The pulsing rhythms of Afrobeat music fill the Eugene O’Neill Theatre as viewers enter for a production of the new Broadway musical “Fela!” The set looks less like a Broadway theater than a recreation of the Shrine — the Nigerian music club of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the founder of Afrobeat music.
The show’s producer and co-conceiver, Stephen Hendel ’73, bought a compact disc of Kuti’s music in the early 2000s and became so hooked he wanted to create a performance piece based around the album, Hendel said. He and his wife, Ruth, are now the lead producers of “Fela!,” directed by Bill T. Jones, who received an honorary degree from Yale last year.
Hendel took time to talk to the News on Monday about Fela Kuti, the process of creating the show and which dances from the show Hendel wants to learn.
Q. What was your reaction to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s music when you first heard it?
A.It was the most amazing music I’d ever heard. I could not stop playing it. It was so stirring in all respects: the rhythms, the complexities, the melodies, the words, the sensuality of the music, and I just thought it was a revelation, really.
Q. How did you conceive of the idea to put this music on stage?
A. I thought the music was just simply overwhelming. I became fascinated by it. “The Best Best of Fela Kuti” had these very detailed and informative liner notes that explained what the songs were about. It turned out that Fela Kuti was writing about what he was going through in Nigeria, and they told it in a beautifully poetic way. It was very difficult to know all of the words because a lot of the words were in pidgin and patois, so I started reading about Fela Kuti. The thing that really sort of inspired me to become an addict of his music is how he went back to Nigeria and created this incredibly complicated, propulsive, throbbing music. And on one level it was brilliant dance music or brilliant jazz compositions, and on the other it became increasingly political and gave voice to the underclass that was being oppressed by a succession of military dictators. He became the person who stood up to these people, and he used his music to give the population a voice. Eventually they surrounded his compound, burned it down, beat all the men up, raped the women and threw his 82-year-old mother out the window.
Here was probably one of the world’s most courageous artists. While he was not particularly well known in the United States, people like Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Questlove, Jay-Z, who is also a producer of “Fela!” and Alicia Keys — serious musicians — really understand who he was. It just seemed that it could possibly be a very interesting story to try and tell on the stage.
Q. Were you involved with theater at Yale?
A. No, I was not. I was an American studies major. I got involved [in theater] in New York. I work in New York. I work essentially very near the theater district. My wife was interested in theater. We started to go to a lot of theater. I would go to a lot of different theater and a lot of different musicals. I thought there would be a place for something completely different, something that didn’t have musical theater music and a musical theater way of telling the story.
Q. Can you do “The Clock” — the dance Fela asks the audience to perform during the show?
A. I think I can do it, but I’m not sure if anyone looking at me would necessarily think I was doing it. I think the dance steps to the “Kere Kay” dance — which is the dance that the ensemble does at the end of the first act and at the end — are just simply amazing, and I try as hard as I can. But I have never really been able to do it. I’m so clumsy, and it’s totally alien to me. I’ve never been able to learn that dance.