Auckland Arts Festival: Father of Afrobeat lives on

As Adesola Osakalumi speaks, the native of The Bronx, New York, slips between his own accent and that of Nigerian activist and musical legend Fela Kuti.

The actor, dancer and musician plays the father of Afrobeat music in Fela! – a musical which celebrates the artist’s blend of jazz, funk, African rhythm and harmonies.

Part of the soundtrack of Adesola Osakalumi's childhood was the music of Fela Kuti. Photo /Nick Reed

Part of the soundtrack of Adesola Osakalumi’s childhood was the music of Fela Kuti. Photo /Nick Reed

He looks fatigued, which is not surprising given that he’s been with the show for six years, performing on Broadway, in London’s Sadler’s Wells, in Amsterdam, touring the United States twice and having just arrived in Auckland from Adelaide.

Fela Kuti was born in 1938 and used his music as a medium through which he fought against Nigeria’s oppressive regime.

He was arrested 200 times, and his body bore the scars of numerous beatings.

He was known not only for his musical talent and flamboyant stage presence, but also for his numerous wives and a thwarted attempt to run for the Nigerian presidency in 1979.

In a sense, Osakalumi was born to play the lead in Fela!

Brought up in The Bronx with a musician father and a dancer mother, part of the soundtrack to his childhood was the music of Fela Kuti – which he said was first distributed in the US by his uncles’ record label.

“I was around dance for as long as I can remember,” Osakalumi said – beginning with traditional African dance, he quickly discovered popping and locking through his peers in the neighbourhoods of New York. Years of practising, visiting clubs and being inspired by other dancers led him to acting and dancing roles in musicals, which led to film and choreography work – including his first Broadway musical, Equus, which starred Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe.

Osakalumi said that when he heard about Fela!, he decided there was no way he wasn’t going to be in it. Starting in 2009 as an understudy in the Broadway musical the performer said he now knows the show “back to front”.

In 2011 Fela! went to Lagos – the home of Fela Kuti and the origins of Afrobeat.

When Fela Kuti died of an Aids-related illness in 1997, the city reportedly came to a standstill with a million people turning up to bid the artist farewell.

“For the show to go to Nigeria it was really a full circle,” Osakalumi said.

“The reception was overwhelming. After that, the show took on a different level of validity.”

To play Fela Kuti was a great honour, he said.

“I feel a responsibility to play him truthfully.

“It’s demanding. It’s non stop. It’s tiring. But when I hear those first notes of his music, it gives me so much energy.

“I love Fela’s spirit and his fight against oppression and corruption and for the rights of the everyday Joe.” NZ Herald

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