*“I went to the Broadway production (of Fela!)…and was told the license to the record catalog was ending with Universal Music US (they held 26 of the 77 albums recorded),” said Brian Long, manager of Knitting Factory Records who brought the license to release a CD recording of the Broadway musical “Fela!” “The family has the right to license it to whomever…Universal wasn’t doing anything. It (the recording) was done in one day. The cast was there, the band – it’s a live documentation of what’s performed on stage.”
“Fela!” is a musical about the life of Nigerian musician and composer Fela Kuti who died in 1997. In 1958 Fela was sent off to study medicine, by his father a reverend and teacher, like his two brothers before him, but Fela decided he wanted to study music instead. While in school he formed a band that played a fusion of Jazz and Highlife (a genre of music from Ghana characterized by jazzy horns and multiple guitars). In 1967 he decided to change musical directions and called it Afro Beat. He took his sound and band to the United States in 1969 and discovered Black Power and the Black Panther movement. That is when his music changed from love to social issues.
He return to his home in Nigeria and opened a recording studio, which also served as a compound for him, his father and his band to reside. He also opened a night club Afrika Shrine where he performed regularly. His lyrics began to tell a political story of government corruption and military abuse, and as a result his studio and club were raided regularly by the government.
In 1977 he renamed his band Afrika ’70 and release an album titled “Zombie” a description used by Nigerians to describe the military soldiers and their methods. The album became an immediately success which brought over a 1,000 soldiers to his studio and night club resulting in the burning of both his places and the death of his mother – when she was thrown out a window. Fela sent his mothers’ coffin to the residence of the military general, who claimed the burning and death were caused by one “unknown soldier.” Fela later rebuilt his properties and in 1984 the government attacked them again.
Fela’s passion for justice, for him and his people, never stopped, but it was only his death in 1997 from complications to AIDS that silence him. In 2008 an off-Broadway musical on his life was launched with the help of Tony Award winning director/choreographer Bill T. Jones. By 2009 “Fela!” was running on Broadway thanks to the financial backing of Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith. That same year Universal Music U.S. licensed the catalog of Fela’s music to Knitting Factory Records.
“We set up a website,” Brian pointed out. “That had never been done by Universal Music. We can now sell through the website…a Fela community. Two of the 26 album covers we’ve made into posters.”
The CD “Fela!” provokes visions of the colorful and energetic Broadway musical. Sahr Ngaujah plays Fela, Lilias White, with the beautiful vocals, plays Fela’s mother Funmilaya Kuti (a feminist activist) and Saycon Sengbloh plays Fela’s American girlfriend Sandra Izsadore (Fela had 27 wives in Nigeria).
Of the 22 selections on the “Fela!” album the ones I find playing over and over again are “Trouble Sleep” a powerful song sung on-stage by the ghost of his mother – lyrics talks of standing up for what you believe; “Lover,” is a passionate selection with heavy horn support and African drum beating as an echo – is about when he fell in love with the American, Sandra; “Upside Down” makes you want to get up and do something productive -“Open that Dictionary” the lyrics say; “Rain,” sung by Lilias who shows an impressive vocal range, and “Dance of Orisas (Shakara)” which gives me visions of an African tribal dance scene.
I haven’t seen the musical, but just reading about it, Fela’s life and hearing the CD I can see why Jay-Z and the Smiths decided to support it, Fela was a remarkable man and lived a remarkable and socially conscious life.