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'Fela!' band: Great Afropop music -- and a few questions raised

January 19, 2012 |  4:20 pm

Fela the musical at Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles run of “Fela!” -- the hit Broadway musical celebrating the life and music of Afropop star Fela Kuti -- wraps up on Sunday after a six-week engagement at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Sahr Ngaujah, one of two actors portraying Kuti during the L.A. run, was joined by the show’s band late Wednesday afternoon at the Amoeba Music store in Hollywood during a quick in-store performance and CD signing session.

They played for a little under 30 minutes -- roughly the length of one song the way Kuti typically stretched out his compositions live in the years before his death in 1997.

At Tuesday night’s performance, as they did briefly at Amoeba the following day, the 10-piece band did an exceptional job capturing the seductive grooves and dynamic colors of Kuti’s blend of Afro-Caribbean jazz and American funk that are at the heart of the Nigerian high-life music.

But as one who had seen Kuti’s band in the '80s and a number of other Afro pop groups over the years -- King Sunny Ade, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and O.J. Ekemode & His Nigerian All-Stars, to name a few -- I confess to being a bit surprised, and marginally distracted, by the absence of black musicians in the terrific onstage band. (Actor Rasaan-Elijah “Talu” Green plays the djembe drum on stage but is part of the acting cast and wasn’t with the band when it played at Amoeba.)

It certainly was too much for anyone to expect that the show’s producers might find a lead actor with the charisma and acting chops to inhabit the title character who also could navigate his way around a tenor saxophone as magnificently as Kuti did.

I wasn’t put off that Ngaujah only pretends to be blowing his horn during the many incendiary band numbers in the show conceived by Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel.

Yet I couldn’t help but wonder whether no black musicians had been interested or available to reconstruct Kuti’s Egypt 80 band for this touring show. A couple of colleagues who have seen the show said the lack of any black musicians in the band also caught their attention.

It clearly hasn’t been a problem for key African American celebrities who are connected with the show, including rapper Jay-Z and actors Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

Nor with many other entertainers who have happily taken in performances while the show has been here, or previously in New York, such as Stevie Wonder, Kanye West, Smokey Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Prince, Denzel Washington, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Spike Lee, Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Michelle Obama.

I asked the show’s conductor, trombonist Aaron Johnson as he was sitting down to sign “Fela!” original cast CDs at Amoeba whether race had been a consideration when the band was put together, especially since so much of Kuti’s story revolves around issues of race he encountered in his native Nigeria as well as when he first visited the U.S. in the 1960s and became politicized after being exposed to the black power movement that was then on the rise.

He explained that the “Fela!” band began with a core of players from the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat multicultural collective Antibalas and supplemented with others who came out to audition. Morgan Price landed the cherry job of handling Kuti’s tenor solos, for which he doesn’t simply re-create the bandleader’s music note for note but channels his percussive playing style and sensual, gritty tone to tap Kuti’s spirit.

Johnson also had to factor in the schedules of in-demand musicians, many of whom had other gigs that precluded them committing to a long-term Broadway engagement.

On one hand, the multiracial makeup of the “Fela!” band can be seen as a testament to the universal appeal of Kuti’s sound, something that has sufficiently inspired the Anglo, Asian and Latino musicians in that band to master its melodic, harmonic and rhythmic intricasies.

On the other, it touches on a topic that’s been the subject of much debate related to film and television casting for decades: Are ethnically specific roles best handled by members of those ethnic groups?  Remember the bad old days in Hollywood or on Broadway when people of color were represented on screen by white actors in various shades of brown, red and black makeup? 

Would the resonance be there if a white actress sang “Strange Fruit” while portraying Billie Holiday? Would it work to use non-black musicians to represent Ray Charles’ band, or Duke Ellington’s, in shows about either of those barrier-breaking African American musicians? It's hard to know, and equally hard not to wonder.

For Johnson and others who put “Fela!” together, however, ultimately it came down to one thing: the music.

“I know what you mean, and the subject did come up when we were putting the band together,” Johnson said. “But the music worked, and so it was never an issue.”

RELATED:

Theater review: 'Fela!' at the Ahmanson Theatre

Recreating Fela Kuti's Nigerian club at the Troubadour

Going beyond a legacy

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: The band from the musical "Fela!" The show runs through Jan. 22 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times.

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