How Bill T. Jones Turned Radical African Music Into the Broadway Hit Fela!
It's easy to take for granted that Fela! would be a smash Broadway musical -- that it would make its big-stage debut to critical acclaim ("music that gets into your bloodstream," said the New York Times), that it would garner a slew of 2010 Tony nominations, and that it would revive interest in the music of the late Nigerian singer Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Let's get serious, though.
The full cast of Fela!
The Fela! that's touring and on view at San Francisco's Curran Theatre was, says director and choreographer Bill T. Jones, the product of many months of "trial and error." It was also many years in the making. Jones first took in Fela's songs during college in the early 1970s -- a time when Fela's liberation music was more associated with black nationalism than Broadway possibilities. Almost four decades ago, no one serious about Fela's Afrobeat -- not Jones, not other fans, not Fela himself -- could have foreseen the popular appeal of Fela in a theater setting.
"Hearing Fela (then) was a revelation," says Jones in a phone interview from New York. "I came to university the year after black students had taken over the student union at Cornel -- my university (Binghamton) was right down the road, about 30 to 40 miles -- and there was a lot of discourse around race and all those things. Percival Borde was the dance instructor (at Binghamton) who taught one of the most popular classes in the theater and dance department, which was in West African and Afro-Caribbean dance. That's literally where I began dancing.
"I knew a lot about Africa politically -- of course I knew about Patrice Lumumba (Congo prime minister), and Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana's president) -- but African arts for me were folkloric arts. Fela's music, though, was not the Johannesburg highlights as I'd been taught by Percival Borde. It was extremely contemporary. It was of this moment. Those horns sounded like nothing I'd ever heard before, though to my ear there were shades of James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone."
Jones had a good ear. Fela incorporated what he loved about American music into something original and radical. Radical messages about the horrors of dictatorship. Radical dance spectacle, with Fela performing shirtless amid a cacophony of competing instrumentalists and swaying women. With songs that could last 15 minutes, Afrobeat wasn't the stuff of AM radio, and it never gained a popular foothold in America. How did Jones and his co-conceivers (Stephen Hendel, Jim Lewis) turn Fela into mainstream art?
First, by giving Fela a you-are-there feeling, with Fela (played by actor Sahr Ngaujah), musicians and dancers at the top of their artistic powers. Then, by converting Fela's hard-to-understand Nigerian Pidgin into more digestible oratory. Then by retelling songs as full-fledged stories. Then by emphasizing Fela's struggle to combat governments and policies, which has even more resonance today.
"In order for the storytelling, or what is intellectually interesting for Fela to come through in my estimation," says Jones, "one had to deal with the Brechtian question. The music sounds like it's dance music. It is dance music, but he's talking about globalization, about power, about corruption, and about identity."
These macro issues, then, are a way for anyone -- even those who've never heard Fela's music -- to get into Fela. It's Fela as a universal figure, reinvestigated with a more inviting lens that still manages to show the complications of a life that eventually spiraled out of control.