Like the Washington City Paper theater and dance critics who’ve seen Fela! during its ongoing run at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Center, I found much to like about this musical bio of Nigeria’s most controversial musician. But I found one thing in the production a bit curious. While the actors and dancers all seemed to be of African descent, you could say the same about only one member of the 10-piece band that also appears on stage. The ensemble sounded great, so I wondered who they are, and if they have any connection to Fela Kuti or Nigeria. After all, the Fela whom I saw, at the now-defunct Kilimanjaro in Adams Morgan, had an African band.
The musicians in the current D.C. run have played with or are connected in some way with Brooklyn band Antibalas, whose sound is based on Fela’s Afrobeat style. In fact, Rikki Stein, who was Fela’s manager and manages Fela’s estate, suggested the producers contact Antibalas when the musical was in its embryonic stages. Antibalas performed for them, and the band’s trombonist and music supervisor Aaron Johnson then helped choose songs and write the arrangements for Fela!, and even co-wrote a number in the musical.
The musicians on the Harman Theatre stage have all played or substituted in the Tony-winning Broadway version. In an email, the Iowa-born, Long Island-raised Johnson acknowledged that none of the musicians are African. He also noted that he’s played with Fela’s onetime drummer Tony Allen, as well as with Fela’s sons Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti, plus many other musicians who used to play with Fela. But he did not “think they were ‘contacted’ for the gig, as the skill set required was more than just being able to play Afrobeat.”
The entire production, while laudable, is essentially an American take on a Nigerian icon. Lindsay Tolar, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s publicist, says that in creating the show, choreographer Bill T. Jones did not go to Nigeria, but did research via “both reading and watching much footage (interviews & performance) about Fela.” She also says Maija Garcia, Jones’ associate choreographer for Fela!, has a solid background in African/Afro-Cuban dance and played an important role in the choreography. And of course, Sahr Ngaujah, who adeptly plays Fela in the show, is a U.S.-born, Atlanta-raised actor of Sierra Leonean descent.