Saturday 25 June 2011

Fela! In Amsterdam

Fela! In Amsterdam
Just over four months ago, we had a taster, maybe a preview in Amsterdam; Fela! National Theatre Live was shown at a cinema in the South-East of Amsterdam and in my review of that showing [1] I had thought I would have to visit London to watch the musical live at Sadlers Wells in July.
Then a few months ago as I rode home on my bicycle I caught the glimpse of the poster indicating Fela! [2] The much acclaimed Broadway hit and blockbuster was coming to Amsterdam during the Holland Festival season.
It was at the back of my mind and it came to the fore when I visited friends of mine and we thought we might consider attending a weekend matinee but that fell through.
Opportunity seized
With the last day of the show dawning, I decided there was opportunity and providence to watch this amazing extravaganza that had been brought to my doorstep and so I logged on the Theatre CarrĂ© website and found a lone seat in what looked like a sold-out show – it was booked.
I arrived in time at the theatre and picked up my ticket, there was an introduction in Dutch to the show which took place in the foyer 45 minutes to the curtain but I did not think I needed to told about Fela Anikulapo Kuti [3] and I had done some research about the show itself, long before.
The set
Taking my seat, the set had all the colour of West African splendour, alive, lively and anticipatory of excitement, it was supposed to be a replica of the Shrine which was the name and location of Fela’s performing venue in Lagos.
Newspaper cuttings of contemporaneous events in the late 1970s were on the sideboards, in fact, those events crept well into the early 1980s considering the setting was supposed to be the summer of 1978, just six months after Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s mother died.
The cuttings included news of the President earning NGN 70,000 in 1979, that was a lot of money then with the Nigerian Naira slightly short of parity with the British Pound Sterling, though what our politicians earn today puts that in the shade; the expulsion of BP with the nationalisation of a whole swathe of international firms during Obasanjo’s tenure as the military head of State with his programmes for self-reliance, stability and the rampant looting of the Nigerian treasury as their tenure came to a close.
Reminiscing Fela
Long before the curtain, the horns of Fela’s kind of music were beginning to mesmerise almost to the point of delirium. The show was supposed to start at 8:00 PM prompt but we seemed to gain an African time component, many seats were not yet taken.
Dancers danced in the aisles, African dance is amazingly dexterous; waving arms, pounding feet, rocking hips – all movements in fluidity no other race on the globe can rival.
It was choreographed by Bill T. Jones and there were signs of classical and contemporary dance but nothing moved us as much as the raw African expression that continually drew raucous applause as the show began at 8:20 PM.
The back screen had subtitles to most of the songs that were in English and Pidgin English, none of the Yoruba songs or Arabic recitations were subtitled though there was one song “Water No Get Enemy” where the Yoruba was interpreted in song to English.
A busy plot
We were continually engaged in the show that was interactive and participatory first with the calling back and then the clock dance that would have loosened a good few hips in gyrations that interesting as they were bordering on adult obscene.
The plot took us through Fela’s childhood, his appreciation of our indigenous culture, his sojourn in England and America, his discovery of black consciousness and the development of his brand of music; Afrobeat [4] - it was like the making of Fela before he began to get recognition in Nigeria.
It would not have been unfamiliar to see a huge joint lit in Amsterdam but the conversation that ensued with the audience was funny when someone asked that he pass the joint with the magic phrase of Puff, Puff, Pass – the humour of the script carried well and the audience was never lost as to when to laugh or when to clap.
Fela, the life
Sometimes, it is easy to forget that Fela was seriously persecuted in Nigeria for his activism part of which was the defenestration of his mother from a second floor window resulting in her untimely death.
The last performance in the show was “Coffin for Head of State” in which his mother’s coffin and another 30 or so smaller coffins were erected in a pile each with some interesting social point of focus and for the Netherlands it was Zwarte Piet [5] depicting Racism, one had Fukushima; a reference to the nuclear disaster in Japan, Stephen Lawrence [6]; a teenage victim of race-hate murder in London, Ai WeiWei; the Chinese dissident along with the usual names like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and issues like censorship.
As the cast bowed out, Femi Kuti [7] was invited on stage where he showed deep appreciation of the whole cast and regaled us with some dancing; I wondered how you could encore a show like this.
The music never really stopped as the cast invited the audience on stage and the lead sang, then he offered us more that Femi Kuti took the microphone and sang too, basically, this went on for about 20 minutes – suffice it to say, I have never been to a musical that was as engaging as this, it is one show that given the opportunity you must never ever miss.

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