Talking Fela with Sahr Ngaujah

After much anticipation, Fela! – the critically acclaimed Broadway musical, celebrating the life and music of Nigerian Afro-beat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti – has made its return to London’s Sadler’s Well Theatre for the second time, and JungleDrums has had the chance to speak to it’s star, Sahr Ngaujah.

Since opening on Broadway in 2008 Fela! has become one of the most popular contemporary musicals, fusing music, spirituality and dance with Fela’s life and the political story of Nigeria in the 1970s. In 2010 the show won three Tony awards, and is now touring theatres around the world. The applause is still resounding and it is no surprise that lead actor Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Fela, is humbled by the experience of bringing Fela’s story to life.

When we speak, Ngaujah sounds a little sleep deprived, no doubt from his gruelling schedule, but he is good-humoured and animated when we talk about Fela’s music and reflect on the impact the musical has had on his career.

Has starring in such a magnificent show had a big impact on your career?
It is by far the most exposure I’ve ever had as an actor and as an artist. Many people have seen my work over the years, but now I’m performing for between 1200 and 3000 people a night for the last two years and amongst these are an ‘A list’ of Hollywood and music stars. We have even performed for the Prince of Wales and the Prince of Holland. I never would have imagined I would be doing that.

What process did you go through to capture Fela’s mannerisms and persona?
It was challenging you know? Fela was a very specific person; he wasn’t a ‘type’. He really was a guy who had his unique way of walking and talking. The way he used his fingers and his eyes, the way he chilled, the way he said “Yeahhh.” (drawn out and exaggerated). All these things about him were so specific. So it was a challenge to embody all of that, but it is also why he was so interesting to me as a character, and what made me want to engage in the project in the first place.

Do you ever find yourself slipping into “Fela” mode in real life?
What, you mean walking down the street like “yeah yeah, come here I want to marry all of you?!” No, it’s a character, but I guess there are aspects that do rub off. The physical training is quite intense and that is definitely in my body. I actually trained in a particular way, not just to play the role but I would train different muscle groups that helped me fit into Fela’s stance, his walk, his way of moving, so in that way it’s very close of course. But I don’t lapse into Fela at the checkout counter.

Were you a Fela and Afrobeat fan before you got involved with the project?
Yeah, I used to listen to Fela when I was a kid. My father was a DJ back in the 80s while he was studying for law school. In the daytime he would study and at night he would DJ at African parties; Ethiopian parties, Nigerian parties Ghanaian parties. Everyone used to listen to Fela, so I was listening to Fela too.

Has his music developed greater personal significance for you, now that you know his story?
Oh yes. Absolutely. From the time I was a kid I found Fela extremely fascinating. The first time I heard “I.T.T (International Thief Thief)”, I was really taken aback because I had never heard that type of language usage, this type of meaning that can cross cultures. What “Thief” means in the west and what it means in Africa are two different kinds of ideas. When you hear “thief thief” in Afirca you think of someone being chased, so when I first heard that song as a kid it blew my mind. But now to learn so much more of his story, understanding more about what was happening in the periods when he was writing a lot of these songs is fascinating. He was a very interesting and courageous individual.

And has this been the most challenging role you have had so far?
Yes, it is the most challenging so far for a number of reasons. I’ve been fortunate in the fact that I have been acting for about seventeen years and been directing for about fourteen, and what I have always hoped for is that whatever my next project is, it is more challenging than the last, and this definitely is. To me that’s part of the journey, it’s the craft.

Returning to the Fela! show, how have audience responses differed in the US and England?
Of course Americans and the English have a different type of character. Considering that there is still an equal level of enthusiasm and excitement for the show, it’s just that the way it is expressed is just a little different.

Where is the show going after after London?
Next is back to North America and to Canada. Then we will tour Europe again and after that Africa and parts of Asia.

Why should people come to the show?
The show is enjoyable for everyone. Hopefully when people leave they will have come face-to-face their own humanity and therefore have the courage to face their fears.

And finally, what is your all time favourite Fela track?
“Confusion Break Bone”

Interview by Fola Odumosu

Fela! is at Sadlers Wells from 20th July until 28th August 2011

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