Fela! Tour Profile

Mar 31, 2010 2:17 PM, By Eric Rudolph



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Kevin Mambo as Fela Kuti (center) and the Broadway cast of <I>Fela!</i>

Kevin Mambo as Fela Kuti (center) and the Broadway cast of Fela!

New York City’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre got a blast of sub-Saharan heat this fall thanks to some wildly unlikely Broadway source material: the life of Nigerian musical firebrand Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

A controversial political and social figure, Kuti developed the Afrobeat sound in the ’70s and used his musical stature to rail against oppression in his homeland, only to be imprisoned and tortured by the military government. He was arrested 200-plus times and served an 18-month prison sentence that prompted international outrage from pop stars and politicians alike.


Fela! on Broadway Photo Gallery

A notorious free spirit, Kuti also famously married two dozen of his backup singers and dancers (all at once) and proclaimed himself King of his own nation inside of Lagos, Nigeria. He died of complications of AIDS in 1997, at the age of 58.

After a successful off-Broadway run, Fela! opened on Broadway in November 2009 to rapturous reviews and sold-out audiences. Empowering the Afrobeat throughout the show is the sound design by Broadway newcomer Robert Kaplowitz. Kuti developed the groove-centric rock/reggae/R&B/jazz fusion sound of Afrobeat coincident with the emergence of sophisticated live sound systems, so Kaplowitz’s design entwines the story and music with a big concert sound. To meet those sonic needs, Fela! is heard through more than 80 house speakers, creating a powerful, loud soundscape and, more importantly, complex sonic imaging with full surround.

However, Fela! is still a Broadway musical and so contains strong aural contradictions, as Kaplowitz explains: “We’re focused on the oddly opposing goals of a big, loud Afrobeat sound and the serious imaging and intimacy demanded by Broadway storytelling needs. We had to decide, sonically, is Fela! a Broadway musical, a 1978 night at the Shrine [Fela’s Lagos club] or a 2009 Afrobeat concert? The answer is, ‘Yes!’ Fela! has to feel like Afrobeat while still being a musical. The sound must tell the story, so sometimes the music is loud, big, strong and powerful. But we also have to hear Fela’s quieter message. It is such an odd animal.”

And while Fela! is fairly loud for Broadway, it’s at an even level throughout the house. “We aren’t pushing 141 dB out of proscenium speakers,” Kaplowitz says. “We’re putting out solid levels—about 82 and 110 dB from every house speaker—so everyone gets a full, powerful experience.”

That’s partially due to restrictions on speaker placement dictated by the scenery. Kaplowitz was given no room around the proscenium for his main banks, but was told to hang his system from a large lighting/video projection grid high above the front orchestra seats. So traditional A/B, L/C/R and line array approaches were out. Instead, 13 speakers hang from the front-of-house grid (six EAW KF695s, three d&b Q7s, two d&b Q10s and two big d&b J-Subs).

Energetically loud and in-your-face sound is crucial to evoking Kuti’s milieu, but clarity is equally important. Key to achieving these two sides of the tonal spectra is the show’s separate speaker systems for vocals and the band, the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat flame-keepers Antibalas, an idea Kaplowitz credits to associate sound designer Jessica Paz. They are using big rock ’n’ roll–style tri-amped KF695s for the band and modern vocal-centric d&b Q7s for vocals.

“We asked, ‘What does separating the band and vocal speakers buy us?’ More clarity in the vocals without turning the band down,” he continues. “I really like the d&b Q7s for vocals: They’re clean and transparent and cover the areas they’re designed to cover and not much more. I’ve also always liked the KFs. So when Jessica suggested we separate band and vocals, I knew the KFs were good at putting out complicated music, which this is. The KFs have got a real fullness and reproduce powerful instruments well.”

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