‘Fela!’ explores the turbulent life of Nigerian musician and activist | Detroit Free Press

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This picture of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti by Leni Sinclair is part of "Moving to His Own Beat - Fela: The Man, The Movement" exhibit through April 1 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

This picture of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti by Leni Sinclair is part of “Moving to His Own Beat – Fela: The Man, The Movement” exhibit through April 1 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. / Leni Sinclair

Fela Kuti has long been an African icon, but icon status elsewhere has eluded the Nigerian musician and political activist, who died in 1997. In music circles today, he’s remembered for the Afrobeat sound he helped create in the 1970s, but even many of his fans remain unaware of the causes he championed and the political battles he waged.

The 2009 Broadway musical “Fela!” marked the beginning of an effort to make Fela Anikulapo Kuti a household name and to illuminate his contributions to the world of popular music and the quest for human rights. The show, backed by high-powered producers like Shawn (Jay-Z) Carter and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, had a 14-month Broadway run that concluded in January 2011. It began a national tour last fall that arrives Tuesday at Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts for a stay of nearly three weeks.

If Music Hall President and Artistic Director Vince Paul has his way, the show will change the way local audiences think of Detroit theater. Paul saw “Fela!” on Broadway and was blown away by the way usually staid New York audiences reacted to the story of Kuti, his conflicts with Nigerian authorities he regarded as oppressive and his outspokenness on the subject of European cultural imperialism. He thinks the show will hold special meaning for Motor City audiences.

“I was amused, because I couldn’t tell whether they were discussing Lagos (Nigeria’s largest city) or my hometown of Detroit,” he says. “It talks about government corruption; it talks about corporate greed; it talks about the education system and who is teaching our children. There is something in this show that everyone can relate to.”

An ex-Detroiter weighs in

Former Detroiter Niegel Smith, the musical’s associate director, says he knew little about Kuti when he became involved with “Fela!” in 2006. Still, his passion for the show and his ideas regarding how to stage it impressed director Bill T. Jones enough to bring him aboard.

“Putting any life onstage is a challenge, even more so with one as rich as Fela’s,” says Smith, who now lives in New York. “There were so many different sides to his personality, so many parts that we had to visit.”

He, Jones and the show’s other creators decided to set “Fela!” in the late 1970s and to re-create a concert in the performer’s Afrika Shrine nightclub in Lagos, where Kuti performed politicized music that drew the wrath of Nigerian authorities. The show also deals with a raid by Nigerian troops on the commune-recording studio where Fela and his followers lived and worked. (They had declared the commune independent from the Nigerian state.) Several people were killed in the raid, including Kuti’s mother, who was thrown from a window by government soldiers.

“It’s not as hard to follow as you might think,” Smith says of the show, which features nearly 40 performers, along with an 11-piece band. “We make his motivation clear in so many ways. It is a real multimedia experience.”

The Broadway version of “Fela!,” which won Tony Awards in 2010 for choreography, costumes and sound, proved popular enough to give birth to a simultaneous London production. The touring version that’s headed for Detroit has a cast composed of stars from both versions. Sahr Ngaujah from the Broadway cast again plays Kuti.

‘Sinatra of Africa’

Capturing Kuti’s spirit onstage was of primary importance to everyone involved with “Fela!,” as was a desire to re-create the percussion-intensive Afrobeat sound he helped shape. Afrobeat, popularized in the 1970s, combines traditional African music with elements of jazz and funk and is marked by chants, call-and-response vocals and complex rhythms. (In his heyday, Kuti helped spread the sound via U.S. appearances. His last show in Detroit was in 1991.)

“He was the Frank Sinatra of Africa,” says Maija Garcia, the show’s Tony-winning choreographer. “He had this way of holding an audience in the palm of his hand. … Sahr brings that charisma to his performance, the passion not only for his music but his dedication to a cause.”

Garcia, who was born and raised in Ann Arbor, credits the diverse musical performances she saw as a child with giving her the creative range required to choreograph the variety of dance styles audiences see in “Fela!”

“You’ve got music that taps into ancient African rhythms, James Brown-era guitars, jazz and blues that we contemporize into a theatrical mode,” she says. “I think of it as a music history journey into the ritual of dance.”

Garcia will be working backstage during the Detroit performances to train a handful of understudies who recently joined the “Fela!” tour. Though she has seen performances of the show “a thousand times before,” she never tires of watching it move crowds.

“I still can’t help but be affected by it,” she says. “By the end of the show, the theater is transformed. Everyone is on their feet, an entire audience feeling like they’ve witnessed something important.”

Music Hall reaches out

Bringing “Fela!” to the Detroit area was a labor of love for Music Hall’s Paul, who was born in Detroit and returned to the area in 2006 after years as a tour director with dance and theater companies around the world. To promote the show, he assembled a theatrical troupe of dancers, singers, actors, DJs and drummers, all backed by video projections, to make the rounds of both suburban and Detroit schools.

“The idea was: ‘Let us bring you up to speed on Africa,’ ” he says. “So we’d show photographs of big office buildings and resorts and sidewalks and banks, and we’d say: ‘This is Africa, guys. Yes, Africa has desert and jungles, but in general, people live in bustling cities.’ “

“Fela!” is among the biggest events ever offered by Music Hall, which is trying to cultivate a local audience for world music and dance programs. To help cover the $1.6-million cost of bringing the musical to town, Paul enlisted support from local business and philanthropic communities. Still, there were people at Music Hall who considered the show a gamble, he says.

“Some of the trustees were concerned that we were going too far out of our lane, that the show was far too expensive to produce, that we wouldn’t be able to raise the funds. In the end, we did.”

“Fela!” has already sold out its first three performances, though tickets for the rest of the run were still available at press time. To make the show a financial success, Paul says Music Hall needs to have sellouts, or near-sellouts, for every performance between Tuesday and March 4.

Though he hopes “Fela!” ultimately alters the way metro Detroiters view the world, Paul also has a more immediate goal in mind: He wants the show to help redefine theater in Detroit — and the kinds of touring shows that turn up here.

“Detroit is a theater town,” he says. “There will always be a market for ‘Wicked’ and ‘Million Dollar Quartet.’ I want Broadway producers to know that they can be successful here with more sophisticated and challenging works as well.”


More Details: ‘Fela!’ events around town

Numerous events celebrating Fela Kuti and the Broadway musical he inspired are on tap in Detroit during the nearly three-week run of “Fela!” Here’s a sampling:

• “A Good Man,” a documentary about “Fela!” director Bill T. Jones, screens at 5 p.m. today at 1515 Broadway. The film follows the award-winning director-choreographer as he stages a dance-theater piece saluting Abraham Lincoln. 1515 Broadway, Detroit. 313-965-1515. $7.

• “Moving to His Own Beat — Fela: The Man, the Movement, the Music” is an exhibit chronicling Fela Kuti’s life that makes use of photographs, stage costumes and other artifacts. Through April 1. Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren, Detroit. 313-494-5800 or www.thewright.org. Museum admission is $8, $5 seniors and children 3-12, free to children 2 and younger.

• “Say Yeah Yeah! A Felatastic Detroit Art Exhibition” is a collection of works by more than 20 local artists who pay tribute to Kuti’s life and music. Through April 9. Works by Lemi Ghariokwu, the Nigerian artist responsible for a majority of Kuti’s album covers, will be on display through Saturday. Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center, 311 E. Grand River, Detroit. 313-965-8430. Free.

• A 30-foot-long time line examining Nigerian history and Kuti’s history will be displayed over the next few days at various sites around town, including the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center (today) and the food court at DTE Energy’s headquarters at 1 Energy Plaza in Detroit (Monday). It will be at Music Hall for Tuesday’s opening performance of “Fela!”

• The Foundation: Celebrating Women in Hip Hop will host a special “Fela!” show featuring Afrobeat samples among its weekly musical offerings. 9 p.m. Feb. 21, the Old Miami, 3930 Cass, Detroit. 313-831-3830 or www.myspace.com /oldmiami . $5.

More Details: ‘Fela!’

Opens 8 p.m. Tue., continues through March 4

Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts

350 Madison, Detroit

313-887-8500 www.musichall.org

$27 and up

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