The Black Blues Brothers: 'We are like a family; we give courage to each other'
- Claire Sawers
- 30 July 2019
This article is from 2019
The classic American film has been reimagined for five Kenyan acrobats by an Italian professor from a circus dynasty
Italian academic Alessandro Serena knows a thing or two about circus. Born in a caravan, Serena – a professor of circus history and street entertainment at the State University of Milan – is part of an impressive Italian circus dynasty, touring with his performing parents as a child. His acrobat mum wowed crowds with her elastic body, his trapeze artist auntie was a TV star who tamed doves and lions, his granny and grandad had a routine where she lifted him effortlessly up on her shoulders.
Serena has never been tempted to slip into Lycra or raise any dumbbells himself, but his passion for circus runs deep. He's written books on juggling, edited circus magazines and worked as a consultant everywhere from TV to the Venice Biennale. He has also been managing acts since the 80s, so during a lecture trip to Nairobi a few years ago, he made a visit to Sarakasi, a community circus school and artist development scheme. He watched five young acrobats do a slick act of hand balancing, tumbling and human pyramids, and signed them straight up. That was almost five years ago and The Black Blues Brothers has now performed to more than a quarter of a million people across 500 dates in 200 cities.
'Back then we were doing more of an African show,' recalls acrobat Seif Mohamed Mlevi. 'It was ok, it was part of our culture and tradition about the jungle and warriors. But Alessandro said he didn't want us to do that show, he wanted to write something especially for us. Not the African jungle show, but something American.'
Serena created a show based on the 1980 hit film The Blues Brothers starring Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Aretha Franklin and James Brown, but specially adapted for his five-man troupe. The circus show is set in an American bar and features songs from the musical and voiceover blasts from Belushi and Aykroyd. 'Soul Man' plays while they do back flips in full suits and shades; by 'Shake a Tail Feather', things have warmed up and they've shed a few layers as they leap through skipping ropes doing press-ups; and for 'Sweet Home Chicago', they've got volunteer kids up out of the crowd to try to limbo under flaming poles with them.
'They work together like brothers,' says Serena. 'I wanted the title to show that. And I wanted the show to have the rhythm and blues soundtrack to go along with their energy and sense of fun – what they do is incredible.' Although the title may look problematic on posters plastered around town, the performers don't see it that way. 'We don't have parents back in Kenya, we are like a family to each other. Brothers. We give courage to each other,' says Bilal Musa Huka.
'We used to perform in street shows in Nairobi for no money, then pass a hat around,' says Mlevi. 'Now we have a salary and when we go home to Kenya we can help out our families. The younger kids in Sarakasi learn from us. They want to be like us one day!'
The five acrobats trained for years at Sarakasi before getting the chance to tour the world. 'The school taught us discipline, about being professional and punctual, working hard. Respecting others. This isn't a job for us – it's a passion. Even when the five of us are fasting during Ramadan, we still give the show the same energy every night. We might lose a bit of weight, but the energy levels stay the same.'
The Black Blues Brothers, Assembly Rooms, 3–25 Aug, 4.30pm, £14–£16 (£13–£15). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £10.