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Becoming ‘Fela!’ — The Afrobeat musical that surprised Broadway

Sahr Ngaujah who earned Tony Award nominatifor his title role “Fela!” is starring national touring productimusical which runs through April

Sahr Ngaujah, who earned a Tony Award nomination for his title role in “Fela!,” is starring in the national touring production of the musical, which runs through April 15 at the Oriental Theatre.

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◆ Through April 15

◆ Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

◆ Tickets, $25-$90

◆ (800) 775-2000;

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Updated: March 22, 2012 8:36PM

So who was Fela Anikulapo Kuti? And what was it about this hugely charismatic, politically-charged Nigerian instrumentalist, composer and singer-songwriter — the man credited with devising the fusion of jazz, funk, Nigerian/Ghanaian high-life, psychedelic rock, and traditional West African chants and rhythms that became known as Afrobeat — that made him such an alluring subject for the hit musical, “Fela!”?

The show, which began Off Broadway in 2008, quickly moved to Broadway (where it opened in 2009, and was nominated for eleven 2010 Tony Awards). It subsequently became a hit at London’s National Theatre, enjoyed a brief stop in Nigeria last April, and is now moving through a North American tour that began in Canada and will play for three weeks (March 27-April 15) at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre.

First, the easy answers, which also are key to understanding the backdrop for the musical.

Fela Anikulapo (“he who carries death in his pouch”) Kuti was born into a high-profile middle-class family in Nigeria in 1938, the son of a father who was a Protestant minister, school principal and teachers’ union president, and of a mother, who had an enormous influence on his life, and was a feminist activist in the country’s anti-colonial movement. (Fela died of AIDS in 1997, a fact never mentioned in the show.)

Although at 20 Fela was sent to London to study medicine, he switched to music and formed a band. In 1963, two years after Nigeria had gained independence from Britain, he returned home, where he reformed his band and trained as a radio producer. He traveled to Ghana in 1967, and it was there that he coined the word “Afrobeat” to suggest his potent mix of musical styles.

In 1969, Fela and his band made their first trip to theUnited States, and while here he was introduced to the Black Power movement by way of another influential woman in his life, Sandra Isadore, who was involved with the radical Black Panther Party.

By then, Nigeria had already experienced a military coup, the war in Biafra and much other chaos. An oil boom in the 1970s brought money as well as intensified corruption to the country, and it was during that period that the now highly politicized Fela formed the Kalakuta Republic, a combination commune and recording studio, and established a nightclub in the Empire Hotel in Nigeria’s capital city, Lagos, that became known as the Afrika Shrine. Meanwhile, in an effort to communicate more widely with Africans speaking scores of different languages, he began singing in pidgen English.

As Fela’s audience grew, so did his audaciousness. And things really exploded with the release of his 1977 album, “Zombie,” a blistering attack on the Nigerian military. In response, the military attacked and destroyed Fela’s commune, severely beating the musician and throwing his elderly mother to her death from a window.

“Fela!,” directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones (the modern dancemaker who won a Tony Award for his choreography for “Spring Awakening”), features a book by Jim Lewis and Jones (who conceived the show with Stephen Hendel), a score comprised of dozens of Fela Kuti’s songs and spectacular set and costume design by Marina Draghici (which took the form of a full installation on Broadway, but has been scaled back for the tour). It is not a musical “biopic” or documentary. Rather, it is a furiously dance-driven, and at times hallucinatory evocation of the musician’s spirit — one that homes in on his politics, the harrassment and imprisonment he suffered, his Yoruba awakening and the near cultlike personality he acquired.

“How can you explain what Fela was like — the way he moved and sang and spoke — this man who had 27 wives and was such a great musician that the Beatles even came to visit him?,” said Sahr Ngaujah, now 35, who was part of the initial workshops in which the musical took shape, and who originated the title role (for which he earned a Tony nomination), played it in London, and is starring again in the national tour.

“There was just nobody like him. It is like asking ‘How would you describe Mick Jagger?’ Fela had a unique way of moving his hands to conduct his band, a special way of smoking a spliff [ganja or weed], a particular flair for ‘yab,’ the confrontational, call-and-response back-talking with an audience that is so popular in Nigeria.”

Ngaujah himself grew up in Atlanta, Ga., the son of a father from Sierra Leone and a mother born in the United States. By day his dad worked as a lawyer, but he also was a disc jockey who played African parties in the Atlanta area.

“As a kid I didn’t know Fela by name, but I would always ask my dad, ‘Who is that?’ whenever I heard him playing Fela’s recordings,” recalled Ngaujah, who has just completed a pilot for “The Last Resort,” an ABC show about the renegade crew of a U.S. nuclear submarine.

Bill T. Jones’ first exposure to Fela Kuti came by way of Lois Welk, a dancer-teacher who was part of the American Dance Asylum, an arts collective in New York where Jones worked in the late 1970s.

“She played Fela’s music when we improvised at the beginning of classes,” Jones recalled. “And it was different from anything I’d heard — not in the folkloric or talking drums tradition of African music at all, but more James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. Fela transposed traditional African rhythms into brass parts.”

Decades later, when approached to work on a musical about the musician, Jones found himself particularly taken with the post-Nigerian liberation aspects of the story, and the persona of Fela’s mother. But he admits he never thought “Fela!” would become a Broadway show.

“I imagined it might have a life in an underground club in Brooklyn, and that maybe we could build some buzz with the young Internet crowd,” Jones said. “But it found its place with a popular mainstream audience. And I think this is due in part to the fact that the audience walks into the theater, hears the infectious band music, sees the incredible dancers (and we were lucky that there are so many terrific African dance programs and dancers in New York), and then meets Fela, who we let control the stage in the same way he used his club as the bully pulpit for his ideas.”

As for Jones’ next Broadway project, it is a musical based on “Super Fly,” the hit 1972 Blaxploitation film about a cocaine dealer trying to quit the underworld drug business — the movie that came with an iconic soundtrack by soul singer Curtis Mayfield.

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