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.

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