Return of the Warrior: Fela!
Every Tuesday, Fela Kuti would walk into his Lagos club and main base of his musical operations: The Shrine.
There, before a core group of supporters and fans, the musical revolutionary and gifted composer would take questions and answer them, often using his radical responses and the crowd’s ideas as the seed of his next song.
This passionate immediacy and heated dialogue—all seamlessly supported by Fela’s unmistakable sound, soulfully executed—pervades Fela!, on tour across the US in the first half of 2013.
Fela! is a vibrant embodiment of Kuti’s music, using sound and lyrics as a way to capture his wild, complex, no-compromise life. The show echoes the many sonic layers, visual elements, and personal dimensions of Fela’s work. Guided by the music and bursting with dynamic, visually engaging action, the show takes Afrobeat classics like Zombie and Water No Get Enemy and brings them to colourful, intense life.
“I think of Fela as a returning warrior, somebody who has made his mark in another time, and now returned to our era, to us,” reflects director Bill T. Jones. “We are bringing him back to fresh eyes, as well as to eyes that are hungry to see him again, and hope that people will get truly excited about the music he made.”
The show’s excitement flows from years of painstaking work and dedication to interpreting Fela’s ambitious art and complicated character.
Instead of flashy biography, Fela! is a snapshot of a period in the 1970s when the musician faced some of his most trying hours. Spearheaded by a fan-turned-producer, Stephen Hendel, Fela! brought together a diverse crew drawn from America’s burgeoning Afrobeat scene (members of Antibalas), from the American stage’s most respected names (Jones, for one), and from pop stardom (Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child so loved the show, she joined the cast).
"He was James Brown, Bob Marley, and Malcolm X in one person. It single-handedly changed my life," explains Fela! associate producer. “The trials and tribulations he went through socially, politically, creatively: It’s the story of making something into nothing. It’s a story that resonates with American hip hop.”
Born into an elite family of Nigerian intellectuals and professionals, Fela Kuti went from mild-mannered music student to radical firebrand, melding edgy politics with deep grooves inspired by the likes of James Brown. Unafraid to butt heads with the government or face beatings, imprisonment, and persecutions, Fela relentlessly and courageously criticised the hypocrisy, corruption, and spiritual bankruptcy he saw around him in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, calling for black power and African pride, political accountability, and justice for the downtrodden. All the while creating a musical sound so unique, it became a genre unto itself: Afrobeat.
Citing composers like George Friedrich Handel as well as funk idols and African jazz greats as his biggest inspirations, Fela was an exacting composer and performer. “People don’t always remember that he spent five years at music school in London,” recounts Fela’s long-time friend and manager Rikki Stein. “He had a real grounding in classical music,, composition, and harmony, and he was so totally involved in every part of music making. When we had a sound check before a show, he’d tune every instrument himself. It was a four-hour job. He really cared about what was happening.”
The creators and performers of Fela! strive to follow Fela’s challenging, demanding lead. The bandleader and composer never settled for anything less than total musical precision and on-stage perfection, from dancers to horn section. Fela cared because music, according to Fela, was the weapon. It is also the foundation of Fela!. By breaking down and transcribing dozens of songs from Fela’s 50-album repertoire, Fela! musical director and Antibalas trombonist Aaron Johnson found a musical thread that united Fela’s diverse tracks.
“This is clave music,” explains Johnson, noting the persistent pulse that runs throughout Fela’s songs. “The music is structured, with all its layers and complex rhythmic language, on the clave line that runs throughout. The patterns may vary from song to song, but that basis lets you jump into another song relatively easily.”
Eschewing more traditional musical theatre sounds, the team kept Fela’s red-hot, urgent vocal delivery and striking female call-and-reponse choruses, while supporting the emerging narrative of Fela’s inner life by finding a broad range of emotional expression and new instrumentation for Fela’s distinctive melodies. (A haunting vocal line sung by Fela’s mother originated in a sax line from one of his songs.) “To support the story, we really played with instrumentation. It took a lot of trial and error to get it right. We had to drop the drums here, the guitars there, to vary it and create some peaks and valleys.”
Fela’s life was rife with peaks, valleys, and paradoxes, moments captured dynamically in Fela!.
Adored by fans, Fela was persecuted by the authorities. Authoritarian to his band, he called for liberty and freedom of thought. Known for his sexual forthrightness and dozens of wives, his lifestyle seemingly overshadowed his intellectual prowess and true commitment to improving people’s lives. “Fela always said his real inspiration for music came from sex,” Stein recalls. “But he read a lot. He had a huge library and really knew his stuff. Those ideas would then develop into a song.”
A million mourners attended his funeral in Lagos when he passed on in late 1997, However, though widely respected worldwide by the musical elite and though his records sold in the millions throughout Africa, Fela’s work remained relatively obscure, never achieving the impact that should have put him in the global ranks of icons like Bob Marley or Malcolm X. Fela!,by keeping to its subject’s high standards and musical grit, has helped ease the Afrobeat master’s return to his rightful place as an internationally respected musical trailblazer and composer.
Johnson and the Fela! crew's painstaking work has paid off, and their creative input in the show maintains its subject’s exacting standards. Fela! has been seen by millions on three continents, attaining public accolades and critical acclaim from both theatre circles and die-hard Afrobeat fans.
“Afrobeat is really the only genre you can trace back to one artist,” Johnson notes. “The most important thing for me in this whole process was it had to feel real, legit. I want the Afrobeat audience to say, ‘Yes, this holds water.’ To know that the music worked. That’s why we went to the source.”