"Fela!" creator and director Bill T. Jones describes how he wrestled larger-than-life Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti into a hit American musical.
"A sacred monster."
That's how Tony-winning director and choreographer Bill T. Jones describes Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late Nigerian musical superstar and political gadfly who was persecuted and tortured because of his lyrics, his disdain for what he called "politricks" and for his nose-thumbing lifestyle, including 27 wives. He died in 1997.
"I've also heard Josephine Baker and Judy Garland described as sacred monsters," said Jones. "These people have immense appetites, immense needs, and yet they bring an immense beauty into the world."
For Fela, that beauty was Afrobeat, a potent sound he developed in the 1960s and 1970s by combining jazz and funk with hypnotic African rhythms and harmonies. Like reggae icon Bob Marley, a contemporary, Fela layered political commentary onto his hip-moving beats.
"His songs are downright Brechtian," said Jones, who directed, choreographed and wrote the book for "Fela!," the 2009 show that won four Tonys and whose tour version opens Tuesday at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. "You hear them first with your hips, but they're talking to your head and heart, about politics and colonialism -- about all kinds of things."
Jones' journey to "Fela!" has a Twin Cities tie-in. When he directed Derek Walcott's "Dream on Monkey Mountain" at the Guthrie in 1994, his longtime lawyer and agent, Bob Levine, flew in to see the production. Impressed, Levine suggested that the director and choreographer "must do something for the legitimate stage in New York."
Levine began sending Jones ideas and scripts, nearly all of which he rejected.
When producer Steve Hendel, who also is represented by Levine, suggested Fela as a subject for a musical, Levine immediately thought of Jones.
Jones was favorably disposed. He was well acclimated with the music and activism of Fela, whose mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a powerhouse feminist and whose father, Israel Oludotun Ransome- Kuti, was a Protestant minister and school principal. (Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka is Fela's cousin.)
"I love Fela's music -- we used to dance to it," said Jones, interviewed during a trip to Walker Art Center this spring for his latest project. He also was drawn to Fela because of his crazy-quilt life.
Musical medicine man
Fela was sent to England in the late 1950s to study medicine. He switched to music instead, developing, over the next decades, into a magical musical medicine man.
In the late 1960s, Nigeria was in the throes of the Biafran civil war that claimed 2 million lives. Fela traveled to Ghana, where a musical style known as highlife reigned, and to the United States, where he gleaned ideas from hippie culture and the black power movement. He practiced his ideas in a Nigerian commune called the Kalakuta Republic, which he presided over while building his reputation with recordings and concerts at legendary nightclub the Shrine.
Jones said that he had two main challenges: how to narrow the scope of the story, and how to translate highly charged African dance music into mainstream musical theater.
In one of the early meetings with the show's producers, Jones said he was told about the audience that he needed to reach.
"The average ticket-buyer is female, white and Jewish, maybe living in New Jersey," he said. "To make a show about this character for her, we had to make it apparent what he was singing about, which means rewriting the words or translating the oral or musical language. It's theater music first, which gives people a level of relaxation."
He enlisted "Dream on Monkey Mountain" dramaturg Jim Lewis to co-write the book. They did "seven or eight scenes, without any narrative arc," he remembered, for a showcase. It was a hit. They began working on the show that would premiere off-Broadway in 2008.
The musical is set in 1977 and 1979 as Fela's compound is assaulted by 1,000 soldiers. The raid results in the death of Fela's mother and others.
In an ideal world, with endless resources and attention spans, "Fela!" would last days, said Jones. There is just too much rich material to cover.
"We don't have anyone who compares to him" in our culture, said Jones. "Imagine Bob Dylan, a great protest singer, actually being jailed 200 times [for his lyrics] and having his hand broken. Imagine him being tortured. That happened to Fela. He really paid for his art and his voice in a profound way."
If Fela was celebrated in some quarters, especially by black hipsters in the rest of Africa, Europe and the Americas, he also was taken to task for the women he called "queens." They were dancers and performers with him, many living in his compound.
The queens are a complicated subject, said Jones.
"Like so much of Fela's politics and cultural analysis, you have to understand it in its context, in its own way," said Jones.
Fela had been in the United States in the late 1960s, "and was on Sunset Boulevard, soaking up communal life, when he started developing this notion of the authentic African man," said Jones. "He thought, 'Men take mistresses in the West. But in Africa, we bring all the women into the house.' He had a great sense of humor and was always messing with people. Some people thought of the queens as mistresses or loose women dancing onstage. Well, he said, 'I'll make honest women of them. I'll marry them all.'"
Welcome to Fela's world.