FELA! COMES HOME TO THE AFRIKA SHRINE
By Oluseyi Peters . April 2011
It was a somewhat surreal experience to watch Sahr Ngaujah and the 30 member cast of FELA! take the stage in the New Afrikan Shrine in Lagos Nigeria on Thursday 14th April, 2011.
The cast and crew of the TONY award winning musical stage play perfomed at what was probably their most important venue since the musical’s inception in a show sponsored by Power Horse energy drink.
This was a show for the true Fela fans because it played in the New Afrika Shrine which is sort of a musical Mecca built in his memory for Afrobeat lovers and Pan Africanists – It also opens for a week at the highbrow Eko Hotels Lagos, on April 20 which perhaps represents the more commercial aspect of the production’s coming to Nigeria.
However FELA! at the “real” shrine was truly a unique experience for the audience. It all came together beautifully and the production designers probably didn’t have much work to do because all the aesthetics and backgrounds were already in place. There was a point when it eerily felt as if Fela who called himself “the strange one”, had mysteriously come back to life from the realm of the “spiritual underground sound”.
This is the first time the hit show has played in Nigeria.
Yeni Kuti, Fela’s daughter, who was looking gorgeous in a red dress introduced the show, thanking the organisers for promoting the memory of her father. Then the lights went dim and suddenly the Afrobeat sound so familiar to the audience started to play, only this time it was American musicians on the instruments. When Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Fela jumps on stage with a large prop wrap of marijuana, he receives the same enthusiastic, loud and slightly raucous response that Fela would have gotten at his Shrine.
The FELA! performance at the New Afrika Shrine focused on the music and dance sequences of the play. Classic Fela tracks like “International Thief Thief”, “Zombie” and “Teacher Don’t Teach me Nonsense” had the audience singing along. The B.I.D (Breaking it Down) sequence gave a musical autobiography of the man, how his sound was influenced by Jazz, Funk, West African highlife music and James Brown.
The truly exceptional element of Fela Kuti’s style of music called Afrobeat is a big part of what has made the FELA! franchise so successful. Fela really could have ruled the world of music like Bob Marley if he wanted, but he decided to pass African emancipation messages to his people by staying mostly in Nigeria. Many people are coming into contact his music for the first time through this play.
The show was packed and the crowd consisted of dignitaries such as former Governor Donald Duke, various members of the foreign press as well as the Afrobeat loving fans. The crowd was particularly thrilled by the mastery that the FELA! band had of Fela’s self made genre of music Afrobeat. Some members of the audience were made up with the same white face paint that Fela used when he was performing. It was quite good that the inspiration and subject of the highly successful Broadway show was honoured by the cast first performing the play at the New Afrikan Shrine.
The show was concluded with Femi Kuti joining the band for a solo on the saxophone. Speaking to him later he admitted shedding tears when he first saw the play.
The Afrikan Shrine was the music nightclub where Fela played his music in the 70s as Nigeria’s number one social rebel. There Fela – through his music and monologues in Pidgin English (known as yabis)- fearlessly denounced the deadly and corrupt governments of Nigeria and Africa despite life threatening arrests, torture and beatings by Nigerian Police and Soldiers.
The Shrine incidentally is the setting for most of the Broadway musical.
In the full length play we learn how his parents sent him to England to study medicine but he decides to study music. As the play goes on, we share his discovery of his calling, his personal conflict between staying in Nigeria or escaping abroad; the heart wrenching loss of his mother and the frightening reality of a torture session at the hands of authorities and the raid of his home Kalakuta; there’s also the interesting story of his inspiration for the track “Expensive S@*t” .The story of FELA! is the story of Nigeria and it is indeed a painful, yet immensely powerful one.