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Fela! An Afro-Beat Musical In Miami

Fela! photo1 via the Arsht.jpg
courtesy of the Adrienne Arsht Center

The Tony-award winning Broadway musical, Fela! is in Miami this week. The production is based on the complex life-- and music-- of late Nigerian activist, musician and singer Fela Kuti.

Kuti is known worldwide for founding the musical genre afro-beat. But in Nigeria, he’s known for using his music to protest the country’s military government through the 70s and 80s.

Now, the musical Fela! uses Kuti's songs to tell his story. Fela! is unique because it’s a biographical story, said Adesola Osakalumi, who plays the title role. Osakalumi said the audience will learn about Kuti’s roots and his path to activism. Kuti’s parents fought for Nigerian independence from the British. His father was a reverend and musician.

"His mother was considered the first feminist of Nigeria,” Osakalumi said. “They're going to learn about his going to America and his meeting Sandra Isadore. And she kind of further politicized his music. She exposed him and introduced him to the black power movement. You’ll find out about the love of his queens, his dancers."

In fact, Kuti had 27 wives at one point, and despite being raised by a strong feminist, Kuti has been described at best as sexist and at worst a misogynist.

"My Father Would Just Stand"

Widely popular with West Africans, especially the poor, Kuti’s songs criticizing the government did not sit well with the Nigerian leadership.

His son, Femi Kuti who is now himself a respected musician and activist, told WLRN-Miami Herald News in January that he remembers watching Nigerian soldiers attack his father.

“I saw him beaten so many times,” recalled Femi Kuti. “This was too shocking for me because I was so young and I could not find where he was so courageous. When you hear the soldiers come, you heart just starts pounding, and you just start shaking like a leaf. My father would just stand.”

The most famous attack came in 1977, when soldiers destroyed Kuti’s home and recording studio, beat him and threw his elderly mother from an upstairs window. She died soon afterward from her injuries.

Over his lifetime, Kuti recorded more than 50 albums. He died from complications related to AIDS in 1997.

Welcome To The Shrine

The musical Fela! takes place during a fictitious concert in Kuti’s famous club, The Shrine,  in Lagos. Kuti’s story unfolds through flashbacks, song and dance. The music is mostly Kuti’s and the dances are choreographed by Bill T. Jones who also directed the production.

Former Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams plays Sandra Isadore. Miami-born dancer Gelan Lambert play’s Kuti’s best friend, J.K.

The show is running at the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami through this Sunday.