Lime Review - Theatre
After a sell out run at the National Theatre, Sadler’s Wells is a natural second home to stage the musical FELA!
Which adopts a documentary style history lesson in the love life, influences, and passions of Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s first international music icon.
He was behind the style of Afrobeat music, fusing funk with jazz, Ghanaian/Nigerian High-life, and traditional West African chants and rhythms. The influence of Afrobeat is prevalent today – from Beyonce’s bootylicious throw downs to the sensual bounce of reggae beats. Watching this show a second time with friends and family, the music is so infectious you can’t help but pop a little shoulder action and shuffle out of your seat. It is the soundtrack for Fela (played by Sahr Ngaujah) and his lithe dancers bringing to life the corrupt regime in his homeland, Nigeria, which so sadly still prevails today despite the introduction of democracy in 1999.
Fela’s pidgin lyrics, back in the 70s, were controversial, colourful, and doused with a macabre sense of humour because they spoke truth – invoking the wrath of the military. Fela fled Nigeria in fear to the US and then returned to the delight of the people who taunted the ruling powers with songs like Zombie, which criticized them for acting without thinking for themselves. Catapulted by this support and his awakening in US black power politics he tried to run for presidency in the nation’s first shot at democracy. The military, however, removed his name from the ballot.
As a visual multi-media feast conveying Nigeria during the ruckus of the 70s when political ideologies were rapidly shifting, Ngaujah is charismatic and a smart ass: with great aplomb he delivers one liners about colonial visitors overstaying their welcome when towels and ashtrays disappear and comments on the lack of social etiquette when an audience member asks for a smoke of his joint. “Before it comes to you it must go around and so the magic word is not please, but puff puff pass.”
Modern references to corruption and ignorance in British society are exemplified by coffins bearing the names of News Corporation and RBS when Fela calls upon Nigerians to express their own social injustices alongside the coffin of his mother in Lagos.
For the diehard Fela fans, this production will be a little disappointing – presenting a somewhat purified portrayal of this complex and often contradictory man. The narrative is also too simple: where is the fleshing out of relationships with his band, management, his 27 wives, his family members? As the first half is anecdotal with Fela sharing his introduction to music, the second half is peculiar in adopting a surreal fairy-tale persona when he uses the spirits to contact his mother in the underworld after she’s thrown from a balcony rooftop during the burning down of his home Kalakuta Republic.
But then, is it possible to fit all of these other issues that impressed upon Fela into two and a half hours? Perhaps the film version being made by Turner Prize-winning British artist Steve McQueen will give some insight. It is clear, however, that Fela’s legacy still holds so much resonance and that without a doubt, some people are limbering up in their homes to show that they can definitely do some sexy back with Fela’s music on the ready!
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