Afrobeat! Stand up for beliefs

You just can't sit there during throbbing 'Fela!,' says singer Williams
2013-04-11T00:00:00Z Afrobeat! Stand up for beliefsJohanna Willett For The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

You don't just watch a performance of "Fela!" You clap, you stomp your feet, you move. You might even feel the urge to jump onstage with the cast, as an elderly audience member once did.

The musical, which settles into Centennial Hall for a three-show run this weekend, throbs with the Afrobeat of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the subject of this biographical play framed on the musician's last club concert.

Kuti, who died in 1997, showed no fear when it came to calling out the government for corruption while creating music that was raw and powerful.

"Fela!" is directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones. It snagged three Tony Awards in 2009 and features original songs by Kuti, who was revered in his country and beyond, and made an international impact on music.

"I was so excited and honored that I literally stopped my recording process of my album to do this," said former Destiny's Child member Michelle Williams about being offered a role in "Fela!"

"That was a huge chance I took, but I love theater and I grow and am able to use my experiences from theater in every area of my life."

Williams - who reunited with her former band mates for a performance during the Super Bowl's halftime in February - has taken on the role of one of Fela's influential lovers, Sandra Izsadore.

She "is not one to be played with," said the Grammy Award winner during a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "She got Fela's music more inspired and more political and introduced him to activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She was the one they called the mother of Afrobeat."

Williams saw "Fela!" in London and loved the musical, but it was not until after she auditioned for another show that she got the call about the "Fela!" role.

Williams has performed in other shows, such as the Broadway production of "Aida," among others, but "Fela!" is different, she said.

"When you see something on Broadway, you smile and laugh and whatever, but in 'Fela!' they interact with the audience," Williams said. "It makes people feel like they are there, because this is based on (Fela's) last concert. You wouldn't just sit there at a concert unless it's a beautiful orchestra. This is so upbeat, you can't just sit there."

Afrobeat is a combination of music genres such as jazz and funk, laced with African percussion and vocal styles. Kuti infused the music with critical commentary about the Nigerian government, taking much of his inspiration from a period spent in the United States with Izsadore. Because Izsadore is still alive, Williams checks in with her whenever she has questions.

"Fela teaches us to stand for something, whatever it is that you believe in," Williams said. "He was brutally beaten … but was still passionate about his people and about their rights."

For the elderly woman who spontaneously joined the cast onstage, "Fela!" symbolized a belief in the power of music.

"Later, she wrote a letter saying she went to the doctor's the next day to get her cancer checkup results and found out she was cancer-free," Williams said. "Dancing and music can heal you, and that's what she believes."

If You Go

• What: The national tour of the Broadway musical "Fela!"

• Director: Bill T. Jones.

• Presented by: UApresents.

• Based on: The life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and the biography by Carlos Moore.

•When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.

•Where: Centennial Hall on the UA campus. 1020 E. University Blvd.

•Cost: $35-$60 by calling 621-3341 or online at uapresents.org Also available at the Centennial Hall box office, UA Student Union BookStore and The "A" Stores at Tucson Mall and Park Place malls.

•Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

•Cast: Includes Michelle Williams, Adesola Osakalumi, Duain Richmond (matinee) and Melanie Marshall.

Did you know?

Born in 1938 in Nigeria, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti defied the lifestyle of his middle-class family and shrugged off the conventions of colonialism and Judeo-Christian culture. The creator of Afrobeat, Kuti and his bands recorded songs topping 10 minutes, using music as a forum to criticize corruption in African society.

His music became increasingly political after a stint in the United States, and he eventually formed his own political party and unsuccessfully ran for president of Nigeria.

Kuti married more than two dozen women and declared his compound, the Kalakuta Republic, an independent state. The Nigeria government raided the compound multiple times, burning the grounds and beating Kuti. His mother died of injuries received during one of the raids.

Kuti died in 1997 of heart complications related to AIDS.

Johanna Willett is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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