The Afrobeat vets assume an unlikely new role: Broadway's hottest pit orchestra
By Jay Ruttenberg|
Just before 11pm on a recent Thursday, Jordan McLean and Stuart Bogie emerge from the stage door of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, toting a trumpet and saxophone, respectively. McLean is strikingly tall and thin, with a tidy mustache and intense eyes; he looks as though he stepped out of an old Richie Rich cartoon, in which he portrayed a scheming jewel thief. Bogie is shorter, bearded and diligently mellow, a scrappy Brooklynite adrift in Times Square.
Not a quarter hour earlier, the two had taken their bows in Fela!, the trippy Broadway show for which assorted members of their sprawling Afrobeat collective, Antibalas, serve as the rousing onstage band. Now they must make their way to Williamsburg for Antibalas’s second show of the night: a weekly midnight residency at Knitting Factory Brooklyn. Joined by trumpeter Eric Biondo—one of many Antibalas members who do not regularly play in Fela!—the men chase down a cab, toss their instruments in the trunk and tumble in.
“This is the first of many grueling Thursday nights,” McLean says.
“I don’t know,” Bogie responds. “The Afrobeat-head in me—he’s ready for more.”
“Same here,” McLean admits. “Playing the Fela! show is gobs of fun, but it’s so different when we can let loose. It’s time to exorcise some demons.” The taxi inches east, then zooms down Second Avenue.
Antibalas was formed in 1998, the year after the group’s artistic deity, Fela Kuti, passed away. “There were very few celebrations of his life,” Martn Perna, the band’s founder, says by phone. “Only a few heads knew about him—there was no scene for Afrobeat.” In the ensuing decade, Antibalas has become a New York fixture, both through its own work and high-profile backing gigs accompanying the likes of TV on the Radio and Paul Simon. While its membership ebbs and flows, the band’s mission has remained more or less constant: keeping Kuti’s torch aglow.
Thus, when Bill T. Jones began planning the Fela! musical four years ago, the Afrobeat nerds were logical brains to pick. The choreographer met with Antibalas members including trombonist Aaron Johnson and Gabe Roth, the group’s founding guitarist. Both were skeptical: “The idea of turning Fela’s music into a theater piece seemed, uh, strange,” says Johnson, the musical’s conductor. “It was like somebody wanting to do Mandela on Ice,” quips Roth, who left the band to concentrate on leading Antibalas’s sister group, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
Ultimately, the musical enlisted a handful of Antibalas regulars alongside simpatico ringers. “Antibalas has a level of expertise, knowledge and experience with the source materials that make them ideally suited for [this] project,” Jones claims via e-mail. Nonetheless, through years of rehearsals and an Off Broadway run, the musicians remained unsure regarding their involvement—specifically, that the funkiest band Nigeria has ever known could be portrayed by a bunch of screwy white guys. “We thought we were gonna get canned,” Bogie says, the cab edging toward the Williamsburg Bridge. “Come on, tell him.”
“We figured aesthetically, they would want to have a black band,” McLean says. “But I think the producers realized they needed this core of people, and the music was worth putting a mostly white band onstage.”
“And then they put us in leisure suits,” Bogie says. “We look like Mr. Furleys up there.”
“Come and knock on our door,” McLean sings.
The taxi pulls up to the Knitting Factory and the musicians head backstage. There, the rest of Antibalas is gathered—tuning, noodling and mainly chewing the fat. More than a decade into its existence, the group finds itself in an unusual position: It is the critical toast of Broadway, yet has been mostly dormant as a proper band. Although some of its rank now enjoy the wages of a clock-punching union gig, most remain uninvolved with Fela!, whether by choice (bassist Nick Movshon says he quit “nine hours before the show opened”) or circumstance (charismatic singer Amayo would have little place in a backing band). “All of this could take the wind out of the sails for Antibalas,” Bogie says. “That’s why we’re doing this regular gig—to inject some activity.”
Around 12:30am, Antibalas, now 13 members strong, takes the stage once again. The Knitting Factory crowd is younger and better-looking than that of Fela! It is tempting to proclaim the sweaty club gig more “authentic” than the musical—but in actuality, both events are simulacra of the original Kuti experience, only with different focal points. At the club, songs run longer and louder. Amayo, his face painted like Fela’s, whips up the late-night crowd; Bogie slides out from beneath McLean’s legs, saxophone ablaze. The band plays until 2:30am, then splinters off into the night, its beat silenced until tomorrow.