Taking Fela Kuti home
Sahr Ngaujah has spent the last two years playing the great Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti on stage in New York and London. Last month he took the production back to Kuti’s native Nigeria. Here, he describes the extraordinary and emotional trip
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* Sahr Ngaujah
* The Observer, Sunday 15 May 2011
* Article history
Man on a mission … Sahr Ngaujah on the beach near Lagos, Nigeria, in April. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer
The air was humid and thick; a constant wind blew in from the sea, sponging up every sweat bead on our skin. A cacophony of sound permeated the air – revving and idling engines, okada motorcycle taxi horns, heavy bass lines and people talking loud. Posters bearing the faces of various smiling politicians were plastered on every inch of space.
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In New York and London, our task was to recreate Fela Kuti’s world in the Nigeria of the 1970s, viewed from within his club, the Africa Shrine. Now we were entering Nigeria to bring Fela back to his own people, to recreate the Shrine of the 70s at a big theatre built by his children and called the New Africa Shrine.
As our plane came over Lagos we were keenly aware that today was election day, the first round, with two weeks to go. We were arriving under curfew. It was a sunny day and as we looked out of our windows it was clear the curfew was taken seriously. All of the streets were clear, no movement save the military men at their posts at junctions throughout the city.
We disembarked amid a flurry of security personnel, some private, some state, some local. We were ushered on to our buses, and with a full military escort we tore out of the airport and began barrelling down the empty expressway to Victoria Island. Welcome to Lagos! We had no idea what would await us in this infamous African metropolis, but we had a mission and a commitment to complete it.
I first visited Nigeria in 2008, just after the off-Broadway production of Fela! closed. I was there for Felabration, a week-long festival that takes place every October to mark Fela’s birthday. I spent my nights at the New Africa Shrine and my days visiting Fela’s house, Kalakuta. I often wondered what sort of impact this type of experience would have on my colleagues after all the effort they’d put into showing other people the world of Fela. Now they were here. We were to play the New Africa Shrine and the Eko Hotel’s conference centre, both holding 3,000. First we had to settle into our new environment and prepare to meet our first audience, the people of Fela’s Shrine.
In those early days my routine consisted of a lot of sleep to get over the jet lag, rehearsing my Yoruba pronunciations and running along the ocean in the Lekki district. Some of my colleagues were having their first experience of African markets and haggling, Nigerian style. At night we could be found recounting the day’s adventures in the courtyard of the Eko Hotel, enjoying the open-air bar while paying Midtown Manhattan prices for our favourite drinks, always under the watchful eye of our no-nonsense security escorts.
fela kuti Afrobeat king Fela Kuti. Photograph: Guardian
Among the richest moments were the time we spent with Fela’s family, with his children Femi, Yeni, Kunle and Seun, along with his siblings, cousins and wives. In 2008 one of Fela’s sons, Kunle, described Fela being buried. He described the scene of thousands of people filling the streets and covering every rooftop in the area. Now here I was with all my colleagues, seeing Fela’s grave. Then they opened the door of his room. His room had been sealed for years. There was his sax, his bed, hundreds of suits, there was everything.
Kunle hadn’t been in the room for 10 years. Seun hadn’t been in for three. But they opened that room to let those people who had dedicated so much to keep his memory alive glimpse Fela, my beloved colleagues who had sacrificed so much of their bodies and their blood to bring Fela’s world to life for thousands of people every night on 49th Street in New York.
Days later I found myself filing off a bus to stand before the New Africa Shrine with those colleagues. As we crushed our way to the entrance we began to hear the sound that had become so familiar to us over the years through watching documentaries about our subject. We heard the voice of the people, calling for Fela, calling for the Kalakutans – the people of Fela’s Kalakuta Republic, the compound where he lived and recorded with his family and his band. As we crossed the threshold of the shrine it seemed as if everyone in the place agreed on what the first utterance to us should be. From the front door to the stage door, all we heard greeting us was: “Welcome home.” Indeed, we had arrived. We were humbled by the reception and had no idea of the measure of beauty awaiting us for the duration of our stay.
Fela Kuti is an immense subject, a bottomless character. Bill T Jones, our director, would say: “Fela was a tornado of a man.” When we first arrived people would say: “How can you bring Fela from America to Nigeria? Fela belongs to us.” Before we left they told us: “Fela has come home.” I don’t think they were talking about us – they were talking about his spirit.
We are holding these experiences in our hearts and can’t wait to unleash them on those planning to join us for the adventure in London this summer.
• Sahr witnessed landmark elections in Nigeria and wants you to help encourage the trend in the Democratic Republic of Congo (fallingwhistles.com/freeandfair). He wore clothes courtesy of Gozi, creative director of his new favourite brand, UMi-1 (gozi.co.uk).
The women of Fela
Apr 11 2011
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Fela Anikulapo Kuti October 15, 1938- August 2, 1997 Nigerian musician and composer, creator, singer, saxophonist, frontman, inventor, and pioneer of afrobeat music.
How do you say his name, Fella or Fey-la?
NOVA Professor of History, Dr. Joeseph Windham, wise and worldly, pronounces Fela like the latter. Whichever way you say it, his name stands for a powerful and humble man. A paradox that translates in the music he creates.
This is a photograph of Fela Kuti with some of the beautiful women he marries. These particular women became victims of sexual brutality, thus cast out and dishonored in their communities. Fela uses marriage as a means of protecting the women from discrimination. He makes it clear that they are heroines, deserved of the utmost respect and honor.
Picture sourced from: http://www.kalamu.com