Re-creating Fela Kuti's Nigerian club at the Troubadour
Kuti's jazz-funk will get a workout at the Troubadour.
“Fela!,” the unconventional Tony Award-winning musical now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre, does a remarkable job re-creating a night at the late Nigerian Afrobeat icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti's besieged Lagos club, the Shrine, in 1977.
Now, the onstage band that provides the music for “Fela!” is taking a piece of the Shrine to the Troubadour in West Hollywood, where the 10-piece group (give or take a few players) will take the stage for a late-night set Friday after curtain call. The idea is to convey a wider scope of Kuti's music by drawing on his dozens of recordings — arguably the essential catalog of modern African music, perhaps even more so nearly 15 years after his AIDS-related death.
“That's it, totally,” says Aaron Johnson, the show's genial young musical supervisor, conductor and trombonist. “When we get to go to the Troubadour after, we'll do the full album versions of the songs, get to stretch out.”
That's no small thing. On album, Kuti's songs often reach well beyond 20 minutes, the simmering jazz-funk workouts spiked by wild, extended sax, keyboard solos and his provocative lyrical flights. The latter in particular made him a target of attacks by the Nigerian government. “Fela!” is set just after a military raid on his compound (which he had declared the independent Kalakuta Republic), during which Kuti's social-activist mother, Funmilayo, was killed. His sorrow and defiance are at the core of the show, and of much of his music.
“The music tells its own story independent of the context of the show,” Johnson said recently before heading to the theater for a preshow prep. “Even though the show is about Fela, the message is in the music.”
As documented in “Fela!,” Kuti rolled elements of Yoruba drums, Africanized rumbas, modern jazz, James Brown funk and even Frank Sinatra (at least his ultra-cool presence) into idiosyncratic, hypnotic excursions — galvanized by contact with the American Black Power movement during a 1969 trip to Los Angeles.
Kuti's legend grew to mythic proportions globally, for his lifestyle (he had 27 wives) and his confrontations with the government as much as for his music.
The Troubadour show can capture only the surface of the Shrine experience — presumably, the club won't be surrounded by trigger-happy soldiers, as the Shrine often was. And the show won't stretch on until dawn, as the Shrine concerts often did, when Kuti didn't make an appearance until 3 a.m. Still, the night will be a Shrine-like endurance test for the musicians, dancers and singers. Sahr Ngaujah, who inhabits the title role with an intensely physical performance, hasn't let up one bit for previous post-theater club shows in New York, San Francisco and other locales.
Long Island-raised Johnson, 32, fell in love with the music and story not long after Kuti's 1997 death. Having studied and played jazz, he found the pulsating rhythms a compelling variation. In 2000, Johnson joined the rising Brooklyn band Antibalas, which made Kuti-derived Afrobeat the core of its brass-heavy sound. The next few years saw a great rise in interest in Kuti and Afrobeat, with Antibalas leading what turned into a proliferation of young American bands captivated by the sound and mythology — also fueling the dynamic careers of Kuti's oldest and youngest sons, Femi and Seun.
As director-choreographer Bill T. Jones started developing the idea for a theater presentation in 2005, he was referred to Antibalas by Kuti's former manager, Rikki Stein. Johnson, with no previous theater experience, took the helm. At first, conflicts between the theatrical needs and the nature of the music created some tension with Jones.
“Naturally, he wanted to make a great night of theater,” Johnson says. “There was a struggle of things we wanted the music to do. Bill said, ‘Does it have to be so repetitive?' Well, yeah.”
By the time of the 2008 off-Broadway debut, a balance had been achieved. Such songs as the forceful, military-mocking “Zombie” and the intense “Trouble Sleep” had been adapted to more traditional theatrical styles. But in other places, a looseness had been built in to both give the band space to improvise and for Ngaujah to be spontaneous with his parts.
Johnson estimates he's played a total of 500 to 600 “Fela!” performances, including the Broadway run and subsequent international tour. All the members of Antibalas have played in the theater production at one time or another, though Johnson is the only one in this version, joined by an assortment of other Afrobeat, jazz and theater veterans. The current lineup includes tenor saxophonist Morgan Price, who plays the Kuti solos while Ngaujah does a credible miming job, and who's also a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
“One guy who played with us before had done a lot of Broadway and said, ‘This is the best Broadway gig ever!'” Johnson says.
He's not sure how long the gig will last. At the moment, the “Fela!” tour is booked through spring. And he does have other duties facing him, including a new Antibalas album and tour this summer. But he's cherishing this experience.
“It's great work for however long it lasts,” he says. “And getting to turn people on to the story and music is really important.”
-- Steve Hochman
THE “FELA!” MUSICIANS will head over to the Troubadour on Friday night to play Fela Kuti’s music. It’ll be like an evening at the Afrobeat icon’s old Nigerian club, the Shrine. “We’ll do the full album versions of the songs, get to stretch out,” says Aaron Johnson, the show’s musical supervisor. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times