Fela… Arrest the Music! Grappling with Afro-beat phenomenon
Twenty years after the music icon and iconoclast, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, passed on, a Nigerian version musical theatre interpretation of him and his work hit the stage last weekend at the 20th anniversary celebration of MUSON Centre Festival 2016. The three-day performance of Fela afforded music, theatre and dance lovers to relive the reenactment of the music enigma in some of the traits that made him who he was and continues to be – a world musical hero who defined his era not only with his music but with his political activism.
It is not the first time Fela would be put on stage. The first time was 2009, when am American theatre group exported Nigeria’s own Fela to Lagosians to consume. Indeed, it was a slap on the face of Lagosians, who arguably, claim Fela for themselves, having lived, worked and fought on their behalf for a better Nigeria. Lagos and Fela were two sides of the same coin while he lived; to have exported back to his own city as a cultural product for their consumption riled a few culture aficionados, even with the country’s legendary taste for foreign things notwithstanding. But there was little to be done, as Broadway-style Musical Theatre culture was alien to the cultural life of the people at the time.
It threw up a challenge that took a few years to breach. Mr. Uche Nwokedi, Mrs. Bolanle Austin-Peters, Mr. Wole Oguntokun and Mr. Ice Nweke took up the challenge Fela! On Broadway presented. The responses were the production of such classics as Kakadu, Jesus Christ Superstar, Saro, Wakaa, Jagua Nana and Love Is A Musical. These musical theatre pieces responded engagingly to the export of Fela! On Broadway. These pieces have come to define Nigeria’s entry into the exclusive club of that cultural product. Commendably, Nigeria is exporting its own music theatres abroad for foreign consumption. Last August, Austin-Peters took Wakaa to London West End; it was a success story. Nwokedi is due to take Kakadu to South Africa to showcase Nigeria’s peculiar brand of highlife that the theatre piece embodies.
So, when Declassical Arts and Entertainment Company performed Fela… Arrest the Music!, as part of MUSON Festival 2016, it was a boon to diehard admirers of the abami eda, Fela. With three directors of three different but related performance genres – music (Ayo Ajayi, also Executive Producer), drama (Kenneth Uphopho) and dance (Gbenga Yusuf) – Fela… Arrest the Music turned out a commendable show although without exhausting the entire Fela phenomenon. When the show ended, it didn’t seem as though it had ended; a certain lingering, unfinished longing for more, remained.
And it was this: Fela is too huge a phenomenon to be wrestle down in a single musical in two hours or less on stage. Or perhaps, the award-winning playwright, Pail Ugbede, overwhelmed by the phenomenal Fela, took just a slice of the man that he could grasp, burdened also by his inadequacy of not having encountered or seen Fela at his elemental best at the shrine while he was alive. However, Ugbede’s imagination served the audience well in recreating the early years of Fela, a stubborn young man who saw in his father’s death the route to freedom from being compelled to study a ‘noble,’ professional course. He coaxed his mother to accede to his choice in music and the world will forever be grateful he rebelled against his equally iconic father.
Ugbede, however, is a master of scenic depiction. Fela returns from study in London and joins Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. Fela’s restless spirit could not be contained within a civil service environment. The dramatic manner of his exit, the confrontation with his wife, Remy Taylor, and his consequent visit to the U.S. are well served. His encounter with African-American Black Panther woman, Sandra, who would transform Fela from the age of innocence into what he was to become, is rendered in such poetic, performative grace.
The performance takes a chronological sequence and is heavy with Fela’s fantastic tangle with the law authority. Here, the performance almost veers into the absurd, as it is suffused with too much comic enactment that almost makes light what was a life and death struggle for the African High Priest. Ugbede’s rendering also suffers a bit of chronological missteps. The old school music seems too 1980ish than that of the 1960s of waltz, chacha, tango to which Fela returned. Even the Coolabitos era narrative seems poorly researched.
And then the essential Fela yabis was missing except the few snapshot, ingenuous scenes with the journalists. Fela’s yabis, when he held court with his wives and devotees at the shrine, as much as the music, are the essential make-up of the Fela phenomenon. All that was missing, just as scene changes were slow and time-wasting. The Fela (Olumide Dada) who opened the show last Friday also seemed too bulky for the lanky, real life Fela although he got the voice and mannerisms right.
Even at that, Fela… Arrest the Music will benefit significantly if restaged away from the MUSON Festival ambience to wider audiences. The music and the dances were just cool although the costumes were less extravagant. However, a tightening of the narrative would help Fela’s fans fall in love with him all over again in this unique resurrection on stage!
MUSON Festival 2016 revs up this weekend with thrilling performance activities. Tomorrow, Thursday, ‘My Kind of Music’ will hold. It features four personalities – Princess Banke Ademola, Ben Idonije, Mrs. Ifeoma Fafunwa and Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon – and the kind of music they like listening to.