The Afrobeat of Fela! hits London

Hit Broadway musical brings with it the powerful story of Africa’s legendary son, Fela Kuti

After a highly successful first year on Broadway and with an all-new cast, save for the lead role for which Sahr Ngaujah has already won awards, Fela!, the ‘hybrid of dance, theatre, and music’ telling the story of the life of the Godfather of Afrobeat, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, hits the National Theatre this November.

With a hugely diverse thirty-strong cast hailing from the UK, US, France, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Holland, Kenya, Côte D’Ivoire, and Ghana amongst other places, the multi award-winning, hugely respected and powerful presence of director and choreographer Bill T. Jones and a full twelve-piece band including the legendary Dele Sosimi, musician in both Fela and Femi Kuti’s bands, this promises to be an experience that will not be forgotten!  Fela! has the potential not only to bring a new audience to the National Theatre but to bring the vibrancy and energy of the music of Fela Kuti to a new audience and a new generation as the National Theatre’s run spans the Christmas holiday period.

The London show has been helped along with myriad advisors and guests; Seun Kuti calling by with some advice for Sahr Ngaujah on how to move his body to the music just like his father, Sandra Isadore at hand to advise Paulette Ivory, whose part she is playing, on the intricacies of her relationship with Fela, the constant on-set guiding eye of Rikki Stein, Fela’s manager and friend of fifteen years, and Lemi Ghariokwu, long-time designer for Fela’s album covers checking on progress.

As one would expect, music is a deftly used tool in this production, with the constant guitar riffing in the background crescendoing as the on-stage action builds, to reach a punching brass climax sometime after, continuing the form of much of Fela’s music whose dagger-like lyrics would only begin to stab once you’re completely hooked on the groove, at the mercy of his music and wherever it wants to take you.  Fela! will do much the same thing; overwhelm you with the sight and sound of its superbly choreographed cast and the magnificence of its Afrobeat orchestra.

Be prepared to lose your inhibitions and disregard London theatre etiquette, embrace this stage Kalakuta and be out of your seat in no time at all!  As Paulette Ivory (playing Sandra Isadore) put it, “it’s a very interactive piece, we don’t want you to sit back, we want you to get involved, to feel like you’re actually there in Lagos.  British audiences can be reserved but we want to get them up on their feet and to have fun, that’s what makes Fela! so special.  Sahr feels that too, he’ll point you out, so don’t sit in the front if you don’t want to get up!”  Fela! is a vibrant, living piece; as I heard someone say at the rehearsals, “This thing is not written down – it has evolved!”

Having talked extensively with the committed and charismatic Paulette Ivory (above), I was happy to be invited down to watch some of the rehearsals.  The scene that evolved after a very short time that for me epitomizes the energy of this production, and of Afrobeat, was that of the whole crew, facial expressions displaying their intent concentration on the task at hand, still not being able to help themselves from tapping, swaying and moving with the rhythm enveloping the whole rehearsal as the task of making perfect the performance of such a large cast resumed.

What a colossal task that is, especially given the success of the Broadway version, but Paulette and the cast are determined, “They set a standard, and the minimum we need to do is to match that, if anything we want to add to it…the bar has been set.  I’m so impressed with the National for putting this on because there’s no filter for Fela, he’s angry, he’s been treated awfully and he’s got a real fight on his hands so there’s that passion, that fire in it and the show really shows that without filtering him, it’s really true to who he was and how it would have been in The Shrine, in Kalakuta”

It would be hard, nay, impossible to resist taking away the highly charged, infectious energy of a production of this magnitude.  Expect an explosive experience that’ll have your hips shaking and feet tapping uncontrollably long after the performance, and what better to go home to the tune of than the new Femi Kuti album Africa for Africa, just out on Wrasse Records, who continues to this day the Afrobeat tradition of producing the vital, unflinching, exposé of bad government and corruption started by his father, “Make we remember the things Fela taught you!”

Catch it before it goes to its natural home for a week of shows in Lagos in the spring!

By Alex Hands
Pictures by Tristram Kenton

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FELA! @ NATIONAL THEATRE
6th Nov – 6th Jan, £10-£44
nationaltheatre.org.uk 020 7452 3000

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