Rhythm of life

A new Broadway musical gets straight up to the heart of the Afrobeat pioneer and political radical Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

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If this is an overture, it's nothing Rodgers and Hammerstein would recognise. As the audience arrives, the Brooklyn-based band Antibalas is already onstage and filling Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theater with Afrobeat music. Actors wander in seemingly at will, eventually taking their places. At last, the performer who plays Fela Anikulapo-Kuti - dressed head to toe in powder blue with swirls of white braid - takes centre stage and command of the evening.

"This story, I wan tell you, this story 'bout how things are," he sings, the words projected on a corrugated wall behind him. For the next two and a half hours, the theatre is transformed into the Africa Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977 as Fela plays what he says will be his last night there because "Nigeria is just too dangerous". With song titles like Sorrow Tears and Blood and ITT (International Thief Thief), it's evident the story isn't going to be a happy one.

The new musical Fela! officially opened last month, but even before that, audiences were moving to his beat in five weeks of previews and an Off Broadway run last year. The music is mainly Fela's own, and the show is directed by the respected modern-dance choreographer Bill T Jones in his second Broadway outing. In a season when straight plays are closing right and left and revivals of more traditional musicals such as Finian's Rainbow are barely managing to stay open through the holidays, Fela! is filling 85 to 90 per cent of its seats, according to a spokesman for the show.

The name "Fela" means "he who shines with greatness"; "Anikulapo", from Yoruba mythology, "he who carries death in his pouch". Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, portrayed by Sahr Ngaujah five performances a week and Kevin Mambo the other three, did both. The son of a professional-class family, he took a detour from their expectations into a career in music. With the band Africa 70, he developed the sound that would come to be known as Afrobeat, a fusion of traditional Yoruba music, highlife and jazz. Fela became West Africa's most widely known musician and a star on the world-music scene, but as a voice of empowerment, he ran afoul of Nigeria's military government.

The first act takes the audience through Fela's early years, from Nigeria to London and back, and then to the United States, where he means to make a name for himself in music. The year is 1969, and the Black Power movement is at its peak. He is radicalised when his love interest introduces him to political philosophy. But racial and power politics mean one thing to Americans and something else to Fela. "Why are all you Americans so hung up about the colour of your skin?" he asks. "Africans are black, but we don't go beating ourselves up about it." For him, the message is increasingly Afrocentric.

The second act recounts the grim story of his return to Nigeria, where he faced constant harassment from the government, and his descent into drugs. Three torture scenes culminate in an attack on his Kalakuta Republic compound. In this show, the 11 o'clock number is no romantic ballad, but rather Fela's trip to the afterlife to ask his mother's blessing to leave Nigeria. Video clips show him becoming less and less coherent as he approaches his death from Aids complications in 1997, at 58.

In Jones's take on African movement, much of the dance springs from wide stances and proudly swinging hips. A circle dance in the second act, with virtuoso solos, underscores the ensemble's litheness and fluidity. Female dancers serve sometimes as a chorus, sometimes as a harem: witness the way they light his cigarettes. Late in the show, he marries them all - eight or nine onstage, representing 27 in real life.

Those in the audience are exhorted to clap, sing along ("Sing YEAH-yeah!") and even dance. About half an hour into the show, Fela demands that they rise and join in The Clock, isolating torso muscles to rotate their hips as directed. "One o'clock!" Fela shouts, "three and nine!", meaning "Move your hips there!" When ensemble members run upstairs to dance in the aisles, the mezzanine bounces. Through it all, one thing dominates: the beat. It is the heartbeat of Fela's music, his country, his very life. As the character himself says, succinctly tying up the musical and political threads of his story: "Music is about change."