Revolutionary musician comes alive at Braeburn
Friday February 03 2023
Hands down! Kenyan theatre has serious competition in the Tanzanian theatre troupe mobilised by Braeburn International School Arusha.
They came to Kenya early this week and staged Fela! the musical at Braeburn School Gitanga, wowing a house-full crowd in the process.
One reason for their awesome performance is that the school has a performing arts programme embedded in its curriculum, which Kenya does not have.
The programme is a vibrant arena in which students can learn everything about all that made Fela! a theatrical and musical masterpiece.
That includes everything from lighting and sound to costuming, set design and construction to acting, choreography, stage management, and voice.
All of these elements had been honed to perfection, guided by the show’s director Miranda Rashid who described the rigour of their rehearsals which had begun six months before the opening.
“Students met nine hours every week for rehearsals, and then as we got closer to the opening, and especially after we came from Arusha to Nairobi, we all worked around the clock,” she said.
It’s rare to see a production in which all these elements are so carefully thought through. But from the moment the show opened and one could see the colourful double-decker set of Fela’s nightclub, the Shrine, listen to his live band, Africa 70, and watch the brightly costumed and well-choreographed dancers, we knew we were in for something special.
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Based on the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the iconoclastic showman who challenged Nigeria’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, the show itself opened with a bang.
Africa 70, performing on saxophone, guitar, drums, and keyboard, paved the way for Fela (Isaac Kombe, 17) to come in, grab our attention and never let it go.
He immediately commanded the stage and served as both a masterful storyteller, narrating pithy moments of his fascinating life and the charismatic Fela, enacting all those incredible times.
Fela may not be remembered by many of the students who filled the audience the day we watched.
But he was a trailblazer, a revolutionary musician, and a social activist who challenged Nigeria’s military dictatorship which he held responsible for murdering his mother Funmilayo (Nadine Shambwe).
Fela was also a fearless pioneer and flamboyant performing artist who left Lagos at age 19 to study medicine in the UK, but instead, he followed his passion for music.
That passion is what led him to pioneer his Afrobeat and write songs critical of the government.
His immense popularity and international fame are probably what kept the powers that be from finishing him, especially after he ran for president.
The only thing Kombe’s Fela missed was his pigeon English.
Otherwise, he was just as charismatic as the flamboyant musician who, in addition to being highly critical of the regime, also made fun a central feature of his life.
One trait of Fela’s that we saw in the show was how he had no fear of breaking with norms and traditional taboos.
However, he respected the ancestors and in his darkest hours would call upon the spirit of his mother Funmilayo for soulful support and consultation.
Nadine Shambwe was one of the two women leads in the show who had a beautiful voice.
The other was Chantel Cailems who played Fela’s lovely African American friend Sandra from whom he learned much about the Black Power movement in the 1960s which fueled groups like the Black Panther Party and was a precursor to Black Lives Matter.
But Sandra didn’t last. Instead, Fela, at the peak of his career, preferred taking on 27 wives.
“We did some sanitising of the script to make it more appropriate for student audiences,” Ms Rashid told the BDLife.
But that did no damage to either the music or the overall message of the musical. Unfortunately, only once did we hear the actual voice of Fela as he sang his critical hit, Zoombies.
But it was enough to make you want to look for more of the music by this revolutionary musician who changed the face and sound of African (and world) music forever.
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One other aspect of the musical that made it remarkable was its multimedia style, including not only live music, dance, and performance, but also video and graphic reconstruction of historic posters to remind us of those times.
They even had a programme and gave us the cast list and the cast’s bios as well as other relevant information. Theatre programs have been forgotten by Kenyan troupes, but there’s a need to bring them back.
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