West Africa Story: Fela! on Broadway

A fantastic new musical will soon find out just how fantastic it has to be to survive

Speaking of exhaustion (and seeing as he's onstage for nearly the entire show), Fela's role is now split on a night-by-night basis between Ngaujah and Ruined's Kevin Mambo, starring alongside Lillias White, who plays his serenely radical mother, Funmilayo. To cap off the press soiree, White tears into "Trouble Sleep" (a/k/a "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am"), the most gorgeous song in the Fela catalog, here transferred from his mouth to hers and refashioned as a bone-chilling, show-stopping Afrobeat power ballad. This, to say the least, was highly improbable.

"Isn't that a lovely song?" agrees Jones, chatting afterward and praising Hendel for persuading him to overlook that improbability. "I think Steve is the moving force in all of this. Would I have done a piece on Fela? I love his music. Danced to it a lot in the '70s. But I don't think I ever thought of it as something that I could work with."

Hendel, producing his first Broadway show, was apparently not dancing to Fela in the '70s, but somehow, Fela found him anyway. "You know, I wish I could even remember," he says, chatting over the phone a few weeks before opening night. "It was 10 years ago. Somehow, I found the music, and once I found the music, I was overwhelmed by the music. I thought it was some of the most sinuous, sexual, complex, powerful, resonant, exciting music I'd ever heard."

Sahr Ngaujah, as Fela
Photos by Chad Griffith; wardrobe: Sue Stepnik & Susie Ghebresillassie
Sahr Ngaujah, as Fela
Antibalas
Antibalas

Which makes re-creating it amid the oft-antiseptic lights of Broadway a perilous task, of course. "The very first day I worked with Antibalas," Jones notes, "somebody turned to me and said [boisterous voice], 'Why do you want to do this show? What do you want from Fela?' Suspicious. 'You want to make a Broadway show about this underground fighter?' I thought, 'Well, why not?' He would've understood it. He was a very entertaining guy. And he wanted to get his message out to a lot of people."

That message has now been distilled to four words ("Energy, Power, Passion, Revolution") and slapped on posters and billboards in midtown and beyond, that distillation perilous in itself, rendering a complex and controversial figure with the subtlety of a Che Guevara T-shirt. Though, to be fair, Fela seems like he'd have been way more fun than Che Guevara, and Che never cooked up the most sinuous, sexual, complex, powerful, resonant, exciting music you've ever heard. But even that wouldn't matter if a bunch of guys from Brooklyn, and increasingly beyond, weren't around to help re-create it. As much ecstasy as the original run generated onstage and off-, there remain 10 million reasons Fela! might fail. Antibalas is the one reason it might succeed.

Early in Fela! comes an extended musical sequence titled "B.I.D."—as in "Breaking It Down"—that attempts to summarize, as briskly and casually and non-pedantically as possible, the various international ingredients that comprise the musical style he came to invent. Some theatergoers might generally find such sonic etymology fascinating; others, decidedly, may not.

But the sequence—featuring an a cappella Yoruba chant, the gorgeous choral hymns of Fela's grandfather, horn-saturated Nigerian highlife, Sinatra-style nightclub crooning, emphatic American jazz, insouciant Latin jazz, and "the guitars . . . those dirty guitars" of Mr. James Brown—blows by

with such verve and vibrancy that it barely feels like the mini-lecture that, upon reflection, it reveals itself to be, one necessary for anyone unfamiliar with Fela at the onset. It quickly and masterfully solves the Who Is This Guy and Why Is He Important problem, and though a few archival videos assist in that process, the bulk of the credit goes to the boys in the band. "Not highlife," Fela informs us with swelling pride, as they glue all those elements back together and flaunt the sultry and infectious new style that results. "Not James Brown. Afrobeat." Perfect.

"In Bill's mind, we are the protectors of this music," says trumpeter Jordan McLean, who joined Antibalas the night after its first gig, at St. Nick's Pub in Harlem in spring 1998. Founded by Martín Perna—a 23-year-old Brooklyn high school teacher and original member of retro-soul crew Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings—Antibalas spent the next decade-plus adding members (it's now, more accurately, a collective, shuffling 30-plus players in and out) and serving, in the minds of a great many more fans and collaborators, as the protectors of this music. That applies to their intensive study of Fela's work, their increasingly frequent high-profile collaborations (with TV on the Radio, the Roots, Paul Simon, Public Enemy, and several members of Fela's bands, Africa 70 and Egypt 80), and the four albums' worth of their own contributions to the Afrobeat canon: "Indictment," off 2004's Who Is This America?, is a fantastic Bush-era protest song, lithe and lethal.

And now, here they are, on Broadway, regaling perhaps quite a few Bush voters. Here are some of them, anyway—Perna, who now lives in Austin, Texas, and travels extensively, isn't involved in Fela!, and the 10-man onstage crew, initially featuring a few names who've never played with Antibalas before (including both guitarists, Oren Bloedow and Ricardo Quinones), will sub players in and out frequently as tours and side projects beckon. (Incredibly, the band just announced a December residency at the Knitting Factory, every Thursday, late-night, of course.) But that activity will now be at least somewhat curtailed: Fela! music director Aaron Johnson, who joined Antibalas in 2000 and plays trumpet and keyboards in the show, notes that the band turned down an offer to play with Phish during their recent three-day Halloween spectacular in Indio, California.

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