Fela Kuti: African heartbeat

Fela Kuti. Photo / Supplied
Fela Kuti. Photo / Supplied

Musician Fela Kuti is being immortalised, with the stage show of his life now being captured on film.

The sumptuous Afro-beat rhythms of the musical Fela! may have died down on Broadway, but his beat is going out into the world.

The frenetic musical biography of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti is to be broadcast across the globe from London just as the first in a series of curated vinyl box sets of his music are prepared for release next month.

As well, there's an international tour set for late spring that could even bring the show to the birthplace of the musician.

"I think the man's story still has a lot of power. It has the power to inspire people and to turn some people off," says Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones, the director and choreographer of Fela!

The show earned three Tonys as well as nominations for best musical and best actor before closing two weeks ago at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre following a 14-month run. A version of the musical began running in London's West End in November.

Now it's ready for its close-up: National Theatre Live is broadcasting a performance by satellite from the West End's Olivier Theatre to more than 360 locations in more than 20 places, including Australia, South Africa, across western Europe, Canada and about 100 screens in the United States.

A recorded version of the performance will screen in New Zealand cinemas at the end of the month.

The show puts Fela at centre stage. It's true to his strident messages of human rights, anti-corruption and individual empowerment, as well as his often complicated, raunchy and chauvinistic sides.

Jones, who will be on hand in London for a rehearsal and for the live broadcast, says he wasn't about to hand over his baby to another set of producers without making certain it was in the right hands.

"I wanted to make sure that they understood that they're not only dealing with a product, but they're dealing with something that represents a lot to a lot of people," he says.

"This is one of the great live, theatrical spectacles and performance pieces that have come by," says Stephen Hendel, who co-conceived and produced the show.

"It's got amazing music and dance and colours and costumes and performance and visuals.

"It is a very, very stimulating show. It will translate beautifully in the cinema."

The London cast will be unchanged and includes Sahr Ngaujah, who earned a Tony nomination in the title role on Broadway and is reprising his part in England.

Nine cameras will capture the show, which spills into the wings and the audience.

"Everybody should be prepared that day to ignore the camera if they can, or play to the camera as they would to a person," says Jones. "They're going to be swept up in a learning curve as well."

Fela's music is also being re-released at a frantic pace.

Last year, 34 of his albums came out and a final set of seven CDs is due this month.

The Roots' ?uestlove also has picked out a vinyl box set of six albums that is available next month from Knitting Factory Records.

And plans are under way to tour Fela! elsewhere as well, even taking it to Lagos, Nigeria, the birthplace of Fela, who was one of the staunchest critics of the nation's business elite and military rulers until his death in 1997. Producers say details are still being discussed.

Fela! originally opened off-Broadway and won raves for its energetic dancing and infectious music - a fusion of jazz, R&B, rock and soul music - all culled from Kuti's catalogue.

The Broadway show, co-produced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, attracted the likes of Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Madonna.

Jones, who won a Tony for choreographing Spring Awakening and another for Fela! acknowledges he's a little nervous as he helps ready the show for a live broadcast that will capture his creation on film.

"We just have to be really ready for that digital eye to freeze us in history," he says.

"It's out of my hands now. It's in the hands of the digital God."

LOWDOWN

What: Fela! (National Theatre Live)
When: Limited screenings from January 27

-TimeOut / AP

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

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