Monday, August 16, 2010



Recently, I saw the Broadway production of FELA about the life of the Nigerian musician and political activist. His life story is revealed through narration by Sahr Ngaujah who plays Fela. The stage is a recreation of Fela's nightclub "The Shrine."

As we arrived with the rest of the audience the band was already on stage. Even before all of the crowd had arrived and the house lights went down, they started playing one of Fela's infectious grooves. The songs are shortened for the Broadway production and this is my one dissapointment with the play. Most of Fela's compositions are anywhere from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, or more, in length, and the duration is important in the power of the music.

I first heard of Fela back in the late 1970s when a friend turned me on to his vinyl copy of Zombie. This was my first introduction to Afrobeat which is a complex fusion of Jazz, Funk, High-life, and traditional West African chants and rhythms. African percussion plays a huge role and Tony Allen, Fela's drummer for over 20 years was very important in the evolution of Afrobeat.The music is also informed by the Black Power movement and stories of oppression and the fight for human rights. Zombie was a critique of the methods of the Nigerian military and the corruption of the Nigerian government.

Fela's music uses the "endless groove," where bass, rhythm guitar, and various percussion are introduced one by one, playing interlocking riffs that are repeated throughout the song. The music builds into a layered groove of amazing rhythmic and melodic complexity.The horn section then becomes prominent, introducing other riffs, and main melodic themes. Usually, the vocal starts midway through the compositon. Fela's main instruments were saxophone and keyboards, but at times, he also played trumpet, guitar, and drums. His band was huge with many instruments and many female backing vocalists. His concerts were outlandish and wild and went deep into the night.

A couple of years ago I went through a huge Fela period where I bought many of his cds. Here is a list of my favorites.

Open & Close
Everything Scatter
Expensive Shit
Opposite People/Sorrow, Tears, & Blood
Coffin For Head of State

The song Sorrow, Tears, and Blood has a great emotional power as does his later work Coffin For Head of State, which is a response to the Nigerian government attack on his compound where Fela was severely beaten, and his mother was thrown from a window causing her death. His studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed in the attack.

Fela's music is hypnotic and makes you want to groove, while affecting both the head and the heart.

Fela died of AIDS in 1997, but his legacy and music live on.

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