Wednesday, 2 December 2009

FELA! Revolution on Broadway

Examine the various trouble spots around the world and you’ll notice an indistinct but recognizable footprint. Be it Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, squint your eyes and you can still make out the ghost of a Union Jack fluttering in the wind.
How did Britannia manage to extend her influence from Belfast to Brisbane, Lagos to Lahore, Canberra to Canton? Well, for whatever reasons, her citizens had an ironclad belief in the superiority of their culture and religion, and in their divine right to rule an empire on which the sun never set.
They also understood that in order to conquer you must first divide. Modernity and two terrible world wars, however, put a dent in their worldwide suzerainty, whereupon they either graciously withdrew or were unceremoniously thrown out.
What did they leave behind? For the most part, seething colonial baronies whose indigenous cultures had been disparaged and subsumed.
Within years of independence a military strong man had often taken control in order to keep the various divided ethnic and religious groups from rupturing apart - usually with the tacit consent of the UK and US. Hey, it was a lot better than having the Commies knock off another domino!
There is much to learn about such matters at the production of FELA! that opened recently on Broadway. And yet, such is the extraordinary entertainment one is treated to, you’d never guess that you were getting a primer in post-Colonial politics.
Of course, Fela Kuti was an extraordinary character. How would you describe his like in Irish terms? Well, think a mixture of Christy Moore, James Connolly and Bono with a dash of Roy Keane for sheer dander; or for simplicity’s sake, how about Bob Marley on steroids?
For like Marley, this Nigerian dynamo almost single-handedly created a new genre of music. Afrobeat’s rhythms come at you from all angles and one of the incandescent moments in the Broadway show is when Fela exposes its origins by stripping down the music to its skeletal swirling roots before adding its rich flesh of horns and voices.
Fela Kuti was descended from an elite family of the Yoruba tribe, many of whom have been introduced to Catholicism by Irish missionaries. His grandfather, however, had converted to the Anglican Faith and became a loyal supporter of the Empire.
Fela’s mother rebelled and was a leader of the resistance to British rule. A feminist and first woman elected to the Nigerian parliament, she was the central figure in the young musician’s life, encouraging him to treasure his roots and protect the rights of his less fortunate fellow citizens.
Not only did he do that musically by blending Yoruban rhythms with James Brown’s funk and Coltrane’s jazz, he openly resisted the corrupt military dictatorship of his tribesman, General Obasanjo.
In the 1970’s Fela’s song, Zombie, became a protest anthem throughout Africa and Europe, ridiculing all forms of militarism. He formed his own political party, Movement of the People, and ran for President.
For his troubles, he was arrested over 200 times, harassed and often beaten, including the night his mother was thrown to her death by Obasanjo’s soldiers.
All of this is portrayed onstage and yet the mood is celebratory, for Fela Kuti always defiantly picked up the pieces and carried on.
Dancers swirl around the audience as the band captures the uplifting quality of the man’s music. So much so that if you’re not on your feet dancing by the end of the night, then the next pint is on me.
The wonder of FELA!, however, is that the spirit of a very complicated, contradictory and charismatic human being is evoked, unleashing a strange wave of shimmering magic throughout the theatre.
This stays with you sparking, among other things, all manner of questions about the nature of colonialism. Why are we in the West so sure we know what’s right for other people?
The British tried to impose their beliefs on the inhabitants of their empire. With little regard for the lessons of history we’ve now plunked down into their failed footsteps in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Amidst all the brilliant dancing, music, and drama, FELA! asks questions that might seem particular to Nigeria. Unfortunately, they are just as relevant for us today.
This is great theatre – thrilling, vital, and often suggesting unpopular answers. “Black President” is one of its most compelling songs. One hopes our own chief executive gets to hear it soon.

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