I’m not one to keep up with the brights lights of Broadway, so I was surprised to learn on Monday’s Colbert Report that Bill T. Jones and the astonishing band Antibalas have launched a Broadway production based on the life of Fela Kuti. If you’re unfamiliar with him, Fela was a Nigerian musician and political activist who invented the musical genre Afrobeat, a fusion of American jazz, rock, and, more than anything else, funk with the jazzy Western African music called highlife.
The structure of Fela’s music was almost always the same: long, long, long grooves built on snaky guitar lines over the tightest rhythm section known to man (his drummer Tony Allen is a mindblowingly great talent) with a horn section sometimes laying down the melody and sometimes hitting the Memphis-style R&B punctuation. Fela played the organ or the sax, and the first six or so minutes of a given song was often taken with a Fela solo. Then he’d start singing in pidgin English, which he chose to spread his message to as many listeners as possible. The songs would build in intensity with a call-and-response between Fela and his back-up singers. I haven’t even mentioned Fela’s dancers, who would shake and writhe as if possessed, sometimes for the whole length of the song. And these songs could stretch to 45 minutes or more.
Fela made his most powerful music throughout the 70s, and he was not alone in breaking the boundaries between jazz and funk and everything else that struck him as important. Miles Davis was making similar music at the same time, as were James Brown, Funkadelic, and, on the other end of the funk-art axis, Can. But Fela, unlike these other musicians, lived in a country suffering under a corrupt military dictatorship, and Fela was uniquely situated to live his art. For instance, the song covered on the Colbert Report last night, “Zombie,” was a 1978 diatribe against the Nigerian military that led to horrible retribution. The military burned Fela’s compound, which was known as the Kalakuta Republic, and savagely beat Fela and his family, even throwing his elderly mother from a second story window. She lived, but her injuries persisted and led to the complications that killed her not long after. One of the most powerful moments in the documentary Fela: Music Is The Weapon comes when Fela, uncharacteristically quiet and morose, describes seeing his mother thrown from the window and knowing that his actions had led to this.