Sitting in the confines of Lille-Europe station on a Eurostar that has fallen victim to the closure of all Belgium’s high-speed lines, the experience of seeing Fela! at the National Theatre on Saturday seems a long way off. Here, literally every colour that I can see is a variation of grey, save for the dark blue platform signs and a red and blue neon sign on the supermarket outside. It’s cold, desolate, soulless, corporate and dull; you could say none of these things about Fela Kuti and you can say none of them about the show that is currently lighting up the august environment of the Olivier Theatre.To say that the show was joyous wouldn’t begin to do it justice. The Olivier auditorium had been done out in an explosion of graffiti, home-made signs, flags, and rough, painted portraits. Above the stage to the left and right was a giant portrait of Fela’s mother Funmilayo, and of Fela himself. The idea was to create a replica of his famous Lagos nightclub, the Shrine, the epicentre of Fela’s music and political activity. There were projections of newspaper headlines from the 70s, outlining in alternately disapproving and admiring terms the great man’s antics as he stirred up trouble, and wriggled out again and again from the shadow of overwhelming pressure to shut up and stop criticising Nigeria’s venal, corrupt military rulers. The band – led on keyboards by Dele Sosimi, a former member of the Africa 70, Fela’s own band – were playing as the audience came in. They honked out a medley of the endless looping Afrobeat grooves that Fela invented pretty much single-handedly: Water No Get Enemy; Gentleman; Na Poi; Shakara; Coffin for Head of State; on and on it went. Seamlessly, actors and dancers started to fill the stage, and without so much as a dimming of lights the show began.
The idea was to recreate a performance in the Shrine, with all of its chaotic mixture of music, preaching, quasi-religious ceremony and political agitprop; when Sahr Ngaujah, the actor playing Fela, appeared onstage, the show started by seamlessly assembling his early life and musical evolution through jazz and highlife. He narrated his grandfather’s Christian, European-style church songs, and how he admired and hated them at the same time; he mocked the highlife musicians in the 60s whom he saw as replicating American funk and soul rhythms in a setting where they didn’t belong. And the show dealt beautifully with his trip to America in 1969, with his immersion in, and conversation with, the radicalism of Black Power. The trip down Fela’s memory lane involved us completely in who he was and where he was coming from.But the heart of the show was the segment dealing with his life after his return to Nigeria, when his music took off, exploding into new avenues of creative brilliance through his new-found resolve to write about life in Nigeria as it really was. By turns Fela’s music was moving further and further towards all-out rebellion, and the level of harassment and violence coming his way from the authorities increased as the directness and fury of his attacks on those in power grew. And the songs came thick and fast. Gentleman is a blistering mockery of the pretensions of Lagos’s middle class. Everything Scatter dissects the chaos of life for the poor. Expensive Shit, written following his arrest for drug offences during which he ate the ‘evidence’ that was planted on him, drew enormous laughs: the song turns the preposterous series of events around his arrest into a scathing attack on the values of authorities that placed a higher premium on securing Fela’s ‘caca’ than on relieving the suffering of ordinary people. Zombie (his first worldwide hit) mocks the army and the police for their blind obedience, implying at the same time their betrayal of the ordinary backgrounds they came from. I.T.T. (International Thief Thief) goes as far as any of Fela’s rebel songs, starting with a simple, elegant and compelling description of how corruption at the top of society poisons everything below it, and then morphing into a furious denunciation, naming and shaming: some names familiar from Fela’s original recordings, like Gowan, Obasanjo, Shell, BP, Abiola; others that had been seamlessly inserted from more recent times: Enron, RBS, Lehman, BAE Systems. The beauty of this was that it didn’t grate or seem incongruous at all. The effect was magical: to bring home just how timeless the music really is. Fela dealt with power and corruption, refusing to accept them and refusing to be cowed into silence. The songs alone feel as if they could start a riot in an empty room; here, in a packed theatre, with dazzling production, lighting, costumes, and choreography, and set in context, they were incendiary.
Did I say Fela refused to be cowed into silence? He certainly came very close to it, nearly fleeing Nigeria after a brutal attack on his nightclub and compound (third column in this page) by over a thousand soldiers in 1978. I was wondering how this would be dealt with before the show; throughout the production, the forces of authority and oppression had only been represented off-stage, or by projections of the giant, pot-bellied torso of a military officer, dripping with braid and medals as his thumbs twiddled and loudspeakers blasted out his patronising, menacing words. I felt that to depict the raid on stage couldn’t possibly do justice to the shocking levels of violence that it entailed. But suddenly, mid-number, the lights dimmed, and individual spotlights lit each actor one by one as police mugshots of their real equivalents were projected at the back of the stage, along with their witness statements from the enquiry that followed in 1978.* The effect of this was like a punch in the guts; the joy of the show so far suddenly betrayed, by sickening descriptions of horrific violence. The handling of Fela’s reaction to his mother’s murder by the troops – she was thrown from a second-floor window – was superb, and it brought what had already been a political show into the realm of the spiritual, as Fela realises that he can’t leave Nigeria, and must honour those who have gone before and inspired him by being true to what they have taught. The final song, Coffin for Head of State, is a hair-raising moment, as Fela’s protest after these events in 1978 was recreated, with coffins symbolising all that is killed by misgovernment, corruption, violence and greed piled backstage. It moved the show from an exuberant musical biography into some sort of hymn to the human spirit. It packs a massive emotional punch.
Many of my friends reading this will have listened to me banging on about Fela Kuti and his music, and some of you have endured my attempts to get you to listen to his songs. Ages ago, I made a playlist of videos I could find on Youtube, so here’s a link. Some will say that they’re hard to get into – they’re intense, complex, and need patience. Perhaps you’re one of the people I’ve harangued about why you really should be listening to more Fela. But don’t take it from me. This show does a better job than I ever could, and really gives the songs the context that (for me) move them on from being merely intricate, unique and fascinating, to being much more than that – a really moving commentary on human experience in an imperfect world. I really think they have something to say to everyone. So, if you are looking for something fun to do in London, or you fancy something beyond the ordinary, get on the NT’s website and book some tickets. They aren’t cheap, but I promise you won’t be disappointed.