The Soul of Fela!

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

When you think of the music and life of Fela Kuti, a broadway musical isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

I’ll let KCRW DJ and world music guru Tom Schabel sum it up:

“If someone had told me 5 years ago that Fela would have a big broadway musical I would have said you’re delusional.”

And yet the touring production of Fela! is now at the Ahmanson theatre.

Fela Kuti was the Nigerian pioneer of Afrobeat, a political firebrand who ran for president of Nigeria, and a band-leader who married all 27 of his dancers in a single ceremony.

His music not only stretched genres but his songs often ran 15 or 20 minutes.  Again, Tom Schnabel who, with KCRW, presented Fela and his band in LA back in 1986:

"The band would get going for about 3 or 4 minutes--5 minutes, going--and then he would come out, and then someone would bring him his joint.  And he'd start smoking it and then he would start giving you a lecture. And I remember times, '...Come on, Fela! Let's have some music, okay? Enough of the lecturing..."

Capturing the life of any icon is tough but Fela presents particular challenges.  Just think of your typical theater subscriber confronting a dope smoking advocate of black power. But it’s this juxtaposition of form and context that makes Fela! thrilling.

The musical was directed, co-written, and choreographed by the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones. Jones captures the physical and musical soul of Fela Kuti with a performance language that transcends words.

The show seduces the audience with an opening sequence of numbers called: “B.I.D. (Breaking it Down)” that amounts to the most entertaining musicology lecture ever.  Fela, played by the radiant actor Sahr Ngaujah, walks the audience through the creation of afrobeat.  A ten piece onstage orchestra, including members of the Brooklyn-based “Antibalas”, leads us beat by beat and instrument by instrument through the creation of Fela’s sound: the Yoruban chants, the Highlife horns, the dirty James Brown guitar, the drum, and a funky bass.

What follows is Fela an interactive dance class in telling time with your hips.  I’ll let Tom Schabel explain:

"He does this little routine called "The Clock", where every hour of the day has a certain kind of hip thrust.  And this little old couple next to me, they were doing some pelvic thrusts, while they were standing up to his music."

Where the musical stumbles is when it tries to adhere to the clean arc of a traditional musical.  The story is a grab bag of narrative devices that never truly land emotionally.  Ironically, it’s a show that doesn’t trust the the power of music and dance alone to tell a story.

Remember Fela’s wives? These queens, brought to life by 9 female dancers, have barely any dialogue.  Yet through their bodies and Jones’ original and sensuous choreography you get a story and a world far richer than words alone could convey.

It’s that visceral power and the rebellious spirit of Fela’s music that you don’t want to miss!

Fela! plays at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown LA through January 22nd.

For info on the show and links to my full conversation with Tom Schnabel and his blog post on Fela Kuti - go to

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes with intermission.


Read about Fela! on Tom Schnabel's World Music Blog, Rhythm Planet.

Here is the longer version of the conversation between Anthony Byrnes and Tom Schnabel.

KCRW's Anthony Byrnes Talks 'Fela!' with KCRW DJ Tom Schnabel by KCRW