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"Fela!" Performer and Musical Director Aaron Johnson on Afrobeat and the Life of Fela Kuti

"Fela!" Performer and Musical Director Aaron Johnson on Afrobeat and the Life of Fela Kuti
Michelle Williams and Adesola Osakalumi Photo by Carol Rosegg

Fela Kuti was a man of many hats: Afrobeat pioneer, revolutionary, and outspoken crusader for political justice. Music was his weapon, a driving, pulsating, often hypnotic sound mixing jazz, soul, funk, blues and rock with Nigeria's indigenous rhythms, which moved people spiritually and to action as much as it moved them on the dance floor.

With lyrics pointing out corruption, government mismanagement, and an abusive military, Kuti was frequently subjected to beatings and lengthy prison sentences. The Tony Award-winning musical Fela! begins in Lagos in 1978 at a time when Kuti is contemplating leaving his homeland following another oppressive crackdown against him and his followers. Though a series of flashbacks and "flashes to another realm," Kuti's life dramatically unfolds against a colorful club-like backdrop set to near-constant live music.

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"Fela!" Performer and Musical Director Aaron Johnson on Afrobeat and the Life of Fela Kuti
photo by Raymond Hagans

The play features an all-star cast that includes Michelle Williams (Destiny's Child) and an on-stage band in the form of Antibalas. Aaron Johnson is Antibalas' trombone player and Fela! musical director.

Jackalope Ranch contacted Johnson in San Francisco to talk about Fela! song selection, Kuti's life story and music, and how Johnson's involvement with the play has affected his band.

What is your role as musical director? What was the goal in developing Fela!? My main goal was to always keep the music true to Fela's original music as much as possible given the context of what we were trying to create. It was cutting 12-minute songs down to 90-second excerpts of the song but trying to retain the vibe and soul of the music. It was challenging at times, definitely, especially going back and forth with the director and producer and saying things like "I need 20 more seconds to get this horn line in because it's really crucial to the composition," or issues like that.

How many songs did you end up working into the production? Oh, I'm not exactly sure. I want to say 20. Some of them might literally only be four bars or six bars. We play--I wouldn't say complete versions, but scaled-down full arrangements of some.

Fela's life had many different aspects to it, including many different bands. He was often jailed and spent some time in exile, but was always composing music. In all, Fela released some 50 albums. In deciding what to put in to the production, is there some musical theme that runs through everything in trying to tell the story of his life? There are definitely themes that run through his dialogue and his music. When the director and producer approached me there was only about a two-page treatment for the show. Nothing was really written, and maybe just a few songs we knew they wanted to use. They wanted to use "Zombie" somehow; they knew they wanted to use "Trouble Sleep." There were a few key songs they knew they wanted, but then they would ask me if there was a song I liked with Fela's take on politics or some aspect of something that highlights education. Given that I was the only person in the room who knew the catalogue, we would try to find the best song that would highlight a certain aspect of our show. I would pick songs that could work, and they'd say, "good work, we might have to tweak the lyrics a little bit," and went on from there.

 

Can you give a breakdown of the storyline, the plot, where it starts and how it progresses? In this show, and this is not like a little retelling of his life, the idea is that in 1978 we're at his club (The Shrine) in Lagos, Nigeria and he's giving his final show before he's considering leaving the country given what he's endured at the hands of the police, military and government. From there there's some flashbacks, some--I won't say flashes forward--but flashes to another realm. It's really a post-modern take on what could have been. There are certainly factual things in it, but it's not a biopic on stage.

Is music constantly playing? Not constantly, but pretty close. It's defiantly a music heavy show for sure. The band is on stage and I'd say it's the music that really carries the show. Everything else is amazing, but the music is a huge factor in the show.

Given all the music, how much is this a play compared to a concert? It sounds like both wrapped into one. It really is both. That's definitely what we were going for. The original idea was to do this in some warehouse space in New York and have it really be more like a nightclub setting. But once financiers get involved, you need to turn a profit and win awards and get it on Broadway. But the original idea was to set this in a real club environment. Still, that said, we do our best to transform the theater into that kind of environment and make it feel like that. And we do a very good job of it.

How big is the cast? Fela at one time had all 23 of his wives dancing during his performances. Do we get that here? I want to say there are about 15 dancers total. Over the years we've had to scale it back a little bit at times, but I believe we still have about 15 dancers on stage, plus a 10-piece band.

You've been doing this for show for several years now in major markets around the world. Do you think Fela Kuti is someone who needs more recognition? He doesn't stand out like someone such as Bob Marley. It's interesting. My band Antibalas was kind of the first in this new generation of Afrobeat bands, and I remember the first time we toured the states in 2000 and hardly anybody knew who Fela was. Certainly hardly anybody knew who we were and what we were doing. And in the years since, there's an Afrobeat band in every town, literally. I just got back from Australia from a tour with Antibalas and we say multiple other bands. In America he's not that well known, but in Europe and Australia he's much better known. Everywhere else people know who Fela is. And the music in the last 15 years since his death has gained so much notoriety, whether it's from sampling or all these other bands, the documentary, the play has had a huge impact as well. It was lucky timing as well that right when we (Antibalas) started all these Fela reissues starting coming out. Before that you had to really dig to find a Fela record. Now you can find just about anything in any major record store.

 

"Fela!" Performer and Musical Director Aaron Johnson on Afrobeat and the Life of Fela Kuti
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Does the musical cover enough of his life that someone who doesn't know Fela would leave with a good understanding of the man, or is the performance more just a snapshot of one time in his life? People would definitely learn a fair amount about his life, especially his life up until that point in the late 1970s. And I think people leave the theatre wanting to learn even more because it's so interesting. At the same time, the man was not without hypocrisy and don't things that were difficult to take. We didn't try to sugar coat anything. You see how complex the situation is. I think with a lot of Americans, maybe myself included, it's hard to put yourself in the shoes of being in Nigeria in the late 196os and '70s and understanding the level of corruption and poverty that existed. There is no real parallel in America. Yeah, you hear people say Bob Dylan and Bob Marley rolled into one, except those guys weren't getting their hands broken and being beaten and thrown into jail over and over again, and having their wives raped and beaten by soldiers.

There's really no parallel the average U.S. citizen can say "Oh yeah, I get it" because it's rather mind boggling that that kind of situation exists somewhere in the world. It's upsetting and it should be an outrage, but it happens everyday in some part of the world. I think so many Americans are completely isolated from the idea this could be true. I mean, you couldn't write better drama than Fela's life story.

What makes it all the more amazing is that this came from an elite family. It wasn't like Bob Marley coming from Trenchtown, the ghetto in Kingston. His brother was a doctor, his father ran a school; his mother was a diplomat. He could have done anything and he chose stick his finger in the eye of government over and over again and shun everything that was "entitled" to by his upbringing. It would be like if a Kennedy went railing, in song, against the Iraq War and everything else that was wrong with our country today.

You mentioned Antibalas recently played in Australia. Is this show taking up most of the band's time? We definitely took a hiatus because a handful of us are involved in this show, but we've remained active, doing festivals and a handful of shows in New York or the West Coast. There was a period of about two years where we didn't put out an album, but the last six months we've been incredibly active. We released an album last August. It's exciting to get back to playing concerts as opposed to the theater gig, which has been great, but it's very different.

In addition, you get to play whole songs! Exactly, and it's our material. I'm a musician first and foremost, and this is a great experience, but there's something special about playing in a concert setting, especially in a hot, sweaty club environment. You just can't beat it.

Fela! plays two nights, Tuesday and Wednesday, April 23 and 24 at ASU's Grammage Auditorium, 1200 South Forest Avenue, Tempe. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $80. Visit ASU Gammage's website for more information.

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