THE INTERVIEW: Musical Director Aaron Johnson of the New Off-Broadway Play Fela!
Aaron Johnson is the musical director of Fela!, an off-Broadway musical about the life and times of international protest figure and African musical icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti, directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones. You may know Aaron from Antibalas, the afrobeat band in which he plays trombone and conducts, but he has performed and/or recorded with Baaba Maal, TV on the Radio, Medeski, Martin, and Wood, Femi Kuti, The Budos Band, Chin Chin, Burning Spear, Dub Is A Weapon, Wu Tang Clan, and Taj Mahal to name a few. I asked him some questions in anticipation of the show set to premier August 5th.
First of all, how did you come to the project?
Rikki Stein, who was Fela’s manager and currently manages Fela’s estate, suggested to the producers that they contact Antibalas. I met Rikki in London with Antibalas in early 2001, and usually see him whenever we pass through London. In summer 2006 myself, Gabe Roth and Victor Axelrod met with Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and the producers so they could ask us some questions about the music and whether or not we could or would be able to help them work on this idea they had. Later that year, Antibalas had a one day work session with Bill and others and I guess he saw the potential to make a show.
As the music director, does that mean you choose the music or just arrange it according to the script?
Both, when I was brought into the project, there was no script, it was an eight page treatment, and they had a few songs they were sure they wanted to use, but much of the material I suggested for musical or lyrical reasons, and the script has grown out of that process.
Who are the other musicians from the local Afrobeat scene playing in the show?
From Antibalas Jordan McLean, Stuart Bogie, Nick Movshon and Marcos Garcia, from Akoya, my old friend Yoshi Takemasa, who I have known longer than anyone else, since we played together in a band called Tadanoshin in 1997. Then some other great musicians who I have met over the last 10 years working in New York.
In the spirit of Fela, does the show advocate political action and resistance?
What are some of the other projects in which you play besides Antibalas?
I play with Ticklah, I was an original member of the Fu Arkistra
and Dub is a Weapon,, sometimes I play with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, The Budos, The El Michels Affair, TV on the Radio, Bronx River Parkway, The Menahan Street Band, countless other bands sporadically around the city.
Who are some of your favorite afrobeat bands on the scene locally and all over the world?
Ah, hands down Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80, and if you want to call the Budos afrobeat, but beyond them and Akoya, I have not heard a lot of real afrobeat bands out there that have done anything for me.
Who are some of the artists you’ve enjoyed collaborating with the most in your career?
I love collaborating with my friend’s bands, TV on the Radio, Chin Chin, The Dap-Kings, The Budos, those are some of my favorite people and musicians.
In Antibalas, there are many different sensibilities and personalities that all affect the group’s sound in different ways. If you look at people’s side projects, you can see each sensibility on its own, such as Amayo with Fu-Arkistra, Victor Axelrod with Ticklah, and Marcos Garcia with Chico Mann; how would you describe your sensibility and how it effects the group dynamic?
I don’t know what my sensibility is, but I think after I started conducting Antibalas in 2001, the band evolved from a grooving but very sloppy and nonchalant group of musicians to a much tighter band. I think more than anything that has to do with me being able to feel the energy on stage and in the crowd and know where to direct the music, in terms of setlists, song arrangements, and also keep it really loose.
As an afrobeat musician, how challenging is it to make a living in such a big band, and how much is it a testament to your passion for the music that you play the genre you do?
I am a musician, not an afrobeat musician, and I work in so many different genres, my passion is GOOD MUSIC, in my opinion of course. An “afrobeat musician” would not be able to do what we are doing with Fela’s music in this new musical
For more information on the off-Broadway production of Fela! including the performance schedule and prices, go to FelaOffBroadway.com