Firebrand’s legacy sold out

2011-01-28 14:46

At the height of his powers, the razor-sharp cool king of Afro-beat, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, packed so much force that even the Nigerian military could not stop him from setting the whole black experience alight.

From the ghettos of Lagos in Nigeria, to the townships of apartheid South Africa, Fela’s messages were simple, apt and clear.

For the post-1976 generation of South African township youth living under PW Botha’s state of emergency, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (released in 1986) couldn’t have been a more fitting anthem, giving their toyi-toyi a funky Afro-beat groove.

“Whether you like or you no like, after you hear this, you go talk . . . ” was the line sang out loud to the taste of lager as defiance took on a more personal tone.

But these were all part of Fela’s scathing lyrics against military misrule in the Nigeria of his day. He had, after all, paid witness to the Sorrow, Tears and Blood (1977), which he called their “regular trademark”. He would suffer many beatings at their hands, even arrests.

In fact, his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement, suffered fatal injuries during one of their many raids on his home, the Kalakuta Republic.

Fela established Kalakuta Republic as a “shebeen” of sorts where he regularly performed. It was also a recording studio, and home for him and his band and their entourage.

He later controversially declared it independent from the Nigerian state. There, he housed his 27 wives, known as the queens. They were also dancers and vocalists in his band.

This lifestyle guaranteed that Fela-the-polygamist’s name would later come up in the HIV and Aids debates surrounding his death.

But that’s a hot issue for later. For now, there are more celebratory concerns.

A musical theatre production titled FELA! is taking the world by storm.

The production, which is directed by Bill T Jones and began its Broadway run in November 2009, has been selling out since it opened.

The show has now moved to London’s (Olivier) National Theatre and will be streamed live at selected cinemas across the world, including selected Cinema Nouveau theatres in South Africa.

FELA! features award-winning actor Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo sharing the lead role as Fela. An Afro-beat band, the Antibalas, attempt to summon the ghost of Fela with their take on his music.

Supported by producers Jay-Z, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Stephen Semlitz, the show broke Broadway records for the number of celebrity audiences in attendance.

These included Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, among others. Even Fela’s most famous blood cousin, the Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka, made an appearance.

In May 2010, the production was nominated for 11 Tony awards, including best musical and best book of a musical.

Jones scooped the best direction of a musical, Ngaujah the best leading actor in a musical and Lillias White won the best featured actress in a musical.

But there are some wary whispers in the wind, asking: Would Fela have approved of all this pomp and bling in his name? What of being appropriated by Jay-Z of Big-pimpin’ fame?

Furthermore, others are suspicious of the very venues chosen for the show – theatres don’t come any more bourgeois than Broadway. Is this in keeping with the vernacular spirit of Kalakuta Republic?

Fela’s former wife, Sandra Izsadore, is on record surmising that her late husband probably wouldn’t have approved of this neo-bourgeois purchase.
She told “Fela was a man who was for the people and about the people . . . His music was meant for everyone. He wasn’t about commercialism, or -isms of any kind.”

But others like Femi Kuti, who has inherited his father’s musical gifts and fiery rhetoric, has argued that the production “is important because it tells my father’s story properly”.

Seun, another son, celebrates that it is being seen by a “New York audience that has otherwise never seen something like it before”.

The creators have toned down Fela’s pidgin English to make him accessible to less attuned audiences.

Here in South Africa, even the choice to stream the show in Ster-Kinekor’s high-end platform, Cinema Nouveau, has raised a few eyebrows. There are only six of these theatres in the whole country, so FELA! will only be seen by an exclusive few.

The cinema chain’s marketing manager, Rajsha Singh, says the decision was not deliberate, but “was tied up with the National Theatre agreement”.

The show had to be screened at Cinema Nouveau because “that’s our dedicated art house platform . . . with specific premium prices”.

Fela – this popular icon and pioneer of Afro-beat music, this human rights activist, social commentator par excellence and political maverick – was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti on October 15 1938.

He changed his name to Anikulapo in 1969 after a visit to the US, where he caught the fire of the Black Panthers, thus marking the deepening of sociopolitical themes in his music.

Anikulapo means “he who carries death in his pouch” and so Fela would say after surviving some military beatings: “I cannot be killed.” But on August 2 1997, Fela shook off his mortal coil and joined his ancestors.

His brother, Beko Ransome-Kuti, a medical doctor, said his death was Aids-related.

But Fela’s better-known son, Femi, has since controversially recanted that statement, supporting the idea that his father died of an accumulation of wounds from successive beatings by Nigerian military officers.

But Fela’s reach is still perennial and global, as were his creative resources.

He was able to enjoin the funk and fire of a James Brown with jazz, West African juju high-life music and psychedelic rock into a singular vernacular chant.

It’s a semiotic cocktail of personal fantasies, both sensual and ethereal.

The Fela sermon is also where collective spirituality meets a universal demand for a better modern African condition.

Fela once said: “Music is a weapon. Music is thing of the future.

“Music is a weapon of the future.”

He seems to have made sharp weapons, for in the fight for space in history, his music is proving a formidable weapon.

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