Bolanle Austen-Peters Production’s high-octane musical based on the lives the women, who eventually became Fela’s wives, premieres on YouTube on September 7 in a first-of-its-kind collaboration with South African State Theatre. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Beyond its expected coup d’oeil at the anti-establishment world of the Kalakuta Republic, Bolanle Austen-Peters Productions’ Fela and His Kalakuta Queens also reenacts the inimitable oomph of the late Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Is it any wonder that the musical, long after its successful tours of Lagos and Abuja as well as Cairo, Egypt and Pretoria, South Africa, still resonates with theatre-going audiences? For the South African State Theatre, its planned live premiere of the musical on its YouTube channel from Monday, September 7 by 7 pm, in association with Bolanle Austen-Peters Productions (BAP), is in sync with its “Pan-African outlook”. Thus, the state theatre, which is an agency of the South African Department of Arts and Culture, blazes the trail as the first foreign theatre company to not just feature a production by a Nigerian theatre company on its online platform, but also monetise it. Previously known as the Pretoria State Theatre until 1999, it is unarguably the continent’s largest theatre complex.
On the Broadway-style musical production, its many interpolations of Fela’s spontaneous concerts and his patented anti-establishment rants – known as “Yabis” – into the storyline makes it an experience worth looking forward to. Of course, the real spotlight is on the 27 women, who eventually became his wives, and whose adulation of the late music icon as a fetish object was legendary. The latter explains their unwavering loyalty during Fela’s frequent face-offs with the repressive Nigerian military regimes. It also explains their childlike commitment to his protest music. Indeed, the story of Fela’s Shrine would lose much of its tang without these virtual mythical figures, who cocooned themselves in his delusional world and whose lives could have been hard to imagine outside the subversive hotbed known as the Kalakuta Republic.
So, what is it about this reefer-smoking pied piper in pantsuits that still elicits awe among the dewy-eyed habitués of his Shrine, long after his unexpected death on August 2, 1997? Could it be that his jeremiads still strike a familiar chord in these dire times? Or, could it be his oddball reputation, which was further burnished by the mixture of his traditional Yoruba culture with his radical political thought into one ideological cauldron pot?
Even a mere tangential allusion to his personality, which earned him the respect of such high-profile figures as the French President Emmanuel Macron and Nigeria’s vice-president Yemi Osinbajo, positions the stage production among the elite shows of recent memory. It is not difficult, therefore, to figure out why a storyline developed around the late musician’s consorts only concerns itself with their years with Fela. He remains the production’s unique selling point, the catalyst which lends coherence to the relevance of the pelvic-gyrating half-clad maidens. The production may be seen as an opportunity to bring them back into the industry’s consciousness and engrave their names in music idiom’s annals.
Not even the expected moulting of the cast – or even a possible tweaking of the storyline – should make the musical any less electrifying. This first-of-its-kind streaming to a non-Nigerian audience remains a must-see event. With a first-rate cast, led by the multi-instrumentalist musician Laitan Adeniji, a.k.a. Heavy Wind, the South African audience should expect the full value for their 70-rand tickets.
The audience is in addition expected to unearth the late music legend’s mind-liberating philosophy from beneath the crust of eccentricity. Indeed, there is a lot more about Fela than his free-flowing profanities and decadent lifestyle. Otherwise sober adults have been known to exult in the hypnotic rhythms of his patented musical idiom at his famous gigs. That is beside the fact that many have on account of his popularity preferred to, albeit temporarily, stifle their prudish whims or old-fashioned ideas.
Fela – one of the three sons of an anti-colonial activist mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and a protestant cleric dad, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti – was a quintessential oddball. He had opted instead for music at the Trinity College of Music in London when in 1958 he was sent there to study medicine. More than a decade later, while touring the US with his band in 1969, he met the Black Panther Party partisan Sandra Smith (later Izsadore) and embraced the Black Power movement ideas, which cloaked his growing rage in an ideological garb.
Though not quite coherent in its expression, his eventual Afro-centric ideology seeped into his lyrics, which soon won him a community of adepts. Many of these lived in the dank recesses of his self-styled “Republic”. This ideology also explains his choice of such names as “Afrika ’70” and “Egypt ’80” for his band, whose core-philosophy has remained largely unaltered for decades now since he departed this earth-life.
As one of Nigeria’s most influential figures of his time, it was not surprising that a personality cult developed around him and inevitably rubbed off on his musical male progenies. As for the frenzied rhythms and anti-establishment lyrics of his Afrobeat genre, they were sometimes appropriated as anthems for mass protests.
A close-up on the Fela’s Kalakuta Republic. This is where his fans, a curious mix of aficionados and dewy-eyed enthusiasts drawn from across all strata of the society, congregate to savour the phrasal liveliness of the songs and dances. This is also a place where many foreign visitors, including world-renowned musicians, have made stopovers to pay their homage to the then Nigeria’s most popular musician as well as its most acerbic social critic.
Meanwhile, Fela and the Kalkuta Queens, which was produced and directed by Bolanle Austen-Peters, promises a unique insight into this enigmatic “Republic”, where these women made history. It also showcases “the unique fashion, dance and African identity of the women, and unmasking common misconception about them,” according to a press statement issued by the production company.