Inside D.C. entertainment

Bill T. Jones on 'Fela!': Profanity is easy. Cowbells are hard

September 19, 2011 - 05:00 AM
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Bill T. Jones
Jones (Photo by Christina Lane, courtesy Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival)

Fela! was a surprise Broadway hit of 2010. Directed and choreographed by modern dance pioneer Bill T. Jones, the musical condenses the colorful life of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian activist and musician, into one night of song, dance, and African politics. After opening off-Broadway, the show ran for 15 months at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. It closed in January after garnering three Tony Awards, 11 nominations, and promises of becoming a global hit.

The show has since traveled to London, Amsterdam, and Nigeria. The American tour officially opened Friday at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Harman Center for the Arts (don’t be confused if you saw it there before Friday; theater openings operate on a different space-time continuum from ours). Jones traveled to Washington this week to check on rehearsal and talk with TBD. OK, he talked to a bunch of other journalists, too, but probably no one else got him talking about expletives and cowbells.

Bill T. Jones: D.C. is a sophisticated city, a sophisticated city with a large African and African-American population, and probably more importantly, a large international population, and Fela was definitely a very international artist. You have wonderful theaters here, and, from what I can see, a theatergoing audience.

Everyone else has done it before in New York or in London.…We call it “The Kalakuta Effect.” Kalakuta was Fela’s compound in Lagos. It means “rascal.” He called his compound the Independent Republic of Kalakuta. They were countercultural people, modeling themselves off of the counterculture of the 60s, but with an African flavor, and Fela as the chief priest. That’s the feeling that we cultivate (in the musical), of being on a mission, you know?

Many people who come to this production come because of the music, and because of the message as they understand it. It is difficult work, but they are rewarded for it, I believe. There has never been another show like it. They can use everything that they have. Nobody dances like we do eight times a week. They have a real pride in this show. It’s a community. That’s what I think it is, being part of something historic, and also something that has meaning.

All of the musicians that we had in New York were in the Circle of Antibalas. They were leaders in the Afrobeat revival movement. In London, they tried that—just bringing in pit players—they brought in some really seasoned musicians. But there’s something about how you play a cowbell. Or the way you play the shekere. Afrobeat is it’s own thing; it’s not Latin jazz, it’s not Afro-Jazz. There’s a sensibility and a touch. You can learn it, if you are open to it, but it’s not so easy as people think.

Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti (photo by Monique Carboni).

TBD: I was reading the Rough Guide to World Music’s chapter on Fela, and that writer points out that historically, Fela’s music wasn’t dance music. Do you agree with that?
Well, the music of Africa (in the ’50s and ’60s) was High-Life, and that was profoundly dance music. Fela found it decadent. That’s what the elite danced to. To be sure, his first love was jazz. He was a big fan of Miles Davis. That’s not dance music. But then this James Brown thing came in, and the way the funk rhythms work, within 25 minutes, people at our show are up and moving. Some people think that’s outrageous.

That’s right. You have some audience participation.
It seems to strange to call it “audience participation” because when you go to an Afrobeat concert, and you’re there for hours, and you’re in a real sweat and drinking or whatever, everybody is swaying. It’s very sensual music. I say it this way: Fela’s music is designed to be heard first and foremost with your hips, and then, it goes to your brain.

But you’ll need a little help. The songs were sung in Nigerian or other dialects. We translate a great deal, and we rewrote lyrics, so they make more sense.


Speaking of lyrics, when the national tour of Billy Elliot launched last year (it comes to the Kennedy Center in December), the producers decided to cut out the profanity for the national tour, because the rest of America couldn’t handle the language that New York could. So in your show, there’s this number about Fela’s —
[Laughing] His “Expensive Shit.” No one’s asked us to cut that out. Now, one of our Felas was improvising the other day and used the F-word. I think that’s too much. He’s provocative enough.

But there have been discussions about little tweaks?
We’ve wondered if some references are too obscure, or too African. And there’s this song called I.T.T. (“International Thief Thief”) that Fela wrote in the 70s. He goes into a list of corporations, and we’ve allowed ourselves to update those. News Corporation. Halliburton. AIG. Even though the show is supposed to be set in 1978, one fictitious night in 1978.

Fela! runs to Oct. 9 at Sidney Harman Hall.

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