Every once in a while, you see a piece of artwork, watch a film, or hear music that reminds you that maybe all the other stuff that you’re always worrying aboutâ€”work, money, laundryâ€”doesn’t really matter all that much.Â At least for a few hours anyway.
That’s how I felt when I saw “Fela!” last week at the Midtown theater 37 Arts (This is the last weekend it’s running, and it may leave town afterward, so hopefully you can still get tickets).Â It’s a musical, but really rises above the cliches of the genre.Â The last musical that I’d seen before that was “In the Heights,” and while I liked it, I still thought it was pretty much cut from the same sentimental mold as most other successful Broadway shows.Â “Fela!” plays on emotions, but the entire production feels more like modern art.Â Beyond that, it really seems to capture the spirit of its muse, the late Fela Kuti.
(Sahr Ngaujah playing Fela, courtesy of “Fela!”)
Fela was a Nigerian musician and composer, and is considered one of the godfathers of Afrobeat, a genre formed around Yoruba, jazz, Highlife, and funk influences (sounds good already, doesn’t it?).Â Aside from that, he was an antigovernment activist in Nigeria, and supporter of the black power movement through both art and deed.Â In Nigeria, he formed a commune called the Kalakuta Republic, and his songs often had a political bend.Â The 1977 hit album “Zombie” bashed the Nigerian army for mindless obsequiousness, and drew the scorn of the government.Â Later that year, government soldiers raided Fela’s compound, beating him and throwing his elderly motherâ€”also an activistâ€”out of a window.Â She died from the injuries.
The musical is really a modernist biography, chronicling Fela’s life through song, dance, dialogue, and even video clips that play in different areas of the theater. Â It’s got interactive segments, like when Ngaujah tries to get the crowd on their feet a couple of times, but generally, the show is so visually and aurally arresting that the audience seems paralyzed or transfixed.Â And as great as the music is, the dancing is equally impressive.Â The first act is filled with wildly orchestrated dance pieces, and the dancers are often singing and playing instruments during routines that would make most people plead for oxygen.Â I don’t really know anything about dancing, but according to a modern dancer friend of mine, the production fused all different types of African dancing.Â Whatever it might have been, it came across as pretty stunning.
(Courtesty of “Fela!”)
Seeing a play like “Fela!” really made me think about the way we think of civil disobedience in today’s society.Â Back in the ’60s and ’70s, you had musicians like Fela, Marley, the Clash all singing lyrics with a revolutionary edge, not to mention writing music with an experimental, Bohemian aesthetic.Â Even the Beatles, the boy-band of their era, felt the need to take an artistic and political stance.Â It’s not that bands today don’t express disdain for the system, it’s that there doesn’t seem to be the same type of paradigm-breaking creative thought.Â I guess it goes beyond music into society in general.Â We’re more comfortable accepting mainstream philosophies than trying to challenge ourselves to understand the world in a different way.Â Do we avoid revolutionary ideas and acts because we’re content?
Because we’re lazy?
Or because we’re afraid?
Â (Courtesy of “Fela!”)
“Zombie no go go, unless you tell ’em to go
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell ’em to stop
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell ’em to turn
Zombie no go think, unless you tell ’em to think.”
-the song “Zombie,” from the album of the same name