The most influential African musician of the last 50 years is still little known in this country. A few years ago, Broadway tried to remedy that with the musical, “Fela!” The national touring company has just made it to Seattle’s Paramount Theatre.
Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician, composer, and performer who not only sang and danced but played a mean sax too. He burst on the African music scene in the early 1970’s with what Fela dubbed “Afrobeat.”
It was an incredibly popular fusion of jazz, funk, African drums, West African guitars, and horns, lots and lots of horns.
The framework of the musical is that it’s the last night at Fela’s famed nightclub, The Shrine. Fela acts as our host and naturally, headliner.
The show is like a two-and-a-half-hour night club act of non-stop Afro-Beat music and dancing. That being said, it’s also something of a hybrid because Fela was almost as political as he was musical.
Fela constantly challenged the militaristic dictatorships that ruled his home country of Nigeria. He never took up arms against the government but he called for its overthrow time and time again. And he slammed the rulers in his music as well. He saw music as his weapon.
He paid a steep price for his activism. He was
hounded by the government. Arrested and beaten many times, he spent a lot of time in and out of jail. His club was burnt to the ground, probably by government forces. These same forces also raided his compound where he and his mother (and his many wives) lived. It was trashed so badly, his mother actually died from injuries suffered at the hands of these soldiers.
It’s been said Fela Kuti was a curious combo of Bob Marley and Che Guevara and this musical tries to do justice to both aspects of his personality. Perhaps not surprisingly, the show does a better job at the “Marley” side of things than the “Guevara” side. Other than the most general of political contexts – he’s anti-colonial, anti-corporations, and anti-dictatorships – “Fela!” doesn’t give us much to work with politically.
But even with the politics getting short shrift, it’s still an odd fit for a Broadway show: a dance party with political diatribe.