One of my favorite times in the Netherlands is June, mainly because it is usually pretty decent weather for Dutch summer standards, and the whole month has a lot to offer because of the Holland Festival. The festival has been running for some time, and for the past three years, I always found 3-4 different things that I really really wanted to see. It has diverse programming, so last year I ended up seeing a New York production of Shakespeare, a Japanese opera/theater performance and a few other things.
This year, I opened the festival with Fela! – the Broadway musical about the life and music of Fela Kuti. The musical started as an off-Broadway musical sometime around 2008, got to Broadway rather quickly, and has been quite successful in Broadway musical terms, getting several Tony awards. For me, it was a great opportunity, as there are no NYC trips in the near future.
The musical is set in the Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria at Fela’ last concert. It is the summer of 1978, six months after the death of Fela’s mother Funmilaya. Now, I don’t know if I should be writing about the detailed context of why it is Fela Kuti’s last concert, the circumstances of his mother’s death and his political status in Nigeria at the time, but this would actually cause the musical to lose some of its power. Essentially, the musical is more of an introduction Fela Kuti’s story, ideals and music; so if I were to write what he did, how he came up with “afro-beat” and how he changed the political scene in Nigeria with his songs, you wouldn’t exactly be blown away by watching the musical.
The first act is a energy-blast; filled with the start of Fela Kuti’s career, his love for music, and finding his own sound, the afro-beat. It is interactive, though if I said how, what’s the point of going? By the second act, however, politics get in the way, the energy slows down, the afro-beat is in the background, and we are left with the indecision of Fela leaving his home in Nigeria, because it has gotten too dangerous for people around him. The lack of balance in terms of energy may not be the strong point for the musical, but it is a highly entertaining spectacle, and a good introduction to Fela Kuti if you need it.
So, go watch it, if you have the change to do so during the Holland Festival in Amsterdam until June 24th, and otherwise in New York. Then come back home and listen to Fela Kuti’s music.