Fela Kuti clearly knew about Motown as he was putting together the Afrobeat style that would leave his creative imprint on the world.
So it makes sense that a bit of Motown would blow back in “Fela!” the Tony Award-winning stage musical celebrating his life and career.
That comes in the form of Alex Harding, the Detroit-born baritone saxophonist in the “Fela!” band. Harding has been with the company since its origins in 2008, and he says the experience has been “the best thing I’ve ever done” in his still-young but accomplished career.
“The main thing is it’s a good show — it’s about something,” says Harding, 44. “Most shows you go to and it’s like, ‘We’re gonna break into song now’ or ‘We’re gonna sing a sad song here. ...’ But this show really has meaning about a man’s life and what he stood for and something that’s still extremely relevant now. It’s all still right there.”
Harding is one of four “Fela!” folks with local ties: Assistant director Niegil Smith and co-producer Edward Tyler hail from Detroit, while creative director and associate choreographer Maija Garcia is from Ann Arbor. The saxophonist was born in Highland Park and raised on Detroit’s west side, attending Northwestern High School to study with Ernest Rogers, who switched him from tenor to baritone saxophone.
Harding also learned from Detroit music legends such as Yusef Lateef, Herbie Williams and Motown producer and bandleader Thomas “Beans” Bowles.
“Beans was The Man for me,” remembers Harding, who played with Wynton Marsalis and Donald Byrd while he was in high school. “For my first lesson, I got to his house, and before we even started, he comes in, stands over me and says, ‘Boy, I tell you what — if you ain’t got no sound, you ain’t got s***.’ He taught me that the only one, true personal thing we have is our sound. That really made an impression on me.”
Though he won scholarships to the University of Massachusetts and the Aspen School of Music, Harding opted to become a full-time musician after high school, moving to New York City during March of 1993 and quickly building a résumé that could include work with Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake, David Murray’s Big Band, Hamiet Bluiett’s Baritone Group, the Sun Ra Arkestra, the Roy Hargrove Big Band and Aretha Franklin. Harding also became part of the Julius Hemphill Saxophone Sextet, meeting “Fela!” director, choreographer and co-writer Bill T. Jones when the troupe played at a 2006 Fela tribute in Brooklyn.
“After the show, Bill came up to me and said, ‘You! I heard that horn in my dreams. Would you be in my show?’” Harding remembers. “I was like, ‘All right. Cool. No problem. Let me know.’ I didn’t hear for a while, so I figured it wasn’t happening. Then, here comes 2008 and I got an email from the musical director, Aaron Johnson ... and I said, ‘Count me in!’
“We started June 16 with workshops, and I’ve been with it ever since — and I hope I always am. It’s just been an amazing experience.”
Fela!” runs Feb. 14-March 4 at the Music Hall Center, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $27-$97. Call 313-887-8500 or visit www.musichall.org.
Send your thoughts and comments to