Fela: The Man, the Music and the Legend

In Bill T. Jones’ Broadway Show about Fela Kuti, Music and Dance Combine to Highlight the Influence of the Nigerian Musician


Published February 4, 2010

Step inside the Eugene O’Neill Theatre and it will take you on a funky, psychedelic ride you could never have anticipated. The time is the summer of 1978. The place is musician Fela Kuti’s night club, the Shrine, in Lagos, Nigeria. Before even entering the stage, the audience can sense Fela’s contagious energy. The interior of the theatre is covered in a vast array of colors with African paintings, various signs with Fela’s chants, and flat screens showing vintage footage of Fela and his dancers. The fabulous afrobeat band, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, starts to play some smooth lounge music to warm up the crowd. Fela’s beautiful female dancers covered in beads, wild prints and elaborate makeup begin undulating in the wings, and performers wander across the stage and throughout the aisles laughing and conversing. Then the action starts as the main star Fela himself explodes on stage, engaging his audience in the African tradition of call-and-response.

The performance isn’t simply a play, but an adventure in musical theatre orchestrated by modern dance legend Bill T. Jones, telling the life of Olufela Olusegum Oludotum Ransome-Kuti through music, dance, comedy, and even spiritual Yoruban rituals. After running the world-renown Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and choreographing the Broadway hit “Spring Awakening,” Jones has graced the Broadway stage with a show of his own, “Fela!” “Fela!” is taking the theatre world by storm, with its charismatic star, Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, its animated set design and costumes, and its feverish score.

Fela’s role is taken on by two actors, Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo, and his ensemble dancers come from a plethora of leading dance companies and other Broadway shows. Fela (that night played by Kevin Mambo) opens the show with an excerpt from the song “Sorrow Tears and Blood,” depicting Nigerian civilians as victims of government corruption and police brutality. He then begins his story with his departure from his home country of Nigeria to London for medical school in 1962. While there, Fela explores the underground jazz scene. Musicians such as John Coltrane and James Brown inspire him to form the band Koola Lobitas (which would later be known as Africa 70), in which he first experiments with his signature style of afrobeat.

Though you may not have heard Fela’s songs or the term “afrobeat,” you’ve most likely heard music influenced by his rebellious lyrics and driving melodies. Afrobeat is a mix of funk, psychedelic rock, jazz, and old West African chants and rhythms. An energetic Mambo sang Fela’s clever chants such as “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” and “Yellow Fever” to blaring saxophones and thumping drums; his lyrics, originally sung in Nigerian pidgin, are defiant at oppressive authority and multinational corporations. Today, you could easily find traces of Fela’s music in funk and hip-hop songs.

Next Fela talks about his time in Los Angeles during the late 1960s where he is fascinated by America’s sexual and drug revolution. While in L.A., he meets singer and former Black Panther Sandra Izadore (played by Saycon Sengbloh), who influences Fela to explore black literature such as “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and to get involved in the black power movement. After gaining success with Africa 70 in the states, Fela returns with his band to Nigeria where he founds his own commune, “Kalakuta Republic.” Now back in his home country, Fela expresses his determination to uplift his fellow Nigerian people. His frustration with the Nigerian government comes out through his song “Zombie,” a song highly critical, and even mocking his country’s politics and military. Suddenly, the audience is horrified as it watches Fela’s commune is infiltrated by one thousand soldiers who burn all of Fela’s buildings, rape his dancers, destroy all of his equipment and musical records and kill his senile mother, Funmilayo (played by Lillias White).

Despite abuse from the government, Fela strongly goes on to live his life, marries 27 of his female singers, songwriters and dancers to the upbeat song “Na Poi” and seeks guidance from his deceased mother and Yoruban orisas in his song “Sorrow Tears and Blood.” Fela triumphantly finishes his story having founded his own political party and still eager to fight for his Nigerian brothers and sisters. He leaves his audience with the somber, uplifting songs “Coffins for Head of State” and “Kere Kay.”

Fela Kuti was one of the most explosive, influential forces the music industry has seen in history. However, very few, especially in America, even know of him. His music is particularly difficult to find, yet it has slowly gained popularity in recent years thanks to upcoming afrobeat bands, museum exhibitions, and redistribution of Fela’s old albums. But Jones’ new play is the biggest step taken to commemorate Fela and all he has contributed to the world of music.

“Fela!” truly is a joy to watch. It takes the audience through an experience that is entertaining and highly pleasurable, yet oddly didactic. Caught in a wild, bizarre frenzy of swirling lights and convulsing dancers, the audience absorbs Fela’s determination to free the Nigerian people from their tyrannical government. This show amazingly portrays every facet of Fela Kuti; the musician, the activist, and the iconoclast.