"Fela!" Performer and Musical Director Aaron Johnson on Afrobeat and the Life of Fela Kuti

Categories: Performance Art

Michelle Williams and Adesola Osakalumi Photo by Carol Rosegg
Fela Kuti was a man of many hats: Afrobeat pioneer, revolutionary, and outspoken crusader for political justice. Music was his weapon, a driving, pulsating, often hypnotic sound mixing jazz, soul, funk, blues and rock with Nigeria's indigenous rhythms, which moved people spiritually and to action as much as it moved them on the dance floor.

With lyrics pointing out corruption, government mismanagement, and an abusive military, Kuti was frequently subjected to beatings and lengthy prison sentences. The Tony Award-winning musical Fela! begins in Lagos in 1978 at a time when Kuti is contemplating leaving his homeland following another oppressive crackdown against him and his followers. Though a series of flashbacks and "flashes to another realm," Kuti's life dramatically unfolds against a colorful club-like backdrop set to near-constant live music.

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photo by Raymond Hagans
The play features an all-star cast that includes Michelle Williams (Destiny's Child) and an on-stage band in the form of Antibalas. Aaron Johnson is Antibalas' trombone player and Fela! musical director.

Jackalope Ranch contacted Johnson in San Francisco to talk about Fela! song selection, Kuti's life story and music, and how Johnson's involvement with the play has affected his band.

What is your role as musical director? What was the goal in developing Fela!?
My main goal was to always keep the music true to Fela's original music as much as possible given the context of what we were trying to create. It was cutting 12-minute songs down to 90-second excerpts of the song but trying to retain the vibe and soul of the music. It was challenging at times, definitely, especially going back and forth with the director and producer and saying things like "I need 20 more seconds to get this horn line in because it's really crucial to the composition," or issues like that.

How many songs did you end up working into the production?

Oh, I'm not exactly sure. I want to say 20. Some of them might literally only be four bars or six bars. We play--I wouldn't say complete versions, but scaled-down full arrangements of some.

Fela's life had many different aspects to it, including many different bands. He was often jailed and spent some time in exile, but was always composing music. In all, Fela released some 50 albums. In deciding what to put in to the production, is there some musical theme that runs through everything in trying to tell the story of his life?

There are definitely themes that run through his dialogue and his music. When the director and producer approached me there was only about a two-page treatment for the show. Nothing was really written, and maybe just a few songs we knew they wanted to use. They wanted to use "Zombie" somehow; they knew they wanted to use "Trouble Sleep." There were a few key songs they knew they wanted, but then they would ask me if there was a song I liked with Fela's take on politics or some aspect of something that highlights education. Given that I was the only person in the room who knew the catalogue, we would try to find the best song that would highlight a certain aspect of our show. I would pick songs that could work, and they'd say, "good work, we might have to tweak the lyrics a little bit," and went on from there.

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