Fela! The Concert isn’t the same as Fela! The Musical, the Tony award winning show that hit Broadway with a bang in 2009, after a brief off-Broadway run, eventually making its way to Nigeria where it was staged live at the Oriental hotel, Lagos. Once you understand this important detail, it becomes much easier to enjoy Fela! In Concert, which opened in Lagos on Thursday, 13, and ran through Saturday, 15 April at the convention centre of the Eko Hotel.
Not that Fela’s music has ever had a problem finding an appreciative audience. What it lacks in brevity and familiarity of structure, it more than makes up far in terms of its sheer opulence, with divine clashes of drums, sekeres, saxophones and bass guitars. To see Fela! In Concert is to reawaken that deep appreciation for the man’s music, his mojo and the madness, and to realise once again that Afrobeat, as pioneered by Fela, is sure to last forever.
An offshoot of the Bill T. Jones Broadway production which wrapped in 2011, Fela! In Concert gathers the cast and crew to recreate elements from the Broadway production, but this time, as a 2-hour long music concert with Sahr Ngaujah who originated the role of Fela on Broadway, serving as maestro and conductor of his terrific Afrobeat orchestra.
Much has been said and written about Ngaujah’s physical resemblance,-or lack of,- to the music legend that he portrays but the concert, as with the Broadway show it originates from, understands that to get to the heart of the man and the legend, the best approach is through the music and not necessarily physicality. No one can accuse Ngaujah of not knowing his Fela.
Long before he became Nigeria’s biggest musical export, the aristocratic-born Fela was the original voice of the streets. After abandoning his medical studies, he embraced music big time, taking pains to craft an entirely new sound, one that is rooted in jazz and highlife but beat with a percussion that was all his making. Free of form and style with no debt to the radio or popular appeal, Afrobeat became the opium of the masses as Fela gave protest music a whole new meaning with his all-out attack on the political and military establishment of the time.
The concert captures the vibrancy and exuberance of Fela’s music albeit in a more wholesome, less decadent package than the original form. The ten man band have familiarised themselves thoroughly with Fela’s impressive catalogue and their output, as supervised by Aaron Johnson and Greg Gonzalez is easily the most remarkable achievement of the production directed by Maija Garcia.
The sound is explosive, immersive and throbbing with all the rhythms and energy of a hot Lagos night and the instrumentalists take proceedings a notch higher whenever one of them steps forwards to give a solo playoff.
There wouldn’t be a Fela performance without his queens and the female dancers make their presence felt as they gyrate and twist their bodies in numerous elastic ways, all in keeping with the spirit of abandonment that the music demands. They also sing too. And very well, even if their accents aren’t quite localised.
Mr Ngaujah makes the effort to interact with the audience and occasionally belt out some of the classics, pulling out anthems like Water No Get Enemy, Zombie and Kolo Mentality to the delight of the receptive audience, encouraged to leave their discretions at the door and party like it is the seventies all over. But Ngaujah’s Fela isn’t the star of his own show; the music is, thanks to the incredible band, and then the dancers. He is mostly an appendage. Not exactly something that would have happened with Fela in his time.
Presented by Smooth 98.1 FM, in collaboration with the Lagos state government as part of the Lagos at 50 celebrations, Fela! In Concert is alive and throbbing and does a good job paying homage to the genius of the man via his music. It does its job credibly but creates a yearning for something more. In this case, the actual Broadway musical.