A scene from Fela

A scene from Fela (Tristram Kenton)


Oct. 20-23, Shubert Theater, 247 College St., $15-$78. 203-562-5666, shubert.com.


Music is the weapon," sang Fela Kuti (1938-1997), the Afrobeat pioneer whose pan-African polyrhythms are reaching new audiences while his life story is being more widely told.

He was a political activist. And Fela, as he was popularly known, has been likened to a mix of Che Guevara and Bob Marley for his uncompromising, confrontational, transgressive and creative life.

To cross barriers of dialects and languages, Fela often sang in pidgin English. His satirical lyrics defied Nigeria's oppressive military dictatorships. In songs such as "I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)," Fela decried corporate looting of valuable natural resources. He also summoned Africans to resist European cultural imperialism.

The price he paid for creativity and freedom was heavy and continual. Although exile was feasible given his recording contracts, occasional overseas concerts and burgeoning international stardom, Fela continued to reside in his homeland.

"Zombie," which taunted the Nigerian soldier and was wildly popular with the underclasses, provoked government retaliation: In 1978, a thousand-strong army invaded and set fire to the musician's communal compound, which Fela had named the Kalakuta Republic and brazenly claimed independence from Nigeria.

The results were tragic. Fela's master recordings and musical instruments were destroyed, but that wasn't the worst of it: His 82-year-old mother, a revered women's rights activist, was thrown from an upper story window, subjected to unspeakable abuses by soldiers, and died weeks later.

Hardly stuff for the commercial theater.

But American modern dance icon Bill T. Jones, a black man born to migrant workers in Florida and raised in upstate New York, was intrigued. Immersing himself in research and working with collaborators of all kinds (and backed by big-name executive producers), he scored a convention-breaking hit in 2009 with Fela!

The premise is deceptive: The audience arrives for a concert by the entertainer in his nightclub in Lagos, the fabled "Afrika Shrine." What unfolds is not simply a concert by Fela backed by his 27-strong female chorus and male band, but a dramatic and visual synthesis of music and dance, biography and history.

Jones is director, choreographer, and co-author of this buoyant, kinetically sensuous celebration of a flawed, contradictory and courageous man and his glorious, complex music.

Jones has called Fela "a bad boy... on the side of the right," and "a sacred monster" who made "butt-shaking music." He has also spoken how he strived to depict his subject with faithfulness and integrity, and sought to "love him, warts and all." For instance, despite being the son of a feminist mother, Fela was a male chauvinist.

What can one individual do? What messages can an artist convey?

Jones has bravely tussled with such subjects throughout his career.

Fela! is the medium through which Jones, a MacArthur "genius" and recent Kennedy Award recipient, is reaching his largest audience to date. And he keeps his bona fides as an outspoken iconoclast.