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'FELA!' brings beats and songs of Nigeria to Detroit's Music Hall

By Jonathan Odden, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 16, 2012

In Nigerian, the word Anikulapo means “he who has death in his pouch,” and it is said that such a man cannot die. It was channeling this spirit, after discovering his name had slave origins, which led Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti to change his name to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in 1970 and dedicate his life to social change. Kuti became a social advocate and combative activist whose message and life united Nigeria’s youth.

FELA!


Sunday at 3 p.m.
The Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts
From $12

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“FELA!” is the award-winning Broadway musical based on Kuti’s music and life. The musical has come to The Music Hall in Detroit as part of a new traveling production funded and produced by Will Smith and Jay-Z and the University Music Society will be providing transportation for interested students.

The son of outspoken feminist Funmilayo Kuti and Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti — the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers — Kuti grew up in a still-colonized Nigeria before deciding to study abroad in 1958. While studying in London, Kuti became heavily influenced by jazz and founded his first band, Koola Lobitos, which took the big-band instruments of jazz and combined the sound with the Ghana Highlife genre he grew up with in his hometown of Yoruba.

After graduating from Trinity College in 1963, Kuti returned to the newly independent Nigeria in search of musical direction, a journey that led him to the formation of Afrobeat.

While touring California under the moniker The Nigeria ’70, Kuti and his fellow musicians became involved with the then-rising Black Power movement. This interaction gave their music a political bent, and they shifted their message from love to social injustice. Kuti began to use the traditional call-and-response style, in which the singers and audience responded and chanted with each other, thereby forming a rally. Because they actively exposed and pursued racial issues in ’70s America, the band was soon forced to leave the country.

Upon returning to Nigeria, Kuti and his band, now known as The Africa ’70, formed a commune around Kuti’s home and record studio, called The Kalakuta Republic. Taking a stance against the Nigerian military regime and President Olusegun Obasanjo, it was during these years that Kuti, The Africa ’70, The Kalakuta Republic and his nightclub, The Afrika Shrine, became household names across Nigeria. It is also in these years in which the musical unfolds.

The production traces a more emotional narrative of Kuti’s life during the 1970s. Tony Award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones along with writer Jim Lewis conceived, wrote and staged the musical in a manner that strives to complicate the narrative for Kuti.

Kuti’s 1977 “Zombie” is at the center of conflict in “FELA!” Recorded and released as a blatant protest against the Nigerian army, the song became so subversive that, at a concert in Accra, it caused a riot that resulted in Kuti’s immediate expulsion from Ghana.

Tension finally comes to a head when a reported 1,000 soldiers attacked, destroyed and burned The Kalakuta Republic. During the attack, Kuti was nearly beaten to death and his mother was violently killed. Jones captured the violence and damage of the onslaught through brutal dancing in fragmented scenes that suggest a profoundly painful memory.

In the final sequence of the musical, a symbolic coffin is left on stage, representing the coffin Kuti sent to Obasanjo’s office after the raid. It’s a final act of defiance, a symbol of death with consequence, through which the words of Kuti’s music reverberate today.