Performance Art

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

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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.

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver