'Fela!' finds beating heart of Nigerian jazz poet

02/21/2013 4:12 PM

02/22/2013 9:09 AM

To whom should we compare Fela Kuti?

Fellow protest singer Bob Dylan? Maybe. But the police never set fire to Dylan’s home or threw his aged mother out a window to her death.

Miles Davis? Both played melancholy, introspective trumpet solos, but Davis didn’t put audiences into a virtual trance with 30-minute songs onstage.

James Brown? Both men redefined soul music – and, coincidentally, had children by multiple women – but Kuti invented a genre, Afrobeat, that he made all his own.

His life defies capsulization, even in a full-length musical. What you’ll see when the national tour of “Fela!” comes to Belk Theater Monday represents a slice of the singer’s extraordinary story.

That you’re seeing it at all is extraordinary, in fact. The black icon from Nigeria, who died at 58 in 1997, wouldn’t have reached the Carolinas even posthumously, if not for the intervention of a white Jewish guy from Connecticut.

“I heard Fela’s music by chance around 2000,” says Stephen Hendel, who made his debut as a Broadway producer with this show. “I was buying an African music CD on Amazon, which made one of those ‘If you like that, you’ll like this’ recommendations.

“I bought Fela’s ‘The Best of the Black President.’ I like to play my music loud – that’s the one thing my wife and I fight about – so I had to play it in the car. I drove around, listening to it over and over, and thought, ‘I’ve stumbled on the greatest musician of my lifetime nobody has heard of!’ ”

Luckily, wife Ruth knew what to do about that. She’d produced 20 shows, including “Legally Blonde” and the “Raisin in the Sun” revival with Sean Combs, and came on as a producer of this one. Hendel’s attorney introduced him to avant-garde artist Bill T. Jones, who came aboard as director-choreographer. (He won one of the show’s three Tonys for his dances.)

Celebrities brought prestige, money or contacts to the endeavor: Jay-Z, Questlove, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith all have producing credits.

They were drawn, as Stephen Hendel was, to “a story that still blows my mind. I can’t imagine what it would be like for him to be in a Nigerian jail, to be sent to the bush area in solitary confinement. Then he’d write another song where he’d lambaste (authorities). The musical (tells) how he became the spokesperson for the dispossessed against the Nigerian government.”

Hendel was predisposed to be interested: He grew up in the civil rights era, when Jews and African-Americans formed bonds; he’d always listened to black music, from field chants to Delta blues; he’s an oil trader, and Nigeria ranks 12th in the world among oil-producing nations.

But who wouldn’t be interested in a singer who lived with multiple wives in his compound, who changed his middle name to Anikulapo (“He who carries death in his pocket”) and who toted his mother’s coffin to the army barracks run by the general who ordered the destruction of Kuti’s household? (The song about that event, perhaps his most bitter, is titled “Coffin for Head of State.”)

“His music is a mélange,” says Hendel. “He’s like a pack rat, who takes from every little pile and goes back to his burrow with a shoelace and a pretzel and makes something.

“He was influenced by James Brown and American music of the ’60s, jazz he heard in London, Cuban music, Aruban call-and-response and African percussion. His lyrics are hugely evocative, in English or the original pidgin. (Kuti sang in a kind of broken English most Africans know.)

No matter what reception “Fela!” gets from now on, Hendel’s devotion was validated on the night singer-composer Femi Kuti, the musician’s son, saw the show.

“When Femi came onstage, the cast knelt down in honor of him,” says Hendel. “The bass and guitar played softly, and the actor playing Fela handed him the microphone.

“Femi was crying, and he said, ‘I now know, for the very first time, we have won.’ What his father stood for was now out in the world.”

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