For Robin Denselow, walking into the rehearsals of Fela!, it was impossible to stop thinking about the last time he met Fela Kuti.
Walking into the rehearsals of Fela! at London’s National Theatre, it was impossible to stop thinking about the last time I met the intriguing, infuriating genius Fela Kuti, a musical and political revolutionary who invented Afrobeat.
It was in Lagos, Nigeria, in the mid-1990s.
The military had annulled the election and locked up Chief Moshood Abiola, the man widely accepted as the winner.
Claims by the police that they hadn’t been paid added to the tension on the streets and my anxious taxi driver had to negotiate roadblocks, frisking and demands for bribes on the way to Kuti’s now legendary club, the Shrine.
By the time we arrived at the place Kuti said was “the abodes of the gods of Africa”, it was 2am. Inside its corrugated-iron walls, the bars were open and a capacity crowd was packed between stalls where traders were selling spliffs at less than a penny each, while Kuti’s scantily clad dancers gyrated in wooden cages.
Kuti had spent much of his life bravely attacking successive military regimes in his native Nigeria, often getting himself jailed and seriously beaten in the process.
When he eventually arrived on stage, an emaciated figure dancing in front of his massed band of musicians and singers, he insulted the country’s military leader, General Sani Abacha, by announcing that “the head of state is not a citizen of Nigeria”.
Then, to wild cheers, he embarked on his first furious Afrobeat workout, a mixture of elements of jazz, funk and Yoruba rhythms that was uniquely his. The first song lasted more than 20 minutes, broken up by what Kuti called “yabi”, in which he improvised over the music with furious spoken sections criticising the government or lecturing the audience on any other subject that took his fancy.
The following evening I met him at his house, where the 56-year-old sat in his underpants, half hidden in marijuana smoke and surrounded by near-naked women.
It was two-and-a-half years before he died of Aids, but Kuti was already something of a recluse and talked about African religion more than politics. He had apparently agreed to see me because it was preordained.
“Our world is a world of spirits,” he said. “It’s no coincidence that you are here today. It has been written like this for a long time.”
Now, a decade and a half later, I am watching Kuti again. He is far younger and more athletic than before and he’s studying his moves in a rehearsal room mirror as he launches into a furious yabi routine in which he explains Afrobeat.
He is sporting cropped hair, a purple T-shirt and trainers and he’s backed by a funky Afrobeat riff from an 11-piece band, surrounded by 20 dancers in bare feet, whose hip-swivelling routines are far more slick than anything on display at the original Shrine.
Sahr Ngaujah has played Kuti “over 300 times”, off and then on Broadway, where the show won awards and is still running after more than a year.
He is the only member of the Broadway cast to be performing in London and researched the part by “viewing lots of footage of Fela and watching Fela’s son, Seun, on stage”. Ngaujah captures Kuti’s mannerisms perfectly, from the intensity and swagger to the smile.
Rikki Stein, a Londoner who once co-managed Kuti and acted as consultant on the project, comes in to watch. “Sahr doesn’t look like Fela,” he says “but he makes my hair stand on end.”
Fela! is, said the choreographer and director Bill T Jones, “a work of imagination”, in which “music is the biggest element, along with Fela’s yabis—his talking—but the language of the show is 60% dance”.
In the scenes I watched in rehearsal, dance and music were certainly crucial, with the band playing almost non-stop and Ngaujah dancing and frantically declaiming as the dancers circled around him.
It is, of course, impossible to recreate the mixture of danger, rebellion and exhilaration that Kuti achieved in his live shows in Nigeria, and the real-life Kuti would never have explained his music in quite this way. But I was impressed, and even excited, by what I saw.
The show is set in the Shrine in 1978, when Kuti has returned to Lagos after six months’ exile, after a brutal army attack on his club and surrounding compound.
The military authorities were furious when Kuti declared the area to be the “independent Kalakuta Republic”, outside Nigerian government control, and took their revenge with an assault involving hundreds of soldiers in which Kuti’s mother, Funmilayo, was thrown from a window.
A political activist who had campaigned for women’s votes and travelled to China where she met Chairman Mao, she died as a result of her injuries.
As for the story, Jones said it involves a “Hamlet-like moment” when Kuti has to decide whether to leave Nigeria, the appearance on stage of his deceased mother (“We don’t know if it’s in his mind, or whether she has literally come back as the Goddess of Rain”) and, of course, the violence of the Nigerian military.
The finale, influenced by a real event in which Kuti managed to take a replica of his mother’s coffin to the army barracks, sees the stage filled with coffins.
Despite the teachings of his mother, Kuti’s attitude to women was always controversial—when I visited him he asked “which girl is on duty?”—but Jones said “in our show it’s handled very lightly”. He naturally includes the famous occasion when Kuti married his 27 dancers and singers in a single ceremony (though only 10 are shown on stage “because we couldn’t afford 27”). But there’s no suggestion of the mass divorce 10 years later, or of Aids.
“I don’t try to do his whole life”, said Jones, “but I want to show two hours of it that would explain him as an artist, give some insight into his crazy, complex psyche and [create] an appreciation of his music.”—