Prairie Pop: Big Fela

Fela Anikulapo Kuti is Nigeria’s Bob Marley. Fortunately, up to this point, he hasn’t been turned into the sort of dorm-room-poster-trustafarian-Legend caricature that Uncle Bob became. Lost in the bong haze is another Bob Marley–a global political figure who used music as a weapon, sort of like Malcolm X riding a massive wave of bass all up in your face.

Like Bob Marley, Fela was a flawed man–his treatment of women was atrocious, just for starters–but his musical-cultural legacy is undeniable. He is the inventor of Afrobeat, a musical style he developed with longtime drummer Tony Allen and his legendary band Africa 70. When Fela died of complications from AIDS in 1997, he left behind a deep catalog of songs, as well as several talented children (of them, Femi Kuti is the most well known).

I first came across Fela’s music by chance in the mid-1980s. His Zombie album jumped out at me from the LP racks with its eye-popping afro-punk-dada collage album art. I was also intrigued because the songs were all really, really long. Last but not least, the album featured a song called “Zombie”–awesome title!–which turned out to be the mother of all monstrous funk jams.

The uptempo title cut, like many of Fela’s songs, was pure polyrhythmic perfection. It sounded like James Brown went to Africa for that Muhammad Ali-George Forman “Rumble in the Jungle” and never looked back.

What I didn’t know back then was that the song had a massive impact in his country. The zombies Fela targeted through his music were the soldiers who propped up Nigeria’s military dictatorship; it was a great example of the mixing of pop and politics.

With its infectious groove, “Zombie” became an immediate hit across his homeland when it was released in 1977. It also went viral in other ways. Ordinary citizens would channel their inner Night of the Living Dead, holding their hands aloft and staring blankly when they saw soldiers in the street. “Zombie!” became a playful-but-serious rallying cry for the people, a cathartic way of staging impromptu street theater. This phenomenon also gave the Nigerian government more excuses to brutally suppress the singer and his musicians, dancers, friends and family.

Now that Knitting Factory Records recently reissued Zombie and ten other albums–the third batch in a series of four grouped reissues–I’ve been on a full-on Fela kick. “The final batch will be released in January ’11,” Knitting Factory Records Label Manager Brian Long says. “We’ll also start to issue box sets of Fela vinyl in the next year. Later in ’11 Knitting Factory will be releasing Seun Kuti & Egypt ’80s second album, and we’ll have some other Fela surprises.” Sweet!

My Fela fever also went up a few degrees this summer when I had a chance to catch the musical about his life currently playing on Broadway. As someone who shivers at memories of my own theater past, annoying showmanship and all, I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch or listen to a musical in years. However, from the red-hot onstage band to Bill T. Jones’s frenetic choreography, Fela! is not your typical musical theater. It’s more like a multimedia live concert experience.

The set design–with its clever use of lighting and projection–recreates the look and feel of Fela’s Lagos venue, The Shrine, where he would sometimes play all night and into the morning.

“We tried to recreate the sense of being in this lively nightclub,” Fela! producer Steve Handel tells me. “A lot of people who saw Fela in The Shrine, especially his family and musicians, felt very much at home when they watched the show.”

Almost immediately after its off-Broadway debut, word about Fela! spread throughout the African-American musical community. “In the second performance,” Handel says, “The Roots’ Questlove came, and he stayed up all night and wrote a 1,500 word blog entry praising the show. A few days later we got calls from Jay-Z and others, like Q-Tip, who wanted to come. Eventually Will and Jada Smith, and also Jay-Z, put up money as producers for its Broadway run.”

When I talked with Handel this summer, it was two days before the Tony Awards broadcast. His cast was rehearsing its brief showcase number that each Best Musical nominee was to present during the show’s opening.

“What am I feeling right now? Exhaustion,” Handel says. “I’ve spent eight years doing this. Bill T. Jones has done five years of this, and we all have a tremendous amount of personal investment in the piece. We’ve all worked really hard and done the best we could, and now we’re subject to how 600 or 700 people fill out their ballots. Right now we’re just in the anxiety and anticipation phase.”

When I tuned in to the broadcast that weekend, it was obvious there was no way in hell that it would win any major awards. The brief Fela! showcase stuck out like a sore thumb when it was sandwiched between the other more traditional numbers from American Idiot, Million Dollar Quartet, and the cheese-filled Best Musical winner Memphis. Each truncated performance was polite and mannered, and in typical Broadway musical form there were no rough edges showing. But when the Fela! cast burst onto the Tony stage it was like they lifted the party punch bowl up and smashed it on the ground, dancing on the shards. Not surprisingly, Fela! did not win in any of the big categories for which it was nominated (however, it did snag best Costume, Sound Design, and Choreography honors).

Much of the musical’s power is rooted in Sahr Ngaujah’s charismatic performance as Fela, who is supported by a supremely funky orchestra.

“Antibalas is an Afrobeat musical collective, and they’re the core of the Fela! band,” Handel tells me. “Antibalas’s trombone player is the musical director, and the other people playing onstage are Brooklyn musicians affiliated with Antibalas. All of the musicians on stage are professional Afrobeat musicians.”

Knitting Factory is one of the producers of the Fela! musical, and when a close relationship developed between the musical and Fela’s family, the label stepped in to reissue his catalog. “It just seemed like a natural fit on many levels,” Brian Long says. “Knitting Factory Records has been dormant for a number of years. It started as a recording home for the late-’80s downtown avant-garde jazz scene. When the idea of working with Fela’s catalog was raised, it seemed like a good fit because jazz is a large part of the fabric comprising Afrobeat.”

Despite the Tony Award losses, Fela! has been quite successful by most every measure, artistically and commercially. While the Broadway musical has certainly played a role in Fela’s recent pop-culture revival, it doesn’t fully account for the zombie fighter’s rise from the dead. As Knitting Factory’s Brian Long puts it, “Surely, the biggest reason for his revived popularity rests solely on the timeless nature of Fela’s Afrobeat compositions.”

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