Monday, November 22, 2010

FELA!: New York Musical Captures Life and Legacy of Nigerian Artist, Social Commentator

FELA! New York Musical Captures Life and Legacy of Nigerian Artist, Social Commentator

Play highlights struggle against neo-colonialism, militarism in Africa

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

Over the last two years the Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis production FELA! has been captivating audiences in New York city. On November 13, another packed house at the Eugene O'Neill theater on 49th Street sat in utter fascination at the two-and-one-half hour musical that depicts the life and times of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, perhaps the most well-known African composer and musician spanning the period between the 1970s and the 1990s.

At the O'Neill theater the audience was a diverse one with expatriate Nigerians and Africans from the continent, New York residents of all backgrounds and tourists. The musical covered the pioneering and ground-breaking compositions of Fela whose albums sold broadly throughout Africa, Europe and the United States.

The musical illustrates not only how Fela was shaped by historical forces in Nigeria, as well as the entire region of West Africa, but how his visit to the United States in 1969 impacted his social consciousness.

When Fela traveled to the U.S. in 1969, he was heavily influenced by the Black revolutionary movement of the period. He was introduced to the struggles waged by the Black Panther Party and others by his close friend Sandra Isadore of Los Angeles, who is played in musical by Saycon Sengbloh.

This musical immediately grabbed the attention of the audience with the women dancers, known in the play as queens, moving through the aisles. The actor who played Fela, Kevin Mambo, maintained extensive communication and direct dialogue with the audience.

A full jazz orchestra, reminescent of Fela's own Africa 70 and later Egypt 80, started the show some fifteen minutes before the proverbial raising of the curtain. These musicians, along with the actual recordings of Fela, creates a cultural atmosphere that the audience may or may not have remembered.

Yet whether the audience remembered the real Fela or not, the musical is an excellent introduction or re-introduction to one of Africa's greatest cultural phenomena of the 20th Century.

The Social Signficance of Fela's Life

Fela's life and family history paralleled the anti-colonial, national independence and pan-african struggles in Africa and within the Diaspora. His mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a feminist who fought for the liberation of Nigeria from British imperialism.

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was reputed to have been the first woman to drive an automobile in Nigeria. She is also noted for traveling to China in order to met with Chairman Mao during the height of the revolutionary period in that Asian nation.

Fela's father was a protestant minister, the Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. He was an educator and the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers.

Going back even further, one of his ancestors was taken away to South America during slavery but later freed himself and returned to Nigeria triumphantly.

Even though Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, the country remained a neo-colonial state that moved closer to the United States during the 1960s. A successionist war took place between 1967-70, where the eastern region was defeated in an attempt to breakaway from the federal republic that was at the time under military control.

It was the role of the military in Nigeria that drew the ire of Fela. His outspoken criticism of political repression and corruption under military rule resulted in several attempts to prosecute him on trumped-up charges.

After Fela released his world-famous album "Zombie" in 1977, where the army was ridiculed in an extended rhythmic title-track that lasted for over 25 minutes, the efforts of the military government to silence him accelerated. In 1978 a thousand soldiers surrounded his home in Lagos and later invaded the residence attacking and assaulting women, destroying and stealing property. The home was burned down by the soldiers.

Fela's mother Funmilayo was living there at the time. She was assaulted and later thrown out of an upstairs window resulting in her death. Fela later issued an album about the attacks called "Coffin for a Head of State."

In 1984, when Fela was set to leave Nigeria on a world concert tour, he was arrested on the airplane and charged with illegal currency possession. He was convicted and spent over a year in prison.

An international campaign ensued demanding his release. Eventually he was freed from prison in 1986 and traveled to the United States for a series of concerts.

In Detroit during the fall of 1986, Fela and Egypt 80 played a three hour concert at the newly-refurbished Fox theater downtown. The concert host Nkenge Zola, a broadcast journalist working at the time at the local affiliate of National Public Radio, who promoted African music over the station, reminded the thousands in attendance that many people had come by the studio in 1985 to sign petitions demanding Fela's release.

Fela traveled to the U.S. at two other times in 1990 and 1991. His last concert in Detroit was held at the Majestic Theater on Woodward avenue in August of 1991.

As political repression intensified in Nigeria, Fela was charged with murder by the military government. The charges were baseless but they prevented him from traveling outside Nigeria to earn a living as an artist and to seek medical treatment for his deteriorating health.

Fela died on August 3,1997 at the age of 57. His funeral was attended by an estimated one million people in Lagos.

Even in the aftermath of Fela's death his life and legacy remains mired in controversy. The New York musical has recently been the subject a $5 million lawsuit filed by anti-Castro Cuban Carlos Moore who claims the production FELA! was largely taken from a biography of the Nigerian musician he wrote years before.

Fela's son, Femi Kuti, who is a musician that has continued the legacy of his father, has spoken out against Moore's suit saying that it should be withdrawn.

This production in New York has made a tremendous contribution to contemporary African culture and its relationship to the broader struggle against repression and neo-colonialism. Hopefully the production will go on tour around the country and eventually to the African continent where it would undoubtedly be well received.

No comments: