The scene at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory last night was hectic: bodies crammed into the modest bar at the front of the building, twisting and churning to the propulsive rhythms booming from the speakers. The event was nominally a celebration of the re-release of Fela Kuti’s third album Na Poi, but it arrived at a time when the Afrobeat pioneer is experiencing a sudden surge in popularity. Last Tuesday, Fela!, the musical based on his life story, racked up an impressive 11 Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical and one for its star, the riveting Sahr Ngaujah, for Best Actor. And while the show is not without its share of celebrity backers — Jay-Z, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and ?uestlove are among its investors — its momentum comes from the fact that it is a whirlwind of a musical, a dizzying array of sound and color the likes of which Broadway hasn’t seen in years. That all of this is centered around a historical figure who was an aggressive revolutionary, a harsh and unsparing critic of government, an unapologetic polygamist, a one-man nation and an enthusiastic weed-smoker makes the musical’s success — and Fela’s resurgence — that much more spectacular.
“My favorite quote right now is from Steve Hendel, our producer,” says Ngaujah, taking a slow drag on a cigarette on the roof of the Knitting Factory. “He said, ‘Ever since Tuesday, I feel like I’ve been trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose.’ ” Ngaujah missed the nominations (“I was asleep! I woke up to a text message in the afternoon saying that things went very well”), but the physical and mental challenges of the title role have well prepared him for the grueling cycle of press and publicity.
Ngaujah first discovered Fela through his father, a DJ in Atlanta in the ’80s who provided the music at house parties for residents of African descent. “Fela was one of those artists and composers that found his way into everybody’s party,” Ngaujah recalls. “When we would be at home, he would be playing it, and it was always something I would ask him about. When he would play a tune, I would ask him who it was. Eventually, one day, I didn’t have to ask him anymore — I knew: that’s Fela Kuti.”
“The music is timeless,” says Brian Long, Label Manager at Knitting Factory records who is overseeing the Fela reissues. “It’s a cliché, but it’s true. There’s never been another band that sounds like Fela. There’s very little Afrobeat to begin with and, from what there is, very little touches what Fela did.”
Perhaps no one understands this better than Lemi Ghariokwu, who designed the majority of Fela’s iconic album covers. When he was just 18 years old, Ghariokwu went to work for Fela, gradually becoming a friend and confident — “Fela’s brandsman,” is how he self-describes — as well as a conceptual contributor to some of Fela’s most notable songs, regularly attending Sunday night Shrine concerts and witnessing many of the events the musical portrays first hand. It was perhaps his closeness to the subject matter that allowed some of his countrymen to express their initial opinions of the show with unrestrained candor.
“I remember a gathering of about 15 people for dinner in Lagos,” Ghariokwu says. “About seven of them saw it, and they were all negative. I said, ‘I’m going to the New York in February, I will decide for myself.’ When I came in February, I saw the show, and as I started watching, tears just came from my eyes. “I said, ‘Wow.’ I’ve seen it nine times by last night, and I want to see it 10 times more. The people who wrote the script really understood Fela very well, what he was trying to do.”
“You listen to the lyrics and it’s very passionate, very political, very anti-authoritarian,” Long says. “There’s a dearth of that in current music. The music is vibrant because that political message brings power — it brings power to the band, because the band believed the message as much as he did. The Clash, same thing: those four guys believed the things they were singing about. That kind of conviction elevates music to another level.”
Along with Green Day’s American Idiot, Fela! seems to point a way toward a new Broadway, one where shapeshifting structures collide with potent political messages to provide a bracing, provocative final product.
“I hope, at the least, this musical will be the catalyst for form-bending in a very traditional institution,” Ngaujah says. “If we can create a catalyst for the structure itself to be open to a new approach, then I think it can have a ripple effect in the form on a larger scale. And beyond that, I hope people walk away and want to engage their own courage to pursue personal freedom. I think we all have courage, but to engage it can be a challenge.”
Fittingly, it’s Ghariokwu who best sums up Fela!‘s raucous ride from a small but buzzed-about off-Broadway production to star-feted, multi-award nominated sensation: “Fela lived a very crazy life — a very crazy life,” he laughs. “But he was sincere — he had a sincerity of purpose. I will always remember one piece of advice he gave me. He said, ‘Keep on doing what you are doing. Don’t worry — one day, in time, you will be sought out.’ “