LAGOS (Reuters) - Musicians lament corruption, marijuana smoke drifts past the “no drugs allowed” sign and the smell of spicy grilled meat wafts across a dingy Lagos nightclub.
One would be forgiven for thinking that Nigeria’s late king of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, had risen from the grave.
The cast of the smash-hit Broadway musical “Fela!,” which chronicles the life of one of Nigeria’s greatest musicians, brought the show home on Thursday night to the New Afrika Shrine, Fela’s famed Lagos nightclub where much of the production is set.
Cultural stars, bohemians and “area boys” — gangs of neighborhood youths — crammed into the club in a working-class district on the outskirts of Lagos for the celebration of Fela Kuti’s music, whose anti-establishment lyrics have taken on a renewed poignancy ahead of presidential elections on Saturday.
Kuti’s son Femi, an Afrobeat star in his own right, said the show was key to reviving a critical and conscious political message through the infectious rhythms of Afrobeat.
“It’s what (Patrice) Lumumba died for, what (Nelson) Mandela stood for, what Malcolm X stood for, Martin Luther King,” Kuti told Reuters.
“All those great fighters are still coming alive again through my father, through this play, through the Shrine.”
The Broadway production has come to Lagos, a pulsating city of more than 15 million people, for two weeks. Most of the performances will be at one of the city’s top hotels, where tickets for a front row table cost up to $6,500.
But before performing for a wealthier crowd, the producers kept their promise to Femi by staging one show at the legendary nightclub, where tickets sold for only 1,000 naira ($6.25).
“This is the Shrine, this is what we’ve been dreaming about, been trying to put our imaginations into,” said Hetty Bornhill, who plays one of Fela’s 27 “queens,” or wives, in the show.
Fela’s legacy of standing up for Nigeria’s impoverished masses and criticizing corrupt politicians in Africa’s biggest oil producer infused the spirit of the night.
During the performance of one hit, “I.T.T. (International Thief Thief),” dancers displayed placards reading the names of some of Nigeria’s most prominent politicians, including candidates competing in Saturday’s election.
Fela himself was jailed dozens of times by military rulers in the 1970s and 1980s. In one event recounted in the Broadway show, he was caught with marijuana which he then swallowed.
After bringing him to jail, the authorities demanded a stool sample for inspection, an order that prompted him to write another of his best-known hits, “Expensive Shit.”
Sahr Nguahjah, the actor and singer of Sierra Leonean descent who plays Fela in the production, said the show’s influence has been spreading.
“There’s definitely a sense of the spirit of Afrobeat sinking its fingers into mainstream culture,” he said.
Whether such messages will be heard by the political class in a country where most of the population get by on $2 a day or less, despite its enormous oil wealth, remains to be seen.
Nigeria has failed to hold a single credible election since the end of military rule in 1999 although observers say the elections so far, which began with parliamentary polls last Saturday, have been a vast improvement on the past.
The presidential vote pits incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan, the front-runner, against former military leader Muhammahu Buhari and former anti-graft chairman Nuhu Ribadu.
Many at the performance agreed that staging a show so openly critical of the government in a venue that has been shut down frequently in the past was a sign of progress.
But Yeni Kuti, Fela’s daughter and the manager of the New Afrika Shrine, cautioned against giving the government too much credit just yet.
“There’s still no light. There’s still no water. All everyone’s thinking about is his pocket, not Nigeria When will we, the Nigerians, enjoy this democracy,” she said.
Using a Nigerian slang word for mocking, she added that Fela himself would still be criticizing the country’s top brass.
“If Fela were still here, he’d be yabbing all of them. All of them,” she said.
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Editing by Nick Tattersall and Paul Casciato