Fela Kuti & Africa ’70

STILL DEEP in the groove from the show, Fela, which just landed here in L.A.


Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, the musical — splashy, loud, leisurely — is a vivid re-telling of the story of the life and political struggles of multi-instrumentalist, Fela Kuti, known as the father of Afrobeat. This was the music, that you’d hear here, on the very left edges of the dial, through the static. You’d find it on college stations mostly, in the 70s, as it was happening. The woodwinds, horns, guitars are what I remember the most, pricking through the fog of static, of weak frequency. That flow that is like water pulling you out, away . . .

They capture the feel by starting with just the band on stage, in the flow, setting the mood. Consequently, the first act feels like a dream. Transporting. Time and place fall away. They play it as if you’re in a club rather a theater or concert hall. The lead, Sahr Ngaujah, was a bolt of raw energy without overdoing it. There is an intensity that is softened by humor and his frequent interaction with the audience that creates a sense of intimacy, making the huge house feel smaller, the audience more connected with the players and consequently, the movement and the price of the struggle, of speaking out — of being less like water rather “like fire,” which Nigerian authorities caution Fela about.

But really, the star of the show is the music, the synthesis of African rhythms, funk and that charging, undulating saxophone. The house band is tight — an cross-section of race, ethnicities — which underscored the power of the music, an amalgalm of Fela Kuti’s influences sitting side-by-side on the stage.

Marginalia

AFTER MANY months, I finally was able to finish an essay about my mother’s collection of books — about her notes, brackets, dog ears and checkmarks and beyond. My mother, who was very particular about many things — the hem on my skirts, the shine on my shoes — lived in her books: meaning she uncharacteristically left a deliberate mark in them.

In the weeks and months after [her death], I didn’t experience the impulse that so many bereaved speak of: the strange muscle memory of picking up the phone upon hearing news to share or just the reflex of the ritual “good night.” I knew quite concretely that she would not be on the other side of the line. The absence, already huge, felt as if it would keep widening, like a hole in fabric left untended and consequently worked to ruin — unfixable. Concurrently, as illogical as it might seem, the objects most redolent of her — her jewelry, her reading glasses, her books — were the things I feared getting close to.

At first.

Last New Year’s Day, I gingerly began making my way through my mother’s stacks of books — the cookbooks only — with a small though specific goal in mind: I wanted to make gumbo — her gumbo — a New Year’s week ritual. Though she never made gumbo from a committed-to-paper recipe (hers was verbally passed down from various great- and great-great grandmothers), she sometimes, however, made notations in the margins of old books, little directives, asides, reminders — “Check for crab legs at the fish market on Vernon.” “Go Mondays for Andouille.” I was just feeling rusty about the order of tasks, the ingredients. More accurately, I felt uncertain without her. I sifted through kitchen stacks, but I couldn’t at first put my finger on the thing — a beautiful old book about New Orleans cooking traditions that I’d grown up with. I almost gave up, until I landed on a pile of misshelved books with antique recipes from the city’s old-guard restaurant palaces. I opened one. In the margins, next to one of the recipes for stuffed mirlitons, she had written, “Lynell’s Birthday ~ 1984.” I flipped pages and found other notations — directions to augment this roux or the rules about preparing or consuming gulf oysters.Finally, after some time deciphering the faint pencil strokes, in her elegant English teacher cursive, and the staccato shorthand in which she’d inscribed the directions, I realized I heard her voice — both its rhythms and intonation. I was “listening to” my mother.

I wrote it in fits and starts: in hospital rooms on my laptop, on scraps of steno pad paper, in my head. It was both a piece I never hoped to write and at the same time needed to write. Finally, this summer, the whole thing seemed to settle into some semblance of linear form. The photo above is the last draft of the manuscript, finally ready to go. (I still work on paper when I get to the fine-tuning.)

It runs in print tomorrow in the L.A. Times. The link here.

Past Times Behind

LOS ANGELES in the ’50s. Just before my time, but I see some locations that look so redolent of my childhood that I’m having sense memory reactions. Someone has already commented on the “eccentric signage” and yes, I think that is a big part of it. It was whimsical and rustic — at the same time.

Cesária Évora, 70

This in from the folks, Rock Paper Scissors, who first began sending her music my way:

Cesaria Evora, the Cape Verdean singer, also known as “the barefoot diva,” passed away on Saturday, December 17th (at 11:45 am local time) at Baptista de Sousa hospital in Mindelo Cape Verde, as announced by Cape Verdean minister of culture Mario Lucio Sousa.

The world famous singer died at 70 on her native island of Sao Vicente about three months after retiring from the stage. She had been suffering health issues for a while and had had a few surgeries over the past few years, including an open-heart operation in May 2010.

“I don’t have the strength, the energy anymore. I want you to tell my fans that I’m sorry but I have to rest now. I am sorry I have to retire because of health issues. I wish I could have given pleasure to those who follow me for much more time” she had told French newspaper Le Monde when she announced her retirement last September 23rd.

She was in good shape on stage at the Parisian venue Grand Rex in April 2011 but her unhealthy heart, which had failed several times, forced her to give up her main addiction, which was touring.

“Life goes on. I came to you, I tried my best and I had a career that many would dream of,” she had told Véronique Mortaigne from Le Monde.

The Cape Verdean government declared 48 hours of national mourning to the singer. President Jorge Carlos Fonseca said she was “one of the main references of Cape Verdean culture.” Cesaria Evora will be buried Tuesday in Mindelo.

(image via euronews)