‘Fela! The Concert’ revels in the kind of life-affirming energy that America needs right now

By Bliss Bowen

“Fela! The Concert” revives the fervent spirit of Fela Kuti

These times call for the likes of Afrobeat father Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian activist whose legend is rooted as much in his vigorous protests against government corruption and injustice — despite being harassed, assaulted and jailed — as it is in his fiercely life-affirming music, which confronted the moral and spiritual implications of political policies.

Until contemporary inheritors of his legacy truly seize his mantle in the era of Black Lives Matter and ICE-facilitated family separations, “Fela! The Concert” will suffice as a reminder of the inspiring difference one person can make.

“Fela! The Concert” is an extension of “Fela!” the play, which made a splash on Broadway in 2009 and won three Tony Awards. While the play sought to recreate a night at Fela’s Lagos nightclub, the community-oriented Afrika Shrine, the accurately titled “Concert” presents a 10-piece band focused on his pioneering music — a delirious fusion of James Brown-style R&B (and flashy showmanship), African high-life, and jazz that embodies the democratic freedoms he advocated in his politics.

Drummer Tony Allen, a principal Afrobeat architect in Kuti’s Africa 70 band, and Kuti’s sons Femi and Seun Kuti have carried on since Fela’s 1997 death at age 58 of complications from AIDS. But thus far, no one artist has matched Fela’s charisma and vision.

Onstage, everything but Fela emerges in multiples — horn players, percussionists, singers, dancers — in a frenetic whirl of intense color, sound and motion. Touring players have typically included members of New York’s dynamic Afrobeat community along with veterans of the Broadway cast.

The “Concert” concept was seeded after the play began touring, when musicians in the production would convene for post-show performances at other venues (including, about six years ago, the Troubadour in West Hollywood).

Whereas songs were truncated in the play to allow for explications of Fela’s evolving political convictions as he absorbed the teachings of Malcolm X (among others), “Concert” allows
room for expanded delivery of his compositions as he recorded and performed them.

It’s a fitting choice for this Twilight On the Pier season, which has hewed to an overarching “Local Meets Global” message with individually themed nights.

Afrobeat and R&B are the thematic threads connecting Wednesday’s offerings. “Fela! The Concert” will headline on the main stage, where R&B artist and producer Tiffany Gouche will also play a set, while the Twilight Drum Circle will gather at the West End Stage and Nigerian-born DJ Nnamdi (known locally as host of KPFK’s “Radio Afrodicia”) will spin tunes from the African diaspora on the Pacific Park Stage.

Twilight On the Pier presents “Fela! The Concert” along with Tiffany Gouche, Twilight Drum Circle, and DJ Nnamdi from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, at Santa Monica Pier. Admission is free. Visit santamonicapier.org for venue information.

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