Mario Caldato, Jr. on FELA KUTI
interviewed by Jay Babcock
This short article was originally published in Mean Magazine in 1999 as one of the many sidebar to the massive feature on Fela Kuti (see below for links to the other articles that comprised the feature). Mean’s publisher, Kashy Khaledi, wanted to have contemporary artists of a certain notoriety talk about their admiration for Fela, who we knew would be an unknown, slightly outre quantity for most of the magazine’s readership. These sidebar interviews would be a way in to digging Fela for some of the less-curious readers.
It was a good idea, and easily executed, as there were plenty of Fela admirers ready to testify—including the semi-legendary Mario Caldato, Jr. (aka Mario C.), a producer, multi-instrumentalist, and skilled carpenter, at the time best known for his work on the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head lp.
I interviewed Mario at his home in late summer ’99…
Q: How did you first come across Fela?
Mario Caldato: One day I heard about this guy Fela coming to town. They just couldn’t stop talking about amazing the guy was. And he was gonna be at the Olympic Auditorium. I was working for a promoter at the time, Milt Wilson, who did Heavy Traffic Productions and was responsible for bringing all these reggae bands from Jamaica directly, and he started doing African shows also. He actually hired me. I rented some DJ turntables and I set up for the opening, you know, they were playing records, and I was there at the show, working the show. I heard all this hype about the guy, but hadn’t really heard his music. I didn’t know what I was in for.
As soon as he came on, the power was just so intense. As soon as they got onstage everybody just got hypnotized…the rhythm, the dancing, the lights and the sound, it just all came together. Unbelievable. A 20-piece band as I recall and 15 dancers. They did four or five songs all night. It was just an experience—I couldn’t stop talking about it. That’s when I started listening to his records and buying em whenever I saw them.
A couple years later, he played at UCLA at Wadsworth…I actually took the Beasties. We were at the studio working on Check Your Head and I told them, hyped em up, ‘This is an incredible show, we gotta go see it.’ It was just an EVENT. We were all blown away. Log drums and talking drums, two bass players, four guitars, horns, percussion… The way he orchestrated and commanded the show was very impressive. I hadn’t seen anybody conduct a show, sing, perform, direct, play keyboards, play horns, play percussion…he even got on the drums, and would go and turn the amps up and down. Creating dynamics, you know? Doing everything!
They’re still the best concerts I’ve been to, as far as overall involvement of audience and just music and dance and everything.
Fela! is now playing on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neil Theatre. Info: http://felaonbroadway.com/index.php
Here’s a review of the earlier off-Broadway production of Fela! from C & D’s column in Arthur No. 31 (Sept 2008).