Monday, January 25, 2010


I've been having so much fun in 2010 that I've failed to post anything about my last musical moments of 2009. Here they are...finally!

So I finished off 2009 with a bang, partying it up with Matt, Sandro and They Might Be Giants in Northampton, Mass. (If you're looking for a setlist, talk to Matt, who actually documented most of it!) The festive spirit started a couple days prior, though, when I flew to Hartford and drove into New York with my mom to brave the hordes of holiday tourists to see the musical Fela! As talked about in Matt's earlier blog posting, it has been getting rave reviews in the New York Times and the like. Being a fan of political activist and Afrobeat king Fela Kuti and Brooklyn-based band Antibalas, I was pretty stoked to see this show.

I was amazed to see how they had transformed the Eugene O'Neill Theatre to look like a night club. It felt like one, too, with Afrobeat orchestra Antibalas already on stage, playing tunes while some audience members were even dancing in the aisles, drinks in hand. Slowly members of the cast started to creep on stage, sometimes talking to the band members like you might do at a place where there was a regular house band that you knew from the neighborhood. And that was exactly the setting of this show--a popular local club in Lagos, Nigeria called the Shrine.

Fela and his band were regulars at the Shrine, and this musical takes place during their final concert there. It starts with Fela (played that night by Kevin Mambo) addressing the audience as if we were his concert audience, welcoming us and introducing the music. The whole show radiates from this one setting, with him talking conversationally in between songs about his early musical background, his interest in jazz and his disgust with a James Brown imitator that was making a name for himself in Nigeria at the time. He also broke down the elements of Afrobeat music, even teaching the audience how to move and shake to the music. This early segment was both entertaining and educational, especially for an audience that was not all well versed in Afrobeat music. And that was the beauty of this show--the many ways that the music related to the audience.

The dancing, lighting and staging was so electrifying and compelling, making you feel, not just hear, the power of the music and the emotion behind it. The dancing was almost as essential to the show as the music, which makes sense given that Tony Award winning Bill T. Jones was not just the choreographer but the conceiver, director and book writer for the show. From the celebratory Saturday night sounds of the show's early numbers to the more somber scenes as Fela reflects on his mother's violent death and his quest for peace, the show quite literally illustrates a life full of passion, pain and political fervor. Juxtaposing newspaper headlines and real video and photo footage of Fela with the live actor singing and speaking made this iconic and controversial figure come alive in new ways. With barely a moment to breathe, the actor playing Fela had to sing, talk, dance and blow sax, playing the ever-changing roles of artist, lover, son, presidential candidate, prisoner and survivor. Perhaps that is why there were two main actors who played Fela--Zimbabwean/Canadian actor Kevin Mambo (who won 2 Emmys for his work on the soap "Guiding Light") and Sierra Leonean Sahr Ngaujah (who is art director fo the hip-hop act Baja + The Dry Eye Crew)--in addition to the understudy Adesola Osakalumi.

Although I really enjoyed the music, performance and production of this uniquely conceived show, I did think that the scene where he goes to seek the advice of his mother and his ancestors dragged on and took me out of the story a bit. But I loved the voice of the woman playing his mother so much that I could almost forgive it. Supposedly Tony Award winning actress Lillias White can hold a note longer than Carmen McRea, and I believe it. If anyone talked or sang to me in that voice, I'd follow its every command. And Fela indeed does.

After the army surrounds Fela's compound, tortures and arrests his "Queens" and executes his mother, Fela struggles with the decision to stay in Nigeria. But, following the advice of his dead mother, he decides to stay. The show ends with him staging a funeral parade with the whole ensemble, based on a real event that occurred in 1979 when Fela and a crowd silently delivered a mock coffin to Nigerian leader Obasanjo as a reminder of the deaths he was responsible for. Fela's song "Coffin for Head of State" accompanied this final scene.

Needless to say, virtually all the music was Fela's with some English lyrics written by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones. Although I would have been interested in a cast recording, I was delighted to find that they were actually selling Fela's original music (some best of collection) and Antibalas' most recent album Security. I hope and believe this show will get more folks interested in both the original Afrobeat music and this next generation of Afrobeat, happening close to home.


Matt Winters said...

Nice summary of the show, Ellen!

I completely agree that the mystical scene where Fela consults with his mother dragged on for too long -- in my opinion, the second act in general was not as strong as the first act.

I hadn't noticed that they were selling Antibalas's music, which is great for the band -- they work so hard in the show. (In fact, I think that we saw Kevin Mambo as Fela, and the credit for his sax-playing goes to the band saxophonist, who was actually making the music.)

Matt Winters said...

Sarah challenged my claim that we saw Kevin Mambo -- she says that we saw the other actor -- so perhaps Kevin Mambo does play a mean saxophone.