Fela! the Musical relives the memory of the late Nigerian Afro-beat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in a recent live stage performance in Lagos. Yinka Olatunbosun, who has been following the Lagos@50 events, reports
Life should have taught us all to pay more attention to what is not said. Radio jingles had it that Fela! from Broadway would be in concert. Simple! It was meant to be just that - a concert. Not a remake of the Fela! the Musical that made its debut in Nigeria in 2011.
To the chagrin of many who invested time and good money to see the show, it was quite a surprise that the two hours and some minutes' show was without the drama of Fela. The Tony-award winning musical had taken centre stage when the producers, Shawn Carter, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett got enthralled by the moving story of Fela who gave up his lucrative music career in highlife and jazz to articulate his anger at injustice through the ingredients of Afrobeat artistry. Seven years ago, it was first performed on Broadway with members of the Fela family and his international fans in attendance. The off-Broadway shows began about a year earlier.
The face-painting stand powered by a cosmetic brand at the red carpet area was besieged like the box-office itself at the Lagos at 50 edition of the production. Wall papers leading into the hall had the images of Fela in performance, as well as his well decorated girls who acted as dancers and back up singers. As wineglasses clinked and conversations lingered, a short announcement brought some silence which was quickly interrupted by the shuffling feet that formed queues at various entry points separated by each one's ticket type.
Opening with reels from the documentary on Fela released in 1982 titled, "Music is the Weapon" and Fela's instrumentals, Sahr Nguajah, applauded at first sight, led the band, carrying on the Fela tradition of good sound design. One of the first things that would strike the frequent theatre-goer was that the choreography was unusual, giving room for dancers to use a lot of discretion. It was not the typical one where all dancers do the same dance routines but they often performed comfortable dances as individuals while taking the same sound cues for a change in stage position. Sahr acknowledged that it was not going to be the same musical as the band had taken the liberty to study the music of Fela. With a plea to the audience to enjoy the concert, the show began with its energetic dancers.
After two hours, it dawned on the audience that there was no story to be told through the music of Fela. But Fela is an embodiment of stories on and off-stage. How could anyone have missed that? Fela is essentially a perfectionist even in concert. And that is a well-known fact. Every chord, string, and clashing calabash must be in tune and on key. His eyes never fail to command attention whether he wants the pace to quicken or not. A few videos of Fela in concert which are available online as well as oral narratives from those who made Fela's shrine a second home provide the new generation of music fans and critics with insight into the world of Fela. If Sahr had any facial expression close to Fela that night, then it must have been largely lost on us since he had his back to us most of the time. One undeniable trait of Fela in Sahr is that remarkable voice which called out occasionally: "Everybody say yeah yeah".
Sahr tried to establish some connection with some members of the audience at the back of the auditorium by requesting that they make their own choice for the next songs to be performed. Some seemed unmoved, distraught at the discovery that Fela! story is gone with the wind. There's no excuse for not recreating the Fela persona on stage. Even the synopsis has one of the popular stories of the Fela's concert which is essentially a mix of consciousness-raising lectures, pamphleteering and enough "yabis" meaning Fela's retinue of humorous pokes at his audience.
Sometimes, his concerts are grounded to a halt with military invasion who arrest and detain Fela and his people. Sahr tried a few yabis when many were not dancing and it worked. But that Fela persona didn't shine through as he wasn't carrying out any particular story that is furnished with dramatic elements such as plot, conflict, climax or theme. It was just a feel-good Afrobeat concert made worthwhile by the saxophonist, Morgan Price; percussionist, Lollise Mbi; the guitarists, Tim Allen, Bryan Vegas and Ricardo Quinones. We all loved Greg Gonzalez and Rasa an Elijah Talu Green on the beat and Billy Aukstik's antics with the trumpet.
One of the dancers jolted us away from personal speculations around how the show will end back to the stage when she spread her legs apart right before the mother of all drums, head pointing to the grounds. Even those who kept stern faces all the way joined in the overwhelming applause in appreciation of talent, hard work and free spirit. After each energetic dance routine, the dancers took to their sitting positions, chanting some hooks or drinking some water. By the time they were performing "Zombie", they defied the fatigue to put up well-choreographed movement. Iris Wilson, who was part of the original Fela cast, maintained her sexy gyrations alongside the dance captain, Afi Bijou and the singer Rue Brown. It was heartwarming to see a New York-based Nigerian singer and dancer Olutayo Bosede on stage with Jason Herbert who played Area Boy in Fela! the musical.
But was it necessary to bring back Fela!, import our own art and fight the natural urge to watch the performance with critical eyes? No doubt it was a great show but the cry from the culture community is that some artists who have contributed to the Lagos story are complaining of not being included in the Lagos at 50 celebrations even as tabula rasa for main shows due to paucity of funds. It must have cost a fortune to bring Sahr and his band to show us how Fela has influenced Broadway and many international musicians. But how will the Lagos story be complete if we don't look at our reflections on the world's mirrors? Fela is the reason why many international music brands are paying huge attention to Nigerian afro-pop stars and very soon, any Nigerian artist who isn't adding a touch of Afrobeat to his music won't get a listening ear from international music companies. Even in the Lemonade album, which is Beyonce's most critically acclaimed visual album, her video such as Sorry recreates Fela girls in preaching about female emancipation.
The bottomline is that Fela sells and to be fair to ourselves, we should be more involved in the business of selling rather than buying it.