It’s not every international music star whose life should be turned into a Broadway show, but revered/controversial Nigerian singer Fela Kuti is a welcome exception. In the wake of 21st century globalization and growing concerns over corporate/political greed and responsibility, “Fela!” seems to have arrived at just the right time.
As the father of afro-beat music (a combination of funk, jazz, Ghanaian highlife music and local Yoruba traditions), Kuti gained legions of followers in his native Nigeria for not only his infectious, innovative music — which often included large numbers of dancers and musicians onstage and all-night shows — but also his outspoken musical attacks against the oppressive Nigerian government and his inspirational Nigerian pride.
“Fela!'” co-star Melanie Marshall laughs when admitting that she had never heard of Kuti prior to being told about the production, which debuted on Broadway in 2009. Although many are just learning now about the singer, who died in 1997 at the age of 58, the intrigue of Kuti’s legend is definitely part of the appeal.
“I think with a lot of great leaders, great politicians and great innovators, whatever they were saying back in the day is relevant now,” says Marshall, a veteran of the London production. She plays Kuti’s intellectual and political-minded mother, Funmilayo.
As the touring production of “Fela!” has moved through the United States, Marshall sees a connection with recent Occupy protests as further evidence that people are ready to be moved by Kuti’s message of unity and fairness.
“[Music] was his way of letting people know exactly what was going on his country,” says Marshall. “His mantra was ‘music is the weapon.'”
Talking King Kuti
Kuti wasn’t just a star in his native Nigeria; he was like a king.
“He probably was the Nigerian equivalent of royalty be-cause he was so revered by his people,”?says Marshall, “but not by the government.” In 1970, Kuti declared his communal compound independent from the Nigerian government. He also owned a nightclub called Afrika Shrine. Marshall says Kuti’s buildings may have been razed by the Nigerian army, but their memories live on: “Wherever we go, there was someone who knew him, who played with him, who was in the Shrine. It’s like six degrees of separation.”
If you go
Tonight through May 6
Cutler Majestic Theatre
219 Tremont St. Boston