Broadway finds its Fela, thanks to Bill T. Jones, Jay-Z, et al.
Until the mid-1970s, the music and dance of Africa was largely “folkloric” to Bill T. Jones.
“It was beautiful people in the bush, dancing and singing," says the modern dance choreographer. “I was much more preoccupied with the rock counterculture at the time.”
That is, until Jones heard the music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian human rights activist and recording star.
“Modern Africa hit me in the face with the music of Fela,” says Jones. “This was a man who was using horns and guitars from James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, the drums were African, but also jazz sounds like the saxophone, of Max Roach and the drums of Africa."This was no maiden dance from some small village in Africa. Fela's music was an instant education.”
The Tony Award-winning choreographer (“Spring Awakening”) is now bringing that music to Broadway in “Fela!,” the part-concert, part-fever dream, for which Jones is also acting as director and co-librettist (with longtime collaborator Jim Lewis). The show received rave critical notices for its off-Broadway tryout run in September 2008, during which it attracted a number of celebrities. Three of them -- Jay-Z, Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett-Smith -- have signed on as producers, bringing with them a sizable investment in the show.
But Jones says what really makes him excited about the project is the cast itself. “Everybody on that stage is either African, Carribbean or African-American, a first for me, and that in itself is an incredibly rich communal experience,” he says.
“All sorts of subconscious and psychological elements are at work because of this confluence of cultures and beliefs. And all that too goes into a work that is dreamlike in aspiration and yet, amazingly, of Africa and its people.”
-- Patrick Pacheco
*Updated: Because of a misplaced comma an earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Jones as if he had said that Max Roach played saxophone. In fact Roach played drums and Jones' quote appears above.
Photo: "Fela." Credit: Monique Carboni.