I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, something’s awry here. You’ve been scrolling and scrolling, all the way back to the Long Long Ago, and you can’t find anything. Where are all the musicals?
Well I’m going to shock you. I don’t go to see a lot of musicals. Excluding Christmas pantos, I had been to one, ever, before this summer. But circumstances conspired, and I ended up in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre watching Antibalas warm the crowd up for FELA!
Here’s some background. Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra are an afrobeat band based in Brooklyn. They’re ‘contemporary’, in the sense that they were actually around in Nigeria in the 70s, but their sound is so respectful and rooted in that era that calling them a ‘modern take’ is a bit foolish. Their leader, tenor saxophonist Stuart D. Bogie, is Dave Sitek from TV On The Radio’s session musician of choice. The collaborators list is ridiculous. Seun and Femi Kuti and Tony Allen have sat in with Antibalas, but it’s possibly best to just block quote the people Bogie has played with:
He has shared stage and/or studio with the Wu Tang Clan, Medeski Martin and Wood, Public Enemy, Celebration, The Roots, Paul Simon, Harlem Shakes, Burning Spear, Zach De La Rocha, Massive Attack, Scarlett Johansen, Mark Ronson, Saul Williams, Passion Pit, Tony Allen, Sinead O’Connor, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, The El Michaels Affair, Baaba Maal, Bat for Lashes, DJ Logic, Brian Jackson, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Rana, Dub is a Weapon, Congo Ashanti Roy, Kologbo, Tunde WIlliams, Ticklah, Paul Cox, Renata, Colin Stetson, Foals, Matt Bauder, Matthew Lux, Toby Summerfield, Crush, Kill, Destroy, Fire of Space, The Eternal Buzz Brass Band, Geoff Mann, Recloose, Evan Hause, Reverend Vince Anderson, Chin Chin, The Sharp Things, The Fu Arkist-Ra, Dick Griffin (of Sun Ra’s Arkestra), Vincent Chancey, Steve Swell, Joe McGinty, Tom Abs, Shoko Nagai, Jeremy Wilms, Larry MacDonald, Butch Morris, Bill Brovold and Larval, Caural, Victor Rice, Dragons of Zynth, The Loser’s Lounge, State Radio, Gomez, Brightblack Morning Light, Holly Miranda, Noba, Miles Anthony Benjamin Robinson, Centralia, Wild Yaks, Oren Blowedow, Michael Leonhart and The Get Hustle.
He has also arranged strings for Spencer Day, James Harries and Ben Jonas.
This musical though, you’d have to presume, is a highlight in itself for Mr. Bogie. While Kevin Mambo and Sahr Ngaujah split time as Fela Kuti in the musical, telling the story and singing the songs, it’s Bogie at the back of the stage tearing ribbons out of people’s faces as The Saxophone Of Fela Kuti. Not the kind of thing you’d plan for, but it’s hard to think of a higher honour for an afrobeat player than that.
The story’s done with obvious added glitz, but it’s respectful. Fela was a big personality (and a bit of a lunatic) in reality too, so it’s not too jarring. We are introduced to The Shrine, Fela’s club opposite his house in a run-down area of Lagos. We are told by the programme that The Shrine features, on any given night, anti-government lectures, Yoruba rituals, strange dancing and, obviously, Fela music. But many people are here not because they want to see the story of Fela played out (or because their friend likes Antibalas and didn’t want to go by himself) – they’re here because it says ‘Presented by Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’ on the marquee. So they need to know. What’s Fela music?
This is done beautifully well. Fela tells all. First there’s Yoruba music. African ritual drumming, chanting. But that’s the time before. ‘Highlife’ is the Nigerian popular music of his youth. It’s all celebratory horns and uptown jazz party etiquette. So when he goes to London to study medicine like his brothers… he learns how to play jazz instead. He comes back. A guy from Sierra Leone is dressing up as James Brown and playing a close iteration of his funk. He’s a dope, Fela feels, but there’s something to it. Then there’s Tito Puente. “Ethnic” rhythms gaining attention in the popular sphere.
‘Let me break it down for you’, he says, and then ‘now I will put it back together’. The rhythms start. ‘Not Afro-Cuban drums. My drums.’ Two guitars, one chopping and one crawling a riff. ‘Those guitars. That’s not James Brown. That’s AFROBEAT’. The backing vocals emerge. ‘African singing’. Something’s missing. ‘What’s missing? Take a guess’. Real, deep bass. No tone, not like funk bass. Then Fela picks up his red saxophone (and Stuart D. Bogie does too), and there’s no-one in the room left confused about what Fela music is.
If you don’t know the story of Fela’s life, here’s the key points: his mother’s a Marxist who was murdered by the government, his music is great, the government hate him, he starts to get political, he gets beaten up a lot, he goes mental, he thinks about leaving Nigeria, he doesn’t leave Nigeria.
For the rest, go see Fela. I’m sure you can get those Christmas flights or something. Or maybe just read the Wikipedia.
But I was there for the music more than the show, and that was sensational. Water No Get Enemy, Fela’s single, watertight, perfect contribution to the world of music, soundtracks the whole second half of the show, through torture, indecision and soul-searching. And the solo on his hit, Zombie, is the aural equivalent of closing your eyes, walking towards a group of people and slashing the air with a knife.
But like I said with Budos, I don’t know how to talk about this sort of music. It was great. This is Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Listen to him.