisan of the Black Panther Party—which would heavily influence his music and political views. He renamed the band Nigeria ’70. Soon, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was tipped off by a promoter that Fela and his band were in the U.S. without work permits.

The band then performed a quick recording session in Los Angeles that would later be released as The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions.After Fela and his band returned to Nigeria, the band was renamed The Africa ’70, as lyrical themes changed from love to social issues. He then formed the Kalakuta Republic, a commune, a recording studio, and a home for many connected to the band that he later declared independent from the Nigerian state. Fela set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, named the Afro-Spot and then the Afrika Shrine, where he performed  regularly. Fela also changed his middle name to Anikulapo (meaning “he who carries death in his pouch”), stating that his original middle name of Ransome was a slave name.The recordings continued, and the music became more politically motivated.

Fela’s music became very  popular among the Nigerian public and Africans in general. In fact, he made the decision to sing in Pidgin English so that his music could be enjoyed by individuals all over Africa, where the local languages spoken are very diverse and numerous. As popular as Fela’s music had become in Nigeria and elsewhere, it was also very unpopular with the ruling government, and raids on the Kalakuta Republic were frequent. In 1972, Ginger Baker recorded Strata various with Fela appearing along side Bobby Gass. coming more involved in Yoruba religion. In 1977, Fela and the Afrika ’70 released the hit album Zombie, a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of the Nigerian military. The album was a smash hit with the people and infuriated the government, setting off a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic, during which one thousand soldiers attacked the commune. Fela was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Fela’s studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Fela claimed that he would have been killed if not for the intervention of a commanding officer as he was being beaten. Fela’s response to the attack was to deliver his mother’s coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence, and to write two songs, “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier”, referencing the official inquiry that claimed the commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier. Fela and his band then took residence in Crossroads Hotel as the Shrine had been destroyed along with his commune.

In 1978, Fela married twenty-seven women, many of whom were his dancers, composers, and singers to mark the anniversary of the attack on the Kalakuta Republic. Later, he was to adopt a rotation system of keeping only twelve simultaneous wives. The year was also marked by two notorious concerts, the first in Accra in which riots broke out during the song “Zombie”, which led to Fela being banned from entering Ghana. The second was at the Berlin Jazz Festival after which most of Fela’s musicians deserted him, due to rumours that Fela was planning to use the entire proceeds to fund his presidential campaign. Despite the massive setbacks, Fela was determined to come back. He formed his own political party, which he called Movement of the People. In 1979 he put himself forward for President in Nigeria’s first elections for more than a decade but his candidature was refused. At this time, Fela created a new band called Egypt ’80 and continued to record albums and tour the country.

He further infuriated the political establishment by dropping the names of ITT vice-president Moshood Abiola and then General Olusegun Obasanjo at theMoshood Abiola and then General Olusegun Obasanjo at the end of a hot-selling 25-minute political screed titled “I.T.T. (International Thief-Thief)”. In 1984, he was again attacked by the military government, who jailed him on a dubious charge of currency smuggling. His case was taken up by several human-rights groups, and after 20 months, he was released from prison by General Ibrahim Babangida. On his release, he divorced his twelve remaining wives, saying that “marriage brings jealousy and selfishness.” Once again, Fela continued to release albums with Egypt ’80, made a number of successful tours of the United States and Europe and also continued to be politically active.

In 1986, Fela performed in Giants Stadium in New Jersey as part of the Amnesty International  Conspiracy of Hope concert, sharing the bill with Bono, Carlos Santana, and The Neville Brothers. In 1989, Fela and Egypt ’80 released the anti-apartheid Beasts of No Nation album that depicts on its cover U.S. President Ronald Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and South African Prime Minister Pieter Willem Botha with fangs dripping blood. His album output slowed in the 1990s, and eventually he stopped releasing albums altogether.

In 1993 he and four members of the Afrika ’70 organization were arrested for murder. The battle against military corruption in Nigeria was taking its toll, especially during the rise of dictator Sani Abacha. Rumours were also spreading that he was suffering from an illness for which he was refusing treatment.On 3 August 1997, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, already a prominent AIDS activist and former Minister of Health, stunned the nation by announcing his younger brother’s death a day earlier from Kaposi’s sarcoma which was brought on by AIDS. More than a million people attended Fela’s funeral at the site of the old Shrine compound. A new Afrika Shrine has opened since Fela’s death in a different section of Lagos Nigeria under the supervision of his son Femi Kuti.

Sahr Ngaujah performing as Fela, in the production Fela! which opened in November this year.

Anikulapo, being a supporter of traditional religions and lifestyles, believed that the most important thing for Africans to fight is European cultural imperialism. He was also a supporter of Pan-Africanism and socialism, and called for a united, democratic African republic. He was a candid supporter of human rights, and many of his songs are direct attacks against dictatorships, specifically the militaristic governments of Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fela’s Political Views
Anikulapo, being a supporter of traditional religions and lifestyles, believed that the most important thing for Africans to fight is European cultural imperialism. He was also a supporter of Pan-Africanism and socialism, and called for a united, democratic African republic. He was a candid supporter of human rights, and many of his songs are direct attacks against dictatorships, specifically the militaristic governments of Nigeria in the 1970s and  1980s. He was also a social commentator, and he criticized his fellow Africans (especially the upper class) for betraying traditional African culture.

The African culture he believed in also included having many wives (polygamy) and the Kalakuta Republic was formed in part as a polygamist colony. He defended his stance on polygamy with the words “A man goes for many women in the first place. Like in Europe, when a man is married, when the wife is sleeping, he goes out and have sex around. He should bring the women in the house to live with him, and stop running around the streets!” His views towards women are characterized by some as misogynist, with songs like “Mattress” typically cited as evidence.

In a more complex example, he mocks the  aspiration of African women to European standards of “ladyhood” while extolling the values of the market woman in his song “Lady”. Bypassing editorial censorship in Nigeria’s predominantly state controlled media, Kuti began in the 1970s buying advertising space in daily and weekly nigerian newspapers such as The Daily Times and The Punch in order to run outspoken political columns. Published throughout the 1970s and early 1980s under the title Chief Priest Say, these columns were essentially extensions of Kuti’s famous Yabi Sessions—consciousness raising word-sound rituals, with himself as chief priest, conducted at his Lagos nightclub.

Organized around a militantly Afrocentric rendering of history and the essence of black beauty, Chief Priest Say focused on the role of cultural hegemony in the   continuing subjugation of Africans. Kuti addressed a  number of topics, from explosive denunciations of the Nigerian Government’s criminal behavior; Islam and  Christianity’s exploitative nature, and evil multinational corporations; to deconstructions of Western medicine, Black Muslims, sex, pollution, and poverty.Fela Anikulapo Kuti (15 Oct 1938 – 2 Aug 1997), or simply Fela, was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist musician and composer, pioneer of afrobeat music, human rights activist, political maverick & leader of Fela Ransome Kuti & Africa ‘70.

“In Africa, Fela, who died at 58 of complications from AIDS, is a figure to rival Bob Marley as both a musical innovator and a symbol of resistance. Afrobeat, the style he forged in the early ’70s, combined African rhythms and messages with the jazz and funk.”

Fela who? On Broadway?
Those are basic questions that “Fela!” faced when it opened last year. The show has moved from a widely praised Off Broadway production in 2010 at 37 Arts, to the larger and more mainstream realm of the  Broadway musical — from 299 seats to 1,050. Amid theaters filled with more recognizable fare — movie adaptations, revivals, jukebox musicals — “Fela!” seems downright quixotic. Although the music that Fela invented, Afrobeat, and the central events of “Fela!” are familiar to Africans, in the United States Fela (as Kuti is usually called) is largely unknown except by African-music devotees and fans of political music.

“We have an uphill battle,” said Stephen Hendel, the producer who started the project, “because we don’t have a recognized star, and Fela is an international artist and musician who’s outside the mainstream of American culture.” The goal “Fela!” has set for itself is to be true to his music and his impact while reaching a Broadway musical audience. It is, inevitably, a translation, but one governed more by respect and ambition than by show-business routine. “Fela!” juggles the conflicting demands of Mr. Jones’s own artistic leanings — in a celebrated career that has often pondered history, race and sexuality — and the commercial imperatives of Broadway, where theatergoers’ idea of African music might begin and end with “The Lion King.”

There’s also the legacy of Fela himself, well documented in recordings and films from the 1970s until his death in 1997, that is cherished by fans for whom he was already a musical and cultural hero.“There are people who, when they heard we were going to make a musical about him, were very upset,” Mr. Jones recalled. “Because Fela’s underground, and Broadway’s mainstream.” That shifted with the Off  Broadway production last year. Early in its run Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson, the drummer for the Roots — the long-running hip-hop group that is now the house band for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” — saw an early preview that prompted him to write a post for his mailing list and his blog declaring “Fela!” to be “the BEST MUSICAL EVER CREATED.” Celebrities, from Alicia Keys to Susan Sarandon to Stephen Sondheim to Jay-Z, began showing up nightly; word of mouth spread exponentially.

Longtime Broadway producers wanted to sign on, but Mr. Hendel was leery of pressures that they might bring to make the show “more quote Broadway unquote,” he said. Now Jay-Z is among the producers, and Mr. Thompson is an associate producer. A rebellious, police-taunting, raunchy, politically conscious, dope-smoking character like Fela could easily make headway in hip-hop culture — and he has the beats to back him up. Reviewing the Off Broadway production last year for The New York Times, Ben Brantley called it “one helluva party.” He added, “In giving physical life to Mr. Kuti’s songs of political rage, sorrow and satire, Mr. Jones and company offer exciting music and its social context in one breath.”In Africa, Fela, who died at 58 of complications from AIDS, is a figure to rival Bob Marley as both a musical innovator and a symbol of resistance.

Afrobeat, the style he forged in the early ’70s, combined African rhythms and messages with the jazz and funk that Fela absorbed during his education in Britain and the United States. Ghanaian highlife, Nigerian Yoruba rhythms, Afro-Cuban mambos, James Brown, John  Coltrane, Nina Simone and, yes, Frank Sinatra all flowed into his music, which sounds exactly like none of them.

The Truce
Fela is bigger than Fela!® His legacies areheroic; his biopics are meteoric and veryunique. Despite the success of the Broadwaytheatrical performances, Nigerianscan never quantify the immense inputs ofthe Reverend’s son to the attainment ofdemocratic rule.While Fela!® told a story and entertained Americans,Fela wasn’t an entertainer, he was a freedom fighterthat ensured that the shed tears of the masses werenot in vain. He put himself in arms way, challengeddictators with fierce confidence. He risked his life,got his mother injured and had his republic torched.Yet he held his head (and hemp)high. This is somethingthat Fela!® can never explain. Fela is a spirit,just like his nickname – Abami eda (the mysteriouscreature). He lives on.

This article was written by ADEPOJU PAUL

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Born in Zimbabwe and living in South Africa, Miriro is a seasoned publishing editor and writer, having worked with leading brands in investment, business leadership and entrepreneurship. Passionate about Africa’s development, Miriro is also a dynamic marketing consultant with 10 years experience working with startups and large multinational corporations. With a heart for travel, Miriro spends her time discovering the nooks of crannies of Africa’s hidden gems, taking the roads less travelled, meeting the beautiful people and enjoying their food and culture. She enjoys tackling complex strategic challenges in the passion-to-entrepreneurship pipeline, particularly focused on the implications of 4th Industrial Revolution and workforce automation on Africa's travel and tourism industry. Miriro is currently the Managing Editor of Nomad Africa magazine.

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