Fela! the Musical is more a concert than a typical musical. It transports the viewer back to 1970s Funky Lagos, educates you on the origins of Afrobeat, and tells a small part of the life story of Fela Anukulapo Kuti, a Nigerian superstar. Before Barack Obama, Fela was The Black President.
The musical is framed as Fela’s last concert at the Shrine, his own private club, before he and his band/cult flee political persecution in Nigeria. During this night, Fela tells us a bit of his biography, in a voice that rang completely true for me. He is particularly troubled by the recent death of his mother, who was thrown from a window by Nigerian police/army as they stormed and destroyed his commune, the Kalakuta Republic.
The first act is a visual and auditory smorgasbord, covering the different musical styles that went into the melting pot of Afrobeat, best described by Joe Tangari as “the cinematic, polyrhythmic, symphonic funk sound that Fela developed with superhuman drummer Tony Allen.” News clippings and video clips appear on the beautiful corrugated metal set, which create a multi-sensory montage (band playing, Fela narrating, clips reinforcing with visual words). A live band, consisting of members of the Brooklyn Afrobeat-revival group Antibalas, does an amazing job of providing the soundtrack and the sound effects (sudden crack of drums are used as gunshots/exclamation points/etc).
The second act is much more like the typical musical and, like the latter part of Fela’s life, gets a lot heavier and darker as the realities of going from troublemaker to, in the eyes of the political apparatus, a dangerous radical, eventually leads to the infamous raid on his republic chronicled in the song “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood.” At this point, Fela calls on traditional spiritualism to go on a spirit quest to meet his late mother to get her blessing to leave Nigeria for the safety of himself and his family. She, of course, refuses to be used as an excuse for him to run away and instead helps him renew his resolve to fight for the country he loves. He ends the show, and the musical, by saying he and his band will be back at the shrine tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. It was powerful, to say the least. Knowing the reality of his life, he did stay and fight for ten more years, but, growing increasingly paranoid and suffering from AIDS, finally died in 1997.
Adesola Osalakumi, the star, embodies the rage, satirical wit, and gregariousness of the real man. During the show I attended, he improvised a joke about passing the giant joint he smoked from.
The only fault I found is the casting of Michelle Williams (ex-Destiny’s Child, and thus ex-group mate of producer Jay-Z’s wife Beyonce Knowles) as Sandra, the Black Panther, who, during Fela’s extended stay in LA, opened up the more apolitical Fela to black consciousness and the need for art to serve as inspiration for a revolution. I think the character was well-sketched but Williams sings precisely like you’d expect: a polished pop star. If you’ve heard the real Sandra on Upside Down, the contrast is even more startling. But even ignoring the need to match source material, Williams’ speech, mannerisms, and even costume look completely out of place. I didn’t buy her as Black Panther for a second. Among a cast who seemed to completely embody their roles and really understand and revere the history they are telling us, Williams seems even more mismatched. Her top billing (above the title) may suggest that she was added mostly for drawing power.
Even in spite of Williams, I highly recommend you see this musical if it comes to your city, even if you haven’t yet discovered Fela’s wonderful music.
Note: I went through a big collection of Fela’s albums and kept notes and ratings for each one as I went through over a year’s time. From this, I extracted the top-rated (3/3) songs in a spreadsheet if you’re interested in where to begin listening. The short version would be to get a copy of Zombie and put it on loop.