Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fela! opens on Broadway

November 24, 2009

At the opening of Fela! at the Eugene O'Neil Theatre last night, I ran into Angelique Kidjo during intermission. Having been absolutely knocked out--on the verge of tears--during the first half, I told her, "Broadway will never be the same," to which she replied, "I hope not."

The preview performance I saw about a month ago was absolutely great. But the difference in energy level, tightness, timing, passion was palpable from the start last night. No doubt the buzz of opening night helped. On hand were celebrities: Harry Belafonte, Angelique, Spike Lee, David Byrne, Judith Jameson, Ben Stiller, Alecia Keyes, and of course the show's newest producer Jay-Z (Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have also just signed on as producers, but did not show). Coolest of all was the presence of members of the Kuti family, notably Fela's daughter Yeni Kuti who now has a major hand in running The New African Shrine in Lagos, and flew in for this event. (This photo shows Yeni and her daughter at the post-show dinner reception at Gotham Hall.)

Ben Brantley's rave review of Fela! in this morning's NYTimes points out that there has never been anything like this on Broadway, and that's surely true. You could see it in the crowd, a kaleidoscopic blend of Afrocentric hipsters, Broadway socialites, stuffed shirts and regular folks almost equally proportioned between white and black. The question on everybody's lips was, "Will folks from New Jersey come to this show?" After last night, I seriously believe they will. This show is such a thrilling experience, no matter where you start from. The "Breaking it Down" segment in Act 1 is the most compelling and lucid deconstruction of Afrobeat imaginable. It spans Yoruba drumming, highlife, jazz, Sinatra, and James Brown and makes it absolutely clear how all these things are parts of Afrobeat, and yet that Afrobeat can not be reduced to them--all in five mind-blowing minutes. The scene where Fela argues racial politics with his Black Power L.A. girlfriend Sandra Iszadore is also a great hook. Their playfully contentious, fast-paced exchange revisits the familiar racial arguments of the late 60s and 70s and lets you see them as never before--from the viewpoint of a savvy, rebellious African. It is funny, eye-opening and ingenious in its accessibility. Sahr Ngaujah in the character of Fela literally ushers you into another world, one that feels exciting, forbidden, sexy, and surreal, and he makes you feel at home there for a few enchanted hours. Who would not want that? (I look forward to returning to see the show with the other Fela, Kevin Mambo.)

Whether or not Jersey shows up to buy tickets, and however long Fela! lasts on Broadway, it is already a cultural landmark. Afropop Worldwide may well have been the first national radio show to play Fela's music in America. Back in the late 80s, Fela's arrival on Broadway could scarcely have been imagined. This achievement is a tribute to the creators of this show--Steve Hendel, Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis, the band Antibalas, an incredible cast, The Eugene O'Neil Theatre, and others--but most of all, it is a tribute to Fela himself. The man had flaws and wrinkles not addressed in this production, and they are a fit subject for another day--perhaps the Fela biopic film. Oh, yes! But as an artist, visionary, and self-possessed mad genius with the courage and certainty to change the course of his nation's history and of popular music worldwide, Fela deserves this celebration. And so does America. My bet is that Broadway will indeed never be the same.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sahra at Showtime

November 23, 2009

In the end, the flags flew, the stage with its palm trees and sashes glowed in showers of orange, blue, purple and white light, and stars of the Arab world made beautiful music for a crowd of an estimated 5000 people at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The vision and production were complex, and behind the scenes, tensions ran high at times. But the result was truly worth it, surely one of the most spectacular presentations of Arab world performance arts ever to grace an American stage. You can read my full review of the Sahra concert on the homepage of afropop.org very soon. For now, a few images and notes from the field...

Showtime was billed as 8PM, but even at 8:15, most of the seats in the arena were unfilled. Maybe the audience--which for all the hopes about presenting this music to Americans, was almost entirely Arab and Arab American--expected things to run late. So for another 30 minutes, DJ M.C. Rai played pop music from rai to Arab techno as the seats gradually filled in. The show began with a tribute to the concert's charitable beneficiaries--NAMA and ACCESS, and also TYO a youth organization presented in a short film called "Children of Nablus." Simon Shaheen and his ensemble performed his soaring composition "The Wall," The Adam Basma Dance Company presented a Bedouin sword dance, and around 9:30, it was time the headliners.

Each one had his or her contingent in the crowd. Iraq's Rida Al Abdulla's arrival on the stage triggered near pandemonium before he even sang a note. Passions about Iraq run deep in this crowd, music aside. Rida's performance was great, and well received even by those who did not know his work. It was followed by a segment of film glory with the Egyptian actress Nabila Ebeed taking a star turn, and then a tribute to Syrian-born director Mustafa Akkad who made his career with the Halloween movie franchise and then used that platform to create legendary epic films about Islam and Arab history. Akaad and his daughter died tragically in the Amman, Jordan terrorist hotel bombings of 2005. (I later learned that at the time of his death, Akaad was working on an 80-million dollar film about Saladin and the Crusades, which would surely have been a landmark.)

By intermission, the show was over 40 minutes behind schedule. The press supervisor keeping a close eye on we photographers and videographers noted that she had seen things run 10 minutes late, but never 40. Little did she know that the stretching of time in this massive spectacle was just beginning! The MGM Grand Garden Arena is a hall more used to presenting precisely scripted shows by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Bon Jovi. Sahra, by contrast, was a work of ambition and imagination whose precise shape could not be determined until it actually played before the crowd, which by this time was large and completely stoked.

Assala too had her partisans, and she played to them doggedly, mixing gorgeous, melismatic vocal passages with pop renditions that delved repeatedly into a kind of quasi-flamenco vein. As her planned 55-minute set made its way towards an eventual 90 minutes, she answered calls for "Khaled" with an impromptu acapella rendition of "Didi." Playful, but also a little edgy, as she continued to announce her "last song," and then play another.

Khaled had not been onstage more than a few minutes when a couple of guys managed to get close enough to drape him in Algerian flags. It was past midnight, and the king of rai was ready to rock. By the time he finished his hit-laden, rowdy set, Assala and Rida had left the hall with their musicians. A planned duet with Assala (Fairuz's "Nassam Alaina," which had sounded fantastic in rehearsal) had to be replaced, and then it was on to the finale, John Lennon's "Imagine." Though Khaled's fellow headliners were absent, he welcomed a multinational array of singers to the stage, and deftly led them through an arrangement of the song that mixed vocals in Arabic, French and English, and both extended and departed from the plan the musicians had practiced. It was fitting, a work in progress as Arabic music slowly makes its way into the American mainstream. Though the live audience included mostly Arabs, this one-of-a-kind spectacle will be seen by a far wider audience on an eventual DVD and heard on a special edition of Afropop Worldwide in early 2010.

The audience streamed into the MGM complex at around 1:45, exhausted and exhilarated. The Lebanese vocal choir dropped in at a Las Vegas restaurant called Ali Baba, where they were entertained by a belly dancer, and some of them did an impromptu rendition of the rehearsed-but-not-performed "Nassam Alaina" for a select crowd. At around 4:30 AM, the Afropop crew finally stopped by a slot machine, and Sean won $17 on Megabucks.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Almost showtime in Las Vegas...

November 21, 2009

Yesterday saw stage rehearsals and sound checks with nearly all the musicians present. (The prospect of "special guests" still lingers...) Details of the finale were still being worked out, no easy matter with star singers from such different worlds trying to figure out to wind up a completely unprecedented event. Suffice it to say that John Lennon's "Imagine" has surely never been rendered in so many languages and with reference to so many styles as it will be tonight. We'll see how that turns out, but my guess is the vibe will be soaring by that time, and although the performance may not go exactly according to plan, it too will soar.

Sean Barlow arrived in the morning, and for us the highlight of the day was meeting and hearing the Iraqi singer Rida Abdulla. This man has a harrowing story of arrest, physical abuse, and escape from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He is also a prodigy classical musician and highly trained composer and arranger. It's a long and remarkable story that winds up with him a heart-throb superstar throughout the Middle East from his current base in Dubai. He has performed in the US before, but never in such a public and mainstream setting as Las Vegas's MGM Grand Garden Arena. Most of his musicians had their visas "canceled," after they were granted--a bizarre and disturbing story I'm still trying to decipher. In any case, lacking much of his usual ensemble, he is working with a team filled out with top-knotch players and singers recruited by Sahra producer Dawn Elder. Based on the way they sounded in rehearsal, this should be just fine.

We snagged an interview with Rida and found him soulful and charming. He gave us a taste of his extraordinary voice, and talked about how his Iraqi fans expect catharsis from the tragedy of their lives in his every performance. If they don't cry at least once during the performance, he has fallen short of expectations. At the end of our talk, Khaled spirited Rida away to coach him on a part for "Imagine," another twist in the developing saga of the finale.

At night, everyone was invited to a black tie reception in The Mansion, a gorgeous zone of the MGM Grand complex that has the feel of a lush, Mediterranean garden. Palestinian maestro Simon Shaheen led a small ensemble in a brief but superb performance that culminated with his unrecorded composition "The Wall," written in the wake of Shaheen's recent stay among orphan children in the West Bank. The piece served as a reminder that one goal of Sahra is to raise funds for childrens' charities. Shaheen summoned attentive MGM executives, including MGM Mirage CEO Gamal Aziz, close to the stage and then held forth with this stunningly deep 10-minute instrumental piece, which showcases his singularly beautiful violin mastery. Those near the stage were rapt through the entire performance. It's fair to say this was a rare moment in the history of The Mansion, a place generally reserved for the highest-rollers who visit Vegas. (The photo shows Khaled, Dawn Elder and Gamal Aziz).

Soon after Shaheen and his ensemble finished, the headliners of Sahra arrived. Khaled, with a red rose in his black jacket, sucessfuly charmed Mr. Aziz, and two were inseparable for the rest of the evening. Referring to the still-sore subject of this week's Egypt-Algeria World Cup qualifying soccer match, Mr. Aziz, an Egyptian, had quipped that Algeria "should not have done that"--i.e. win the match. But he sure didn't hold this against Khaled.

As I write this afternoon, the metal detectors and turnstiles are being set up at the Arena entrance, dancers are rehearsing their moves on the ever-more-fabulous stage, musicians are chilling in their rooms, or taking in the blazing Las Vegas sun, the tech and production crew are going all out, and the fans are gathering. Now comes the moment of truth.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Algeria vs Egypt

November 19, 2009

The Sahra concert in Las Vegas is all about promoting peace in the world through Arabic music. Ft Hood and the 911 trials in New York were not exactly the most harmonious news stories to have drop in the lead-up weeks, but there they were. Also vexing was to have the passion and violence of the soccer rivalry between Algeria and Egypt come to a boil in Khartoum literally on the first day of rehearsals in Las Vegas. Khaled's band is mostly Algerian, and Assala's is all Egyptian. (Khaled can be seen celebrating at a friend's place in Vegas on a YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qbn2Fxj3iSQ)

But today, when Khaled showed up in the rehearsal studio midway through Assala's practice session, you would hardly have known there was any tension. Khaled waltzed around the room, embracing or shaking the hand of each musician. Sympathies and congratulations were extended. Khaled cracked jokes in Arabic, which I could not understand, but I sure could see the result: warmth and hilarity all around. There's a reason the king of rai is headlining this show.

Meanwhile, Assala sounded fabulous in rehearsal. Sitting in a tight circle with her musicians, she departed from the set list at one point to lead an extended, mostly acoustic, flamenco jam. Assala improvised lines while her guitarist riffed like a native of Seville.

Musicians continue to arrive. The program continues to adjust. The complexity of this event--in terms of cultural and stylistic contrasts, and potential ego clashes--is rather mind-boggling. But one senses that it will all work out in the end. There are rumors of some pretty exciting surprise guests, but I'm not dropping any names until they actually appear on the stage. The stage, by the way, is looking quite gorgeous now, with lush lighting, and massive faux chandeliers hanging before it. Tomorrow the action moves there for a full run-through. Stay tuned...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

First day of rehearsal

November 18, 2009

Personally speaking, the most impressive aspect of the MGM Grand Hotel--an indoor city peppered with slot machines and poker tables--is the lion habitat! Not sure how happy these lions are, but there is something awesome about the way the coolly eye throngs of tourists with cameras through thick layers of plexiglass. Or so it seems. In fact, the lions cannot see nor hear the casino, just the enclosure's four waterfalls. They don't live there either, but rather on a reserve where 37 of them roam more freely. They come in twos to the enclosure, on rotation, in daily 6-hour shifts. Quite system, and quite a show!

A crew is busy building the Sahra stage in the Arena with trees, arches, video screens. Sahra is all about presenting a pan-Arab vision, and the diverse visuals in the show will compliment music and dance. Here's a glimpse of the stage so far:

The Sahra show will also include a tribute to giants of the film world. More on that in a later posting. But today, I got to interview a legend of Egyptian film, actress Nabila Ebeed, who has starred in some 86 films. She was fabulous and charming, and surprisingly down to earth. It impressed me that she patiently told her story to an outsider more or less clueless about her distinguished career. It also impressed me that she came here all the way from Cairo to be honored. She did it for the kids and for the symbolic unity this show represents.

Today's rehearsal was divided between Assala Nasri rehearsing with her Cairo based band, and Khaled's band working on two pieces for the finale. There are all sorts of interesting elements being added to the singers' core bands. String players from Sudan and elsewhere are coming, just two here so far. Six singers who worked with Fairuz make up a fabulous Lebanese vocal chorus. Lebanese ney and flute maestro Bassam Saba is here, at times directing the musicians. Sudanese composer, arranger and singer Yousef El Moseley is also on hand. He wrote arrangements for a Fairuz song that Assala and Khaled will sing, and also the big finale, an Arabized, international reworking of John Lennon's "Imagine."

The musicianship here is awesome, and towards the end of a long day, I was seeing some real spark and chemistry between people from very different musical worlds. This is what the creative force behind this whole thing--Dawn Elder--had in mind from the start. And when it started happening, she was beaming. Then back to her constantly ringing cell phones...

Arrived in Las Vegas for Sahra

Flew into Vegas on Tuesday night for the big Sahra spectacle at the MGM Grand. Khaled from Algeria, Assala Nasri from Syria, and Rida Al Abdulla from Iraq will headline an extravagant stage show featuring 100 musicians and dancers. All to raise money for children's causes in N. Africa and the Middle East. This is a rare one. Very few non-English music shows ever play on the big stages here, and this will be in the Garden Arena, set up to seat some 8,000. (Its full capacity is twice that!)

Met Khaled next to the big gold lion in the MGM lobby. He was just in from France and glowing as ever. Musicians are arriving from everywhere, Egypt, Lebanon, Dubai, France, and various parts of the U.S.. Rehearsals on for noon the next day. Can't wait.