While in New York over Thanksgiving, I saw Fela!, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones — a new musical on Broadway that celebrates the life and legacy of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian-born musician who pioneered a new form of music called Afrobeat in the 1970s. Fela frequently used his music to condemn the corrupt military regime that held power in his country.
One of the musical’s most stirring scenes happens in the second act in “Dance of the Orisas” when Fela seeks guidance from his deceased mother (a political firebrand in her own right) who was murdered by the government when she was thrown from window at Fela’s home. Fela prepares himself for this journey by dressing all in white, and he’s guided to his mother by
two orisas, or spirits, in the Yoruba-based spiritual tradition.
(photo: Monique Carboni)
Today, I listened to our program “Living Vodou” with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith to learn more about Yoruba-derived religious systems that migrated from West Africa to the Caribbean and South America with the slave trade including Vodou, Santeria, and Candomble. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith explains how some slaves continued their traditional spirituality in disguise by matching orisas to Christian saints so that slaves could “cover up what it is that you did, literally cover it up when a slave owner was approaching.”
What’s interesting to me about Fela’s example is that he did not disguise his reproach of corrupt, powerful institutions; rather, he sang out his protests with direct and galvanizing musicality. His actions didn’t go unpunished, though. According to my playbill, he was arrested over 200 times and suffered devastating beatings at the hands of the government.