A new musical about Fela Kuti has drawn rave reviews in New York, and a West End run is eagerly awaited. Now his son Femi wants to bring it home to Lagos
By Daniel Howden
As midnight approaches in Lagos, the heat has barely subsided. Up on stage, a lithe, sweat-soaked figure is gripping the microphone and working a single song that’s been building for half an hour. It swells to a finale that uses every one of the 20 or so band-members and finally stills the dancers that line the stage and fill the wooden cages above the dance-floor.
The song has no name. It’s just been made up, and this may be the first and last time this instant Afro beat classic is heard. Rehearsals are like that at the New Afrika Shrine, the second coming of Lagos’s legendary club, mecca and stage for Fela Kuti.
The singer on stage is Femi Kuti, son of the bandleader once known as the Black President, and one of Nigeria’s biggest stars in his own right. While famously anxious to avoid comparisons with his extraordinary father, it’s hard not to see Fela’s ghost on stage as Femi launches into a furious history lesson that rattles through the failures of 50 years of dictators before an enraged disquisition on the failures of today’s politicians.
But Fela’s legacy is not confined to his home. Among the empty bottles and grilled-chicken stands and just down from a stall full of books on African consciousness, a livid yellow canvas poster stands out from the shadows. It’s promoting Fela! The Musical, a show that has opened to rave reviews in an entirely different world: Broadway.
The original Kalakuta (Rascal’s) Republic, where Fela Anikupalo-Kuti reigned, has been rebuilt for New York’s theatre-goers. It’s been showered with praise by The New York Times, which wrote “there has never been anything on Broadway like this production”.
The off-Broadway hit was picked up last year by starry producers in the shape of Will Smith and Shawn (Jay-Z) Carter, and opened in November last year to general acclaim. The musical has prompted a broader resurgence of interest in the remarkable life and times of the man who, along with drummer Tony Allen, fused Ghanaian high life with jazz, funk and native Yoruba music, to create Afro beat. The show will arrives in London this year at the Olivier theatre, mounted by the same creative team and is expected to transfer its New York success.
The Fela revival has been cemented by the news that the British director, Steven McQueen, who made a political debut with Hunger last year, has been lined up for a Hollywood bio-pic of the singer.
The rich world’s sudden, mainstream embrace of an artist whose influence has never gone away in Nigeria, despite his death in 1997, has been met with ambivalence by some in Lagos, including his musician son. But, for the moment, Femi is not thinking about New York. He is in communion with his crowd right here in the Shrine.
“They want everybody to stop talking. Stop talking politics! Stop talking,” he scolds his listeners, in a style that is part rap, part Obama and delivered in the meter of a Methodist preacher. The last verbal shot is fired at Nigeria’s vanished President, too ill to talk to the nation or be seen in public for four months. “We want to know is Yar’Adua alive or dead?”
The question is followed by an ululating high-pitched call which the audience modulates and answers back. A procession of mostly young men put down spliffs and warm beer and cross the dance-floor to reach up and bump fists with their messiah. The atmosphere is religious.
Earlier in the same evening, Femi considered his father’s legacy in a less sacred setting. Backstage, he can’t hide his bemusement at the idea that the world ever forgot about his father or his concern that Fela’s music should not be stripped of its original political meaning or divorced from its setting: Lagos. “I was 12 when my father was campaigning,” he says. “I’m now 48 and things have not got any better.”
There are few signs of age on the singer-songwriter, who played with his father’s bands during the late 1970s and 1980s and has continued his tradition of social and political activism. A little grey at the temples and a slight gauntness that contrasts with his father’s muscularity are all that give away the son’s decades on stage. He is in some senses indicative of an unchanging Nigeria, a place where the same politicians and the same problems haunt a new generation and threaten to outlive even the younger Kutis.
The singer gives a roll-call of power cuts, colonels, corruption, looting and international opportunism that inspired Fela’s songs such as “Zombie” and “International Thief Thief” and mean protest music makes as much sense in Nigeria now as it did in the big man’s hey-day. And he can see why a new audience is thrilled.
“I can imagine the shock in their minds when they come across Afro beat, the life and times of my father,” he says. “When they see the injustice and him fighting against corruption I can imagine a boy or a girl getting hooked on this whole story. As a young boy, I was getting hooked; it’s a very massive story.”
But he remains unconvinced about the meaning of his dead father’s popularity.
“What’s the benefit of the mainstream listening to Fela Kuti?” he asks. “People love the music but they don’t want the story. Maybe they will get the hook and want to know more about what it’s like in Nigeria rich with oil with no electricity.”
Femi said he never considered playing his father, a role that has been alternated between young performers Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo, and is more concerned with where Fela! will play if and when it returns to Nigeria. “I’m happy someone else feels it’s important and on Broadway … But the show will only be meaningful if it comes to the Shrine. The Shrine is more important to us than Broadway.”
There is little anger in his tone and he seems to be joking as much as anything when he says: “I could make a one-man protest: I want it brought to the Shrine.” But he’s serious enough when he says “No”, he hasn’t been to see it, despite conversations with its rapper producers and, “No” he has no plans to do so. “I refuse to go until it comes back to Lagos. It has to come home if it’s going to be any part of the struggle for African emancipation.”
And he is positively furious at the suggestion that Nigeria’s media mogul and booster-in-chief Nduka Obaigbena might be the one to bring it as part of his annual mega-show ThisDay festival. “He wants to take credit for bringing the Broadway show,” says Femi accusingly. “He will get not one ounce of credit.”
He then reels off a who’s who of the music world – from Stevie Wonder to James Brown, Erikah Badu to Damon Albarn – who paid homage at the New Shrine long before newspaper publisher Obaigbena started bankrolling big names to come to his Lagos festival.
The current Shrine is still a world apart from Broadway or the West End. More reminiscent of an aircraft hangar littered with picnic tables it’s an unpretentious and thoroughly unsanitised venue at peace with the chaotic city outside.
Its entrance is crowded with hawkers, touts and taxis and Lagos’s famous “area boys” manage the traffic and attend to security at the club. Last year, the state governor, Babatunde Fashola, tried to close it as part of a campaign to clean up the city but quickly found that the Kutis can still make a noise globally when under attack from the authorities.
Yeni Kuti, who danced with her father’s bands, and was in New York for the premiere of Fela!, now runs the Shrine. She bristles at the claim that it’s unsafe as a venue for a musical. “They want to say it’s dangerous. This is nonsense.”
She can see the rough edges of her club but argues that that’s part of the point. “Anybody can come to the Shrine and they won’t be bothered. Every kind of people in Lagos go there; it’s about the music and no one will bother them.”
Femi is entertained at the idea that Nigerian authorities would have to clean up the area of the city where the club is if an international show came to town. “They would have to repair the roads and switch the power on and pretend it’s all nice,” he says.
But he’s not holding his breath that the same robber barons his father lambasted and defied might find a way to cash in on him posthumously by hosting the musical at an expensive venue. “They want Fela Kuti to come play for them?” he says, full of mockery for Afro beat’s new “wealthy fans” in Nigeria. “Well, he might come and play for them. But he would still tell them that they are all crooks.”