A complicated FELA!

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By JEAN LOTUS

Afrobeat came to Madison Street last week. Performers from the splashy Broadway musical FELA! visited Old School Records, April 10, at the invitation of owner and World Music fanatic Jodi Gianakopoulos. The show is a musical tribute to the Nigerian musician and rebel Fela Kuti.

"It's such an amazing show, and Fela was such a fascinating person," Gianakopoulos said.

FELA! dancers Iris Wilson and djembe player Rasaan-Elijah "Talu" Green arrived at the store almost two hours late (Broadway time!) in the colorful FELA! van, which parked on Madison Street. Patient fans listened to DJ Michael Thornton spinning Afrobeat hits and snacked on treats.

The show closed last weekend at the Oriental Theater in Chicago and is moving on to Boston. Winner of three Tony Awards, and nominated for 11, FELA! was co-produced by hip-hop star Jay Z and Hollywood's Will and Jada Smith. The show tells the story of Nigerian music superstar Kuti and his contradictory and semi-tragic life. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1997.

Wilson said the show's stop in Lagos, Nigeria was the most moving part of the tour. "People in Lagos told us, 'You're bringing Fela back to us.'" Wilson said the Smiths and Jay Z attended several shows on Broadway and gave the cast a "wonderful party" opening night.

Kuti, son of a Nigerian minister father and a political activist mother, was sent to London in the 1960s to study medicine. Instead, he moved to L.A. "to party," said Gianakopoulos. There, as a musician, he was exposed to James Brown, Izsadore Smith's Black Panthers and the Black Power movement. He brought the music and the rebellion back to Nigeria. He added African rhythms to a funky horn section and soulful keyboards, and called it Afrobeat. Singing in Pidgin English, his lyrics transcended language boundaries in Africa.

Gianakopoulos discovered Fela in Iowa City, where she was an undergraduate in political anthropology at Iowa University. "I found this Shanachie Records recording of Beasts of No Nation in 1989, and I just loved it." Gianakopoulos DJs a World Music radio show called "Old School Playground" at Triton College, 88.9 WRRG, on Tuesday nights.

Fela fell afoul of Nigeria's totalitarian government, mocking Nigerian officials and institutions by name in his music. He was arrested, beaten and imprisoned numerous times.

"Fela Kuti was a huge star all over Africa," said Columbia College Film and Video Professor Dan Dinello, who visited the king of Afrobeat in Lagos, Nigeria in 1983, ostensibly to make a documentary. "King Sunny Ade was also huge. Ade was like the Beatles of Afrobeat - Fela was more like the Rolling Stones. He was the rebel. When he died [in 1997], it was like Elvis and Martin Luther King died at the same time in Nigeria."

In January this year, Dinello published an ebook about his harrowing experiences on that trip, Finding Fela: My Strange Journey to Meet the Afrobeat King. He published it through Smashwords.com. To write it, he expanded a 1983 Reader article he wrote about the trip and revisited his detailed diary from Africa. Dinello appeared on Gianakopoulos' radio show Tuesday night.

Dinello, who has lived in Oak Park for 30 years, heard about Fela's music in the early '80s when some friends who'd been in the Peace Corps in Ghana gave him the album Zombie by Fela and his group, The Afrika 70. A self-described "music fanatic," Dinello loved the record - and the attitude. "The keyboard, sax and trumpet sound was totally accessible to me and the lyrics, the rebellious attitude, his anti-corporate stance as a spokesperson for the oppressed and the poor spoke directly to me."

Then Dinello met a student at Columbia College who said he knew Fela and offered to take him to Nigeria. "I was looking for a way to make a project that could bring me grant money. I was naive and had never been out of the country at the time. So I decided to go to Nigeria between semesters for three and a half weeks." He left behind his wife and a newborn child.

Dinello's book describes his comical, frustrating and often scary journey, including being arrested by a Lagos police officer who dragged him to jail after he took the cop's photo. "The policeman rushed off from the street - club out - and pulled me into a cab. Then they drove me to a nearby police station. It was like a junk heap with rotting cars in a grassy field and a dilapidated building. I thought I was about to be put into a hole. Nobody knew where I was."

After talking his way out of jail, he lived in a hotel close to Fela's compound, the Kalakuta Republic, which served as a dwelling and recording studio for the star and the 27 "queens" Fela had simultaneously married in 1978.

Like most celebrities, Fela in real life was not the image he appeared to be onstage or on records. Dinello was welcomed regularly to Fela's home. "All he wore all day were these bikini underwear. In the middle of the room was a sort of pedestal with several gigantic marijuana joints on it. Then there was a big TV that had just been purchased. And a big picture of his mother overseeing the room. Fela would sit in this big chair and smoke joints and talk to people who walked in. He could be surprisingly nice, or incredibly arrogant as well. It was part of his contradictory nature."

Dinello also attended the all-night parties at Afrika Shrine, the outdoor corrugated steel nightclub built by Fela in Lagos. "His band would go on about 7 p.m. and start to play. He'd show up around midnight and literally play until about 4 in the morning. This was three or four days a week."

Dinello managed to get some footage of Fela at home, but he could never get permission to film at a performance.

In 1986, when Fela was arrested for allegedly forging currency, then beaten and jailed for five years by the Nigerian government, Amnesty International and Celluloid Records hired Dinello to create a music video of the song "Army Arrangement" using concert footage in England and the filmwork taken during Dinello's trip.

"The record company wanted to market him as another Bob Marley, but he was so uncompromising. His songs would last for 40 minutes, and once he recorded a song, he would never play it again," said Dinello.

"He can be criticized for a lot of things. His mother was the voice of independent females in Africa, and yet he had 27 wives and was a somewhat misogynistic person. Also, he died of AIDS, but he recorded an anti-condom song and denied the existence of AIDS, when he could have done so much to spread the message of safe sex," said Dinello. He adds that Fela was admirable in that he stayed in the poor section of Lagos and always met and supported his fans. Fela often said, "I have death in my pouch," which was the translation of his middle name.

Fela's fearlessness and refusal to compromise gave hope to poor Nigerians and other Africans who had to compromise every day in life, just to survive. In the video that uses Dinello's footage, Fela looks at the camera and says, "Music is the weapon of the future."

"He had no fear of the army, the government. He was not afraid to criticize the corporate world," said Dinello. "Like many amazing people, he was a contradictory person."

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