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Part 14 - Fela! Original Broadway Cast Recording

Chris May By

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Various Artists

Fela! Original Broadway Cast Recording

Knitting Factory Records

2010

One of the several extraordinary things about the Broadway musical Fela! is not so much that approaching 400,000 people have seen the production since it opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theater in November 2009, but that the many friends and family of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who have attended the show are unanimous in their praise for it. For the producers of Fela! have achieved the seeming impossible: making a successful piece of mainstream entertainment out of the life and art of the most genuinely revolutionary musician of our times, without betraying either his principles or his legacy.

Fela!, which is still running on Broadway, has now also opened at the Royal National Theatre in London. Kuti's bandleader sons, Femi and Seun, both attended the London opening, as did Kuti's daughter Yeni, and friends and associates from London and Lagos. Once again, everyone was full of praise. The creative team behind the production—in particular director, choreographer and co-writer Bill T. Jones, designer Marina Draghici and music supervisors Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean—deserve all the credit they have been getting. So too does Kuti's longtime manager, Rikki Stein, who is as uncompromisingly protective of his friend's work and memory today as he was energetic in promoting his career during his lifetime.

Another extraordinary thing about Fela! is the quality of the music, which preserves the verisimilitude and spirit of Kuti's Afrobeat, while also taking the occasional, empathetic liberty with it. The soundtrack album, Fela! Original Broadway Cast Recording, is not only a great memento of the stage show, it's also a great Afrobeat album, and is unhesitatingly commended to readers of Afrobeat Diaries. Much of the album's success is down to Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean, respectively trombonist and trumpeter with Brooklyn's now 10 years old Afrobeat band, Antibalas. Johnson and McLean, along with other members of Antibalas including tenor saxophonist Stuart Bogie—and the brilliant percussionist Yoshihiro Takemasa, from another Brooklyn band, Akoya Afrobeat—have recreated sections of Kuti classics such as "Everything Scatter," "Upside Down," "Expensive Shit," "Zombie," "Sorrow Tears And Blood" and "Coffin For Head Of State," among others, with vibrancy and insider conviction.

Sahr Ngaujah, the astonishing actor/singer who has starred in the Broadway production of Fela!, and is also appearing in some performances in London, doesn't look a lot like Kuti, nor sound exactly like him, but he is totally credible in the role. Also doing their characters justice are Lillias White, who sings and plays Kuti's mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo Kuti, and Saycon Sengbloh, who sings and plays the young American woman, Sandra Isidore, who did so much to radicalise Kuti in 1969 and the early 1970s. Isidore's rather moving reaction to seeing Sengbloh's portrayal of her is included in one of the YouTube clips below.

The London production of Fela! boasts another fine band, this one including ex-Egypt 80 keyboard player Dele Sosimi and Robin Hopcraft and Idris Rahman, respectively trumpeter and tenor saxophonist with the south London Afrobeat/roots reggae outfit, Soothsayers.

The only sad aspect of Fela! is that Kuti himself didn't live to see its extraordinary success, or the exponential growth in his own international stature. But that is all too often the way with genius, particularly radical genius: it takes time for mainstream society to start catching up with the artist. As these cycles sometimes go, Kuti hasn't had to wait that long. It's time to Felebrate.

Tracks: Everything Scatter; B.I.D. (Breaking It Down)/High Life (Medzi Medzi)/Yellow Fever; Trouble Sleep; Teacher; Black President (scene); Lover; Upside Down; Expensive Shit; I.T.T. (International Thief Thief); Kere Kay; Water No Get Enemy; Torture (scene); Zombie; Trouble Sleep (reprise); Na Poi; Sorrow Tears And Blood; Sorrow After Testimonials (scene/interlude); Dance Of The Orishas (Shakara); Rain; Coffin For Head Of State; Kere Kay (act two); Gentleman (bows).

Personnel: Sahr Ngaujah (Fela Anikulapo Kuti): lead vocals; Lillias White (Funmilayo Anikulapo Kuti): lead vocals; Saycon Sengbloh (Sandra Isidore): lead vocals; Stuart Bogie: tenor saxophone, percussion; Alex Harding: baritone saxophone, percussion; Jordan McLean: trumpet; Dawn Webber: trumpet; Aaron Johnson: trombone, keyboard; Lamar Harris: trombone; Oren Bloedow: guitar, percussion; Ricardo Quinones: guitar, percussion; Jeremy Wilms: bass, keyboards percussion; Greg Gonzalez: drums, percussion; Dylan Fusillo: percussion; Yoshiro Takemasa: percussion.

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