News, reviews and commentary on afrobeat and related music from Africa, The Caribbean and The Americas

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

FELA ! A New Musical

By David McDavitt

Fela on Broadway? Sounds like a disaster, right? I entered the theater fearing the worst, “Fela, Get Your Gun,” or “West Side Story, Lagos.” Fortunately what unfolded instead was a gritty, hyper-realistic biography of Fela Kuti told in an interview style, bejeweled with Fela’s own afrobeat music! Let’s break this masterpiece down!

Written by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, the story relies heavily upon the best source on Fela: the transcribed interviews by Carlos Moore, “Fela Fela This Bitch of a Life.” Much of the story is biographical FELA 101, including his revolutionary civil rights ideologies, attacks suffered by the Nigerian government, relationship with his activist mother, and development of a novel musical genre, “afrobeat.” For those unfamiliar with Fela and Nigerian pidgin English, the producers thoughtfully include lyric subtitles, and a dictionary in the program. "Fela!" covers much ground, childhood to 1980-ish. Included in the play are some absolute gems of Fela trivia, indicating some serious research. Even I, a pretty diehard Fela fan, learned new facts! Also impressive was a section that deconstructed and then reconstructed “afrobeat” music, describing and demonstrating the sources and evolution of this fusion music in narrative form. Crucial.

The actors are phenomenal! Fela is brilliantly portrayed by Sierra Leone’s Sahr Ngaujah. It is obvious Sahr engaged in considerable scrutiny of the scant available Fela interviews and performances, as he has mastered Fela’s sly charm, fiery tirades, speech patterns and movements. And what isn’t Fela is real West African, filling in the gaps with palpable authenticity. There were a few moments when I found myself more thrilled than normally play-worthy, as if I was witnessing Fela himself at the Shrine nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria! The “Expensive Shit” scene was especially eerily Fela-esque.

Fela’s “Queens” were impressively portrayed by an international ensemble from Haiti, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, the Netherlands, and the USA. Each conveyed an appropriate air of fierce pride & rebellious Lagos ghetto refinement. Character commitment even carried over to the way they looked at audience members as the queens passed through the aisles- a nod of solidarity to fellow women of African descent, a disdainful glance at oyinbo. The queens’ singing was dead-on, perfectly capturing the haunting shrill lax unison of Fela’s backing vocals.

Their African dancing was expertly choreographed by Bill T. Jones, and masterfully executed. It was so authentically African as to be absolutely natural and transparent.

The music was perfect, performed by members of Antibalas and Akoya afrobeat bands, as well as NYC mercenaries. The band is on stage and visible throughout the performance, lending a “live at the Shrine” feel to the performance. A brilliant decision to use a real afrobeat band! It was lovely to hear them play some Fela hits often avoided by bands because they are so well known. Like a real Fela performance, the band played long before Fela himself appeared (while the audience entered). Though out of chronological order, themed Fela tunes named and punctuated the scenes. And some obscure cuts- not only greatest hits! As the band dropped the first song, the wicked grooved, seldom heard “Everything Scatter,” the hair stood on the back of our necks, and we the audience knew we were in for some serious funking.

ACT 1 Everything Scatter, Yellow Fever, Trouble Sleep, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, Lover, Upside Down (with a Sandra Izsadore sound-alike Sparla Swa!), Expensive Shit, ITT/Pipeline.

ACT 2 Water No Get Enemy/Egbe Mi O, Shuffering and Shmiling, Zombie (great choreography), Na Poi, Sorrow Tears and Blood, Dance of the Orishas (trad. bata), Shine (by Johnson, McLean, Lewis), Coffin for Head of State

Conductor/Tromb/Keys: Aaron Johnson
Director: Jordan McLean
Bass: Nick Movshon
Guitar: Marcos Garcia (wow!)
Tenor Sax: Stuart Bogie
Sticks/Shekere: Dylan Fusillo (displaying impressive discipline)

Congas: Yoshihiro Takemasa (yosh!)

Guitar/Keys: Jeremy Wilms (yeah brother)
Drums: Greg Gonzales (most accurate "Water" groove I've heard!)
Bari Sax: Alex Harding (ya mon!)

While all band members are masters of Afrobeat, verbatim sax solos by Antibalas’ Stuart Bogie stole the show despite Fela’s (Sahr’s) lip-synching the sax solos on stage.

Some songs were sung a-cappella to haunting effect (like “Shuffering and Shmiling,” and “Trouble Sleep”). Other songs were spoken as narrative, like parts of “Sorrow Tears, and Blood.” Musically, the only detraction I noticed, was the altering of song lyrics to “translate” them for non-Fela fans. The new lyrics lacked the poetic power and cadence of Fela’s originals. Given the projected subtitles of lyrics, I wish they had “translated” them via projection, and left the songs untouched. The Anglicized lyrics were silly, distracting, and disrupted the rhythm of the vocals. "Coffin for Head of State” and “Trouble Sleep” suffered the most for lyric tampering.

Costuming was accurate down to the smallest details. Those of the queens (Act 1) were especially noteworthy, evoking specific wives of Fela in splendorous stage attire.

The performance was enhanced with projected real and simulated video footage of Fela, the police, soldiers, Lagos, Fela’s mother, etc. It added a captivating dimension. Set change was achieved via sophisticated manipulation of lighting and paint. The sets also employed black light paint (invisible otherwise) that made the set burst into a mystical veve mosaic for a stunning vodou scene. One moment we're in the ruby atmopsphere of the Shrine in Lagos, the next we're dancing with Shango in the magical realm of the Ifa.

The night ended with a generous encore of “Gentleman” with none other than Bill T. Jones dancing up a storm wearing only gray suit pants (very Lagos).

Bottom line, this musical sets a new standard for realism and power. This play is a vehicle for the ultimate Fela tribute band, and likely as close to a live Fela show possible. It would be a crime for "Fela!" not to win a Tony.


  1. Glad you liked the show! Your readers can get $25 tickets if they visit and use code Social1.


  2. Awesome! Seek your tickets ASAP! You will be amazed!
    Fela lives.

  3. Very nicely written review, David.

  4. Great to see a review of this amazing show, i will be going to see it next weekend, I am even more excited after reading this!!! One question: How does the audience stay in their seats with such a stunning list of Fela's songs played by a veritable all star group of NYC afrobeat funksters?

    Peace and thanks for the review.

  5. Oh, there was (& will be) audience dancing- even a grinding (whining) lesson by "Fela" himself! Shake your yansh!

  6. B'Way Buzzes About Fela:
    NY Post Video and article:

  7. sounds like a great musical

  8. I don't appreciate the close-mindedness toward the tap dance actuality...ask yourself when was the last time tap dance was incorporated into any story on B'way since Noise/Funk..which was an all tap show..Bill obivously recognizes the power of communication in tap that it's a staple/element of 'original/real' b'way that he is trying to get back to...I dug ALL of the tap dance breaks...and folks will too !!

  9. Hí,
    Chek mi Blog site, some Music Afrocolombian

    Here some usic for Example other Version of Shakara of Fela Kuti, by lizandro Meza "shacalao"


  10. Hi David McDavitt
    Sandra Izsadore here I read your blog and agree with it 90%. I wanted to correct the other 10% there was a tap dancer by the name of KINELLA who was my good buddy. FELA and I use to joke about KINELLA in the SHRINE with his tap shoes dancing, it's real.

  11. Hi David McDavitt,

    Sandra Izsadore here, I agree with your blog 90% let me correct the other 10%. FELA did have a tap dancer, he was my good buddy, KINELLA. Not sure of the correct spelling. FELA and I use to joke about KINELLA at the SHRINE with his tap shoes. I have lost contact with KINELLA but if anyone is reading this blog and know where he is please contact me.

  12. Ms. Izsadore,

    Thank you for your informative addition- duely noted! It is an honor to hear from you- "Upside Down" is one of my favorite tunes in Fela's extensive catalogue. Best of luck tracking down Kinella.

  13. yes,its fact and it is an amazing show.
    i am also agreeing with 90% and 10%should be corrected.
    Foreclosed Homes

  14. I know this isn't the right place to post this, but not being an actual forum where people can create original posts, you take what you can. I taped the Baltimore Afrobeat Society's annual show in Baltimore on Oct 18. Check out the audio:

  15. i love fela. i would like to know if the world is satisfied with what he has to offer. could he be the beginning and the end of such expression of musical greatness from nigeria and indeed africa? i would like to know. a couple seem to have tried and so far, cant be described as succeeding while some are definitely off track.can anybody succeed? maybe it is a question of era. i would definitly like to see another.