In a dodgy neighborhood of Lagos, Nigeria, the Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti built a shrine to his music, his people and perhaps most of all to himself.
That shrine – long since razed by Nigerian soldiers and later rebuilt by the great musician’s son Femi Kuti – reappeared Friday night on the stage of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, where the excellent musical “Fela!” is in the midst of a two-day tour stop.
Kuti’s shrine, to which musicians as different as James Brown and Paul McCartney made pilgrimages to absorb some of Kuti’s ineffable style, is a raucous and colorful place. It reverberates with the sound of ancient African drumbeats mixed with guitar riffs borrowed from American funk and choral harmonies that owe something to old Europe.
That strange, polyglot sound so soaked in sex and unassailable in drive is what vaulted Kuti, who died in 1997, into a hallowed place among 20th century musicians and composers. Echoes of his music can be heard everywhere from the work of Brian Eno and David Byrne to the thriving global Afrobeat scene and its many derivative movements.
The show’s performers and creative team have done everything possible to transport the audience into Kuti’s crazed, unpredictable and altogether fascinating universe of music and politics. With a book by Jim Lewis and the extremely smart choreographer and thinker Bill T. Jones and music by Kuti himself, it’s impossible to walk away from this show (as I had to do well before the final curtain in order to file this review) without a sense that your world has just grown a little bit bigger.
The show, in addition to providing some of the more danceable beats to come to the Shea’s stage in recent memory, serves as an engrossing crash course in the polyglot stew of influences that made up Kuti’s style. And along the way, it also manages to teach audiences about the vagaries and injustices of Nigerian politics and the way they connect to injustices on our side of the Atlantic.
It is driven chiefly by the engaging Adesola Osakalumi, who has a handle on Kuti’s likeable traits – his confidence, his charm, his explosive musical talent, as well as his less likeable ones – his megalomania and rampant sexism (he is famous for having had 27 wives). Osakalumi gives us Fela Kuti warts and all, the only way to truly appreciate the man and his contributions.
Kuti’s by no means constant love interest in the show is the American activist Sandra Isador, played with verve here by former Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams. Isador was Kuti’s mentor of a kind, and in the musical she serves as a bridge between the political turmoil that so vexed Kuti in Nigeria and the endless struggle for racial equality in the United States.
The performances, from the moving “Kere Kay” to Kuti’s troublemaking hit “Zombie,” had the audience going nuts.
Prospective audience members should also know that “Fela!” includes many more involved audience participation bits than the typical Broadway show. There is, for instance, a five-minute lesson in booty-shaking that has the entire crowd doing borderline inappropriate things with their posteriors. And another extended bit involves Osakalumi holding forth on the wonders of Nigerian pot.
“Fela!” is a complex musical, its eclectic score drawn from disparate styles and eras and a political backdrop that will take more sorting out than the show itself can effectively provide. You may want to see it more than once.