Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Fela – The Original Broadway Cast Recording

If all the songs featured in the musical were played at their original length, this would be a five-hour box set. That the shortened versions here are worth hearing at all is an achievement. That they’re as fiery, and fun, and as true to the originals as they are, given the constraints of their use in a Broadway show, is nothing short of extraordinary. The original soundtrack to Fela, the most important Broadway show of our time (and arguably the most relevant Broadway show ever) more than lives up to its hype. For fans of world music, this album (just out on Knitting Factory Records) is essential; diehard Fela fans will not be disappointed. The band is killer, which is no surprise since the musicians have been drawn from the collective that started this whole thing, the western world’s best Afrobeat conglomerate, Antibalas. The percussion clatters, the bass slinks, the horns punch and soar. As the show’s star singer, Sahr Ngaujah does a mighty good Fela impersonation, although during the album’s occasional spoken interludes, he comes across far more lucidly and articulately than Fela ever did. Ngaujah eschews any attempt at projecting Fela’s defiant, dangerously stoned vibe: for whatever reason, he sounds a lot like Linton Kwesi Johnson – which is actually not a bad thing at all.

Reducing Fela’s endless, often interminable vamps down to a manageable essence of sometimes as little as three minutes minimizes their original intent – to keep a bunch of stoned dancers on their feet for hours at a time – but the added focus is actually welcome, especially as the musical plays up their importance as revolutionary anthems. The longest number, BID (Breaking It Down) clocks in at just under seven minutes. It’s awfully nice to see the scathing, richly lyrical, double entendre-laden Expensive Shit included here, poop jokes and all, in just under four. Most of the arrangements hew closely to the originals, although a few, notably Zombie and a tense, suspenseful Coffin for Head of State, are somewhat stripped down. The backup singers’ harmonies, most impressive during a lushly arranged and ecstatically delivered Trouble Sleep, are spot-on. Unfortunately, most of the women in the cast come across as dancers who can sing a little rather than singers who can also dance – they share the cookie-cutter, over-the-top, fussily melismatic corporate vocal style that’s been de rigeur since Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis destroyed what was left of black pop in the 1980s. Which is only a problem because the supporting cast get more time out in front of the band than they ever would have if the real Fela was running the show.

But when the group is cooking, Ngaujah is intoning “o-rig-in-al,” wagging his finger at the corrupt bourgeoisie or railing against their thugs, it is a historic occasion: both in terms of Fela’s role as a freedom fighter, and the somewhat improbable success of his music as mass-marketed theatre product. May the triumph of Fela on Broadway be an inspiration and a lesson to producers everywhere: the audience that has embraced this musical, and similarly edgy music, has been vastly underestimated for decades.

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June 28, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment