One night at the Soraya with Fela, King of Afrobeat
Once dubbed “Nigeria’s greatest musician,” Fela Ransome-Kuti’s pioneering Afrobeat sound originated from a fusion of jazz, blues and funk elements with traditional Yoruba sounds during a session with his band, Koola Lobitos. Fela, as he’s most well known, formed the group while attending Trinity College of Music in London. When he returned home to Lagos, Fela began experimenting with his sound at the behest of his mother who told him, “Start playing music your people understand, not jazz.” Fela coined the term “Afrobeat” to differentiate himself from the styles of popular American musicians, like James Brown, that he blended with West African influences.
Afrobeat rose to prominence amid resistance and resilience. In the 1950s and 60s, African countries cutting ties with colonial rulers in pursuit of independence. Fela’s first U.S. tour in 1969 coincided with civil war in his native Nigeria.
In a 1975 interview, Fela told musician/researcher John Collins, “When I got to America, I was exposed to African history which I was not exposed to here…I had been using jazz to play African music, when really I should [have been] using African music to play jazz. So, it was America that brought me back to myself.”
Fela died from AIDS in 1997.
Fela’s musical catalog was the basis for an acclaimed musical that ran from late 2009 to early 2011. Multiple actors and musicians have stepped into the role of Fela as his story has traveled from Broadway to London’s West End to a tribute concert that recently made a stop at The Soraya on Jan. 21.
Fela! The Concert breathes life into Afrobeat’s creator, while getting the whole room on its feet. A handful of audience members made their way from their seats to the orchestra pit to dance to hits like “Everything Scatter,” “Water No Get Enemy,” and “Zombie.” The audience, a mix of different colors and backgrounds, gathered to connect over music they may or may not have heard before. (After all, a good beat is a good beat, and Fela did know how to create a beat.)
Duain Richmond, played Fela, mastered his essence and never let the energy in the room die down. He began the show by breaking down the major elements of the Afrobeat, the pulse of which is drum. Richmond described the drums as the “heartbeat” of it all. One by one, he approached each band member and more instruments were added to the sound until the entire band was playing a beautiful song.
Duain spoke with AfroLA to explain the process he underwent to connect to the Afrobeat legend Fela.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AfroLA: What has your journey been like with Fela! The Concert?
In 2009, but I wasn’t a part of the show then. At the time, the show was off-Broadway and my cousin, [insert cousin name here], was actually the one who originated the role on Broadway.
In 2010, I did my first audition. In 2011, I did my second audition and then in 2012, when the show left off-Broadway and was on its first run on a national tour in L.A., they wanted to see me for the third time. After finishing the first U.S. tour, the show headed to London. But, the tour still had to continue in the states. So, when I did my audition here in L.A., that was it. The journey started for me.
I did the last portion of the 2012 tour and in 2013, the show returned to Broadway on its second run. I performed it on Broadway with another actor, Adesola. The Broadway production is different from the concert series of the show. On Broadway, you’re doing eight shows a week—but that’s entirely too many shows for one person.
So after the 2013 Broadway run, we picked up another U.S. tour which I did solo. After a break, Maya, one of the choreographers, had this brilliant idea to create a version of the show that is easy to tour with but doesn’t cost as much and doesn’t have the intricate set of the Broadway production. And, that’s how the Fela! concert was born.
What drew you to the role of Fela?
I used to hear Fela’s music growing up. You know, coming from African roots and having African parents, you hear a lot of African music throughout the household. But, I never really understood or even knew who Fela was until it was time for me to do that first audition.
I remember when my cousin first booked the show and as they were workshopping it, he was telling me about it. I had a chance to see them on Broadway, and I was just blown away by seeing that type of story being told on a big stage. And, when the show finally went to Broadway, I saw it again and just [was] inspired a lot by the work my cousin was doing. To see all the big names like Jay-Z, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Angela Jolie, Tom Cruise…all these people coming to see the show and raving about it and knowing that we are telling a story about a West African icon. It was inspiring.
I think that, for me, the true love for the role actually came after my second audition because in those first moments I was very excited to step on the big stage. I knew the show was massive.
In your opinion, what did Fela stand for?
I think Fela stands for resilience and what it looks like when we as human beings rid ourselves of fear. Because, there is so much on the other side of that fear. I can only speak on this because I have experienced what that feels like and, to some extent, what I’m still going through. I always have to find an understanding and the thin line between fear and intuition. And Sometimes, they can look and feel the same way.
There is something amazing that happens once we go past fear. We accomplish so much. There are so many beautiful things on the other side of it. And, I think what Fela stands for is that idea of being fearless and truly finding change once we are able to go past our fears.
“Go live.”Duain Richmond, Fela in Fela! The Concert
Do you have any parting words for AfroLA readers, or any last thoughts about your experience?
Duain: If there’s anything I want to leave readers or the audience with: Go live. In December, I lost a very good friend. He died from a brain aneurysm in Atlanta. And, it’s crazy because the time of his death and the date of his death—if you put them together in alphabetical order–spell, “go live.” So, his last words to the world were, “Go live.”
What’s so ironic about that is his Spirit was, in a sense, like that of Fela. He was just a fearless human being who woke up every day with the intention of doing something not only to better himself, but to better the people around him and to experience something new. He was the guy who would wake up one day and call me and be like, “Yo, Duain. Next week, I’m going to take a trip to Colombia. Let’s go.” I’m like, “Whoa, bro. I gotta plan.” His response? “Man, forget that. Life is happening while you’re planning. Go!” There is such a beautiful life that is on the other side of fear and once you’re able to tap into that, go and live and experience this life, because it’s the only one that we have right now. Go live.