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'Fela!' band takes Afrobeat from theaters to clubs

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The band performing in the touring musical "Fela!" is Bryan Vargas (from left), Dylan Fusillo, Greg Gonzalez, Jeremy Wilms, Yoshihiro Takemasa, Aaron Johnson, Alex Harding, Ricardo Quinones, Jordan McLean and Morgan Price. (John J. Kim/Sun-Times)


In 1983, Columbia College film professor Dan Dinello traveled to Nigeria to meet controversial politician and musical pioneer Fela Kuti. Dinello documented his Kafkaesque voyage in Finding Fela: My Strange Journey to Meet the Afrobeat King in Lagos, an ebook published last year (Smashwords.com). In it, he describes the magic of witnessing Kuti in the open-air nightclub that was both palace and performing space.

"After midnight, Fela enters from the back of the Shrine. A path opens for him as people clap, cheer and shout greetings to the Black President. He waves and gives the black power fist salute," Dinello writes. "Fela's band consists of two drummers, two guitarists, four percussionists, bass, keyboards and a five-piece horn section, as well as four Queens in individual go-go booths. Fela climbs the stage and dances to the center and begins to blow sax. [I'm] overwhelmed by the intensity of the performance. He's always moving -- singing, playing sax and keyboards, dancing. It's so exciting I burst into tears. I've seen what I thought were transcendent performances by the Rolling Stones in the late '60s and Bruce Springsteen in the early '70s. But Fela takes transcendence to a new level."

That transcendence is the goal of not only a new musical -- the Tony-winning "Fela!" fresh from Broadway and currently in the final week of an extended tour stop in Chicago -- but of a related aggregate of musicians playing and promoting Kuti's music in theaters as well as clubs.

'FELA!' ON TOUR
Featuring the 'Fela!' band with members of Antibalas and cast members from the musical
with DJ Ron Trent
• 10 p.m. April 7
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $16 advance, $18 door; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com

'FELA!' The musical
• Through April 15
• Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
• Tickets, $25-$90; (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com

Kuti was an innovative and popular musician throughout the 1970s and the fountainhead of Afrobeat, a fusion of funk, jazz, rock and African styles. His music not only broke musical ground but facilitated his overt lyrical commentary about the Nigerian military government, and as it became wildly popular across Africa it made Kuti the target of those he criticized. By his death in 1997, he'd not only released dozens of records, he'd been attacked repeatedly by soldiers and campaigned several times unsuccessfully to be his country's president.

"Fela!" relates Kuti's life through the prism of the Shrine. The word "musical" enjoys a special emphasis for this show, as nearly the entire performance is infused with Kuti's music. Thus, its creators (Stephen Hendel, Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis) realized they'd need specialists not only to re-create but to sustain the music on stage.

Kuti's longtime manager Rikki Stein had only one suggestion to the producers: a Brooklyn-based band called the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra.

"That's what we do. We play Afrobeat," says Aaron Johnson, a founding trombonist with Antibalas and the musical director for "Fela!" "The band formed shortly after Fela died, kind of as a tribute thing. It quickly took on its own life. We had a weekly party in New York that went on for two and a half years; it was packed every week, just amazing. As we started getting more popular, so did Fela's music. The albums were getting reissued, and people were coming to the shows knowing what it was all about. The musical is just another way to spread the word about Fela and his incredible music."

Calling the Afrobeat genre "his" music is not a misstep. Kuti single-handedly fashioned the Afrobeat sound, even giving it the name in 1967.

"You can easily say this guy was the sole inventor," Johnson says. "You can't say that about a lot of musicians, that they were the sole creators of their music -- not Louis Armstrong, not Jelly Roll Morton. [Afrobeat] is his unique invention."

It's also a genre that calls for stamina. Kuti's Afrobeat compositions regularly clock in at 10 or 15 minutes, featuring guitar riffs that repeat the same few chords over the full length of the song and horn parts that cycle the same themes in order to focus the insistent rhythms. Unlike the usual Broadway show tune, for a musician, this music is about sustainability.

"What's more important than even that, though, is restraint," Johnson says. "We've had so many monster musicians come through and sit in [with Antibalas], and they turn out to not sound very good. It's such a feel thing, it's not about technique or chops. It's about giving in to the feel of the music and not having any ego as a player. Two guitarists and a bass player have to sustain that groove for 15 to 17 minutes. It's gotta be a trance-like thing for them. You get an amazing guitar player in there, and he gets bored. He wants to step out, show off, solo. But every piece in the band has a role, and to sustain that intensity for so long and express the rhythmic language -- that's Afrobeat."

In theaters, of course, the full meditation of Kuti's style is reined in to serve the musical's time constraints and narrative demands. That's why the show's musicians, members of Antibalas and others, have been booking extracurricular club gigs in the cities where the musical has been touring. Even the cast takes part, including actor Sahr Ngaujah in the title role.

The club concerts let the musicians stretch out beyond the script, soloing, improvising, singing the sharper and raunchier lyrics that aren't in the musical, as well as performing extra songs -- and letting them go on, build, develop, do their Afrobeat thing.

It's a relief valve for the players. While Johnson speaks passionately about the musical production, it's also clear that as an Afrobeat musician he finds the theatrical cues and direction a tad constraining.
"Well, I wouldn't say constrained because that implies frustration," he says. "I understood going in that this was a theater show, and as far as theater shows go this one certainly allows the musicians more space than most. That said, we've got to hit our marks. The horn players have little room, and there's a consistency that's not necessarily required in the club."

These musicians get the best of both worlds. They tour as a band, but they get the comparative luxury of theatrical work.

"Instead of doing one-nighters and jumping into a van to drive 8-10 hours to the next gig, we get to stretch out in one place for a few weeks and get a routine going," Johnson says. "It's a huge difference and -- whew! -- it's spoiling me!"


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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