Kalakuta Republik will stay with you, for good or bad. Named after the commune founded in the 1970s in Lagos by Nigerian Fela Kuta, founder of Afrobeat, a legend to rival to Bob Marley, politically radical, (influenced by Black Power), who challenged the corruption of the Nigerian military junta and fought for freedom of expression (not militantly) but through his music. This is not a celebration of his life, but more an evocation of the deeply depressing effects of a life of poverty and oppression; a broken people embodied in broken dance. The choreographer, Serge Aimé Coulibaly has been influenced by Pina Bausch, Alain Patel and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a role call which makes one realises this confusing, unstructured dance is intentional. It is both personal and political.
An evocation of the deeply depressing effects of a life of poverty and oppression; a broken people embodied in broken dance.
Fragments of documentary film play throughout on a screen at the back. Clouds of smoke probably the Kalakuta commune which was set on fire and destroyed by the military, then crowds of people running for their lives. Slogans on the screen also divide the show, part one being ‘Without A Story We Will Go Mad’.
Taking place in what appears to be a seedy nightclub, what is remarkable is that the seven dancers all perform in a vacuum. There is no interacton, even if some of the moves are echoed by another dancer later. At times the knees jerked up, shaking shoulders, enigmatic gestures are so repetitive, the dance is in danger of sending the audience to sleep.
However, what makes the show is the music. The first half is one piece an hour long (Kuta was famed for his long sessions). Its Afrobeat is a mixture of jazz, High Life, blues, funk (which he claimed James Brown stole from him) and traditional Yoruba polyrhythms. It is the beat which gets under your skin in its cool, smoky way and once caught, you cannot get enough of it. Occasionally a trumpet line snakes out, evidence of Kuta’s love of Miles Davies.
The second secton of the first act, has a change of mood with snatches of melody but its beauty is undercut by the scene where a man embraces a woman then half strangles her before flinging her away. Kuta was notoriously sexist and a polygamist.
Act Two also takes place in the nightclub but is more focused on various characters. The slogan is ‘You Always Need A Poet’. The poet has to be Kuta, of course, but various characters take the spotlight, notably a man in a tight yellow sheathe-like dress, and another in pink suit and hat who blows smoke in his face and derisively up his dress. A girl in flowery black and red dress gyrates in an increasingtly erotic manner, and eventually sits astride a man lolling on the sofa and appears to be f*ing him. Kuta after his return from America renamed his nightclub ‘The Shrine’ and increasingly behaved like a high priest, using face painting and rituals like pouring libations. This is demonstrated by white painted faces and powder poured in a circle on the stage which the dancers roll in. This second act makes no pretence to glorify his life-style or his egomaniac delusions. Some of this is suggested in Act Two but the show does not pretend to be an autobiography. To find out more of his scandalous life - the drugs, the sex, the polygamy, death by AIDS - you will have Google it for yourself.
The show ends on a strong note: three pairs, one carried on the shoulders of the other, enter the auditorium, their hands signalling a pattern of semi-enigmatic, semi-comprehensible signs to suggest that the fight for justice in Nigeria, and by extension the whole of Africa, will go on.