A beginner’s guide to ‘Fela’

01/31/2013 6:47 PM

02/01/2013 3:34 PM

When news broke that the musical stage play “Fela!” was scheduled to hit Charlotte’s Belk Theater Feb. 25 and 26, folks familiar with the Tony-winning production undoubtedly jumped for joy.

The uninitiated, however, probably shrugged in confusion — and that’s mostly because the play (which began life off-Broadway in 2008 and then became a bonafide Broadway production in 2009 thanks to the intervention of co-producers Jay-Z, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and more) and the real-life man it’s based on (Fela Anikulapo Kuti), though highly acclaimed, aren’t exactly household names.

Still, “Fela!” is must-see theater. These “Fela!” FAQs should help interested folks get up to speed before the touring show comes to town. (Details: blumenthalarts.org.)

Q. Who exactly is Fela?

Fela Kuti was a Nigerian-born vocalist, musician and bandleader responsible for pioneering the musical form known as Afrobeat. He also worked as an activist, committed to fighting against corruption in Nigeria’s government. Eventually he formed his own political party and even (unsuccessfully) ran for president. He advocated for African people to practice traditional forms of religion and culture (such as polygamy); at one point, he simultaneously married 27 women (who he often performed with onstage). He died in 1997 as a result of AIDS-related complications.

Q. What is Afrobeat?

Afrobeat is a musical genre created, in part, by Kuti; it blends together the sounds of jazz, funk and high life music. Tinged with the driving energy of James Brown and traditional African-oriented styles, Afrobeat is renowned for its upbeat rhythms and horn-heavy arrangements. Here’s a look/listen to two of Kuti’s more popular tunes:

Q. What’s the state of Kuti’s legacy?

The music and message of Kuti lives on in the form of at least two of his children — sons Seun and Femi Kuti — who have been separately recording Afrobeat music for years. Other Afrobeat bands — such as the Chicago Afrobeat Project and Antibalas (who actually served as the original “pit” band for “Fela!”) — also actively record and release new music, keeping the torch burning for a diverse group of future listeners. On top of that, Kuti’s own records are still in print; his compilation “The Best of the Black President” was re-released in 2010.

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