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Review: The Brave, Strong Women Of Kalakuta Republic

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, one of the most popular musicians from Nigeria and Africa at large, was the pioneer of the Afrobeat genre, which has gained mainstream recognition outside Africa since 2012. Asides his popular musical influence, his activism and fighting for the rights of the common man was legendary. Many of his songs, like ‘Suffering and Smiling’ and ‘International Thief Thief’, reflected his stance. Yet, for a man so idolised by the world today, not a lot is known about the women who stood with him throughout his life. And that indeed is what the Bolanle Austen-Peters-produced ‘Fela and the Kalakuta Queens’ aims to achieve.

The play was borne out of an inquisitive desire to know about the twenty-seven wives that nobody ever speaks about, what drove their decision to marry one man and their passion in general. The show had a good run in December 2017 when it made its debut. Now, it is back again for all weekends in April. In the past, Fela’s life and music have been the subject of various stage plays and dramas, notable of which was the Fela! Musical on Broadway in the late 2000s but none has thrown this much light on the Kalakuta women.

Fela and the Kalakuta Queens. Photo credit: Nightlife NG

The play reflects on life in the Kalakuta Republic, the communal compound that housed Fela’s wives, band members and recording studio. These women were backup singers and dancers who left their homes and their families of their own accord to live with the musical legend. They had lived with the musician and, as in most polygamous homes, fought one another. Yet, they stood strong to fight the opposition as is seen when Malaika comes in. Despite the public’s perception of them as harlots and ostracisation by their families, these brave women stood with Fela. They can be regarded as the very soul of his music. The three-hour production also shows real-life events such as the burning down of the Kalakuta Republic in 1977, the mass wedding ceremony in 1978 and the constant arrests by members of the armed forces.

Fela and the Kalakuta Queens is a celebration of the life of the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti whose songs are played throughout the play, as expected. It pays homage to the queens of Kalakuta who helped popularise Fela’s music and negotiate power. It also paints these women in the right light: strong women who were not brainwashed or placed under a spell, but were a source of strength and inspiration for Fela and were willing to go the extra mile for him. The respect and love were mutual as Fela was willing to marry them all to protect them from the spiteful society.

The performances are energetic. The costumes are well-thought out and are reminiscent of the late Abami Eda’s fashion sense. The make-up, stage design, sound and lighting make it easy to appreciate the amount of work put into the play. It boasts of a stellar cast including Patrick Diabuah, Osas Ajibade, Dolapo Philips, Inna Erezia and Lilian Yeri.

In all, the play is absolutely iconic and a beautiful story that is an integral part of the legend that is Fela.

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