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20 Years After: Fela’s Essence, Riches And Glory

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In this report, SAMUEL ABULUDE looks at the estate of the acclaimed ‘Abami Eda’ himself, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and how his music and essence is galvanising Africans and musicians from other climes.

His music and philosophy reverberates from the tiny corner of his abode where he grew up in Abeokuta to the ivory towers of prestigious universities in America where his life and music is being studied. Fela Kuti is indeed an enigma. Twenty years after bowing out and quitting this stage of life and its vicissitudes, his essence looms large.

Olufela Ransome Kuti died on the 2nd of August, 1997 from a heart failure condition complicated by HIV Aids virus at the age of 59 years. The creator of the Afrobeat music genre, a fusion of the afro music which started with likes of Chris Ajilo, Orlando Julius, and jazz-highlife laced with heavy percussions and bass guitar, has built a repertoire of classic hit singles and albums in over two decades and half of his musical career.

Books and articles have been written on Fela’s life and essence but it has not been exhausted yet. Fela! Broadway was staged in London, Lagos and other cities of the world to showcase Fela’s music and lifestyle from the viewpoint of an informed foreign production company. An indigenous production, Bolanle Austene-Peters Production BAP in Nigeria recently staged ‘Fela and the Kalakuta Queens’ to the audience in which the command performance had representatives of the Federal government of Nigeria, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, honourable minister of information, culture and tourism and members of corporate Nigeria at the Terra Kulture theatre in Lagos. The performance had the audience spell bound as it chronicled the never been told story of Fela’s women- the Kalakuta Queens. The musical chronicled Fela’s activism and his unconventional lifestyle showcasing the angle of the women that were critical to the success of Fela’s music. One of the unconventional ways Fela proved that he valued his women who were majorly dancers and caregivers at the kalakuta shrine was the period he married twenty-seven (27) of his ladies on the same day on February, 20, 1978. This decision attracted criticism to the man and activist, Fela though polygamy was widely accepted in Nigeria and Africa.

Early Years

Born October 15, 1938 in Abeokuta, the music icon was born to feminist activist, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti and Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome Kuti, who was the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. Having attended Abeokuta Grammar School where his father was the principal as well as the music teacher, Fela was always running around creating jokes and laughter. Destiny beckoned on him when he met J.K Braimoh in school and he introduced Fela into music in 1955. His interest in music increased with his association to Braimoh who he later studied music with together at the Trinity School of Music in London. It was in London that Fela learnt how to play the trumpet for he had become deeply involved in jazz music.

Fela And His Music

At Trinity College of Music, Fela and his friend, J.K Braimoh formed Koola Lobitos, a jazz band that regularly entertained Nigerians living in London. It was while at the college in London that Fela met and fell in love with an half-caste beauty, Remi Taylor. They got married a year after courting. Remi Taylor-Kuti is the mother of Femi Kuti. The musician returned to Nigeria with his wife, Remi after finishing his studies and got fascinated by highlife music in Ghana saying, “I have never seen a country like this before, only in Europe, their nightlife was swimming in Highlife music.” Fela began playing root African tunes in Ghana and that was the genesis of Afrobeat music. He returned to Nigeria and started having regular gigs at Kakadu Night Club. Early songs of the 60s were Ololufe, Onidodo, Araba’s Special and others which formed 48 Highlife songs. 70s was the golden era of Afrobeats with Jeun koku, Lady, Expensive Shit, Yellow Fever, Zombie, Authority Stealing, Monday Morning In Lagos, Water No Get Enemy to name a few.

The 1980’s experienced a departure from Fela’s overtly commercial music as noted by ‘Beast of No Nation’ and others recorded by Fela and Egypt ’80 Band. His songs echoed the neo colonial slavery of Nigeria, and the lingering problems of Nigeria which is the hydra-headed monster of corruption. The songs included Shakara, Sorrow Tears & Blood, Army Arrangement, Colonial Mentality, Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am, Confusion Break Bone, Monday, Teacher Don’t’ Teach Me Nonsense, Eko Ile, Opposite People, Black Man Cry, Everything Scatter, Original Suffer Head, Mr follow follow, O.D.O.O, Kalakuta Show, Alagbon Close, Fear Not For Man, Viva Africa and others. Indeed Fela was a genius and was in a class of his own. Some have noted that the most musical aspect of Fela’s musical career remains the jazz oriented period of the 1960s. Fela sang on various issues from love, war, economy, and politics berating the military dictatorship of the day.

Fela, Police and Prison Years

Fela’s music made him a target of the ‘establishment’. Fela, in April 1974 was on his way to Empire Club from his Agege Motor Road apartment when he was arrested. Suddenly, Policemen walked into the unfenced house and straight to Fela’s sitting room. The police recovered weeds suspected to be indian hemp. All these made the Police force to torture him at several times, sleeping in different cells at different times. The lyrics to his songs are riddled with his defiance to everything evil in government. ‘Human rights na my property. This uprising will bring the beast in us’

The police arrest and other highlights were well crafted in the musical, ‘Fela and The Kalakuta Queen’ dramatized by Laitan Adeniji as Fela, Inna Eriza as Funmilayo, Uru Eke as Alake, Bunmi Olunloyo as Lamile, Dolapo Phillips as Laide, Titilayo Itiku as Jibike to name a few. Centre around the Kakakuta Queen, the musical showcased the brutal invasion of ‘unknown soldier’ debacle- a sad tale of injustice mirroring the extra judicial killings of the Police and military.

The role of the media especially Daily Times newspaper, reporting among other things, the invasion and Fela’s marriage to 27 women was evident in the musical show. Aside the stage craft, lighting, animation, make-up, costume design by Ituen Basi and of course the music band, the musical got encomiums from those that lived with Fela in the days. Fela’s pianist of 10 years, Duro Ikujeno noted that he was very impressed about the musical and observed that it was richer in content than the popular Fela Broadway.

Duro stated, “Fela made me knowledgeable during my time with him. This musical shows a lot about what transpired but it didn’t show Fela in the toilet which is a disclosure on its own”. The musical also had Desmond Elliot play the role of the Judge and Osas Ighodaro-Ajibade as Malaika, Fela’s love interest.

“We tried to give the women who were Fela’s wives a voice as they were perceived as prostitutes. You will also hear about Kalakunzo, Kalakunta and Edith which are names referred to things in the house,” says the executive producer, Bolanle Austene-Peters.

Back to his prison years and raids of Fela’s Kalakuta Republic, the well documented mother of all raids in February 18, 1977 had a great number of soldiers invade Kalakuta, burnt it down, beat Fela and fractured his leg, executed the most inhuman treatment by throwing Fela’s mother, 77 year-old Funmilayo Kuti out of the window of the 1st floor house. She never recovered from the shock and died a year later inspiring the classic hit ‘Sorrow, Blood and Tears’.

In 1984, Fela was arrested for being in possession of 1,600 pounds contrary to Decree 7 of 1984. He was however given bail and later arraigned on September 13th, 1984. Fela and later sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Fela was later released on April 14, 1986 thus becoming the ‘Abami Eda’ (weired one). Fela has appeared in Nigerian courts for 450 times.

Fela and the Kalakuta Queen

Fela was not a preacher in morality. Other musicians take the honour but his charisma overshadows his undoing. While Fela may be blamed for making a lot of girls rebels, his strength may have outweight his faults. His insatiable desire for sex may have brought balance his sexual relation with his kalakuta ladies. Marrying twenty-seven of them at the same time is a record documented in the annals of history. That decision irked the sensibilities of the public and media but was Fela bothered? No! One of the Kalakuta Queens who lived with Fela and experienced things first hand, Laide Babayale shed light to some of the happenings in Fela Empire. Explaining why Fela Fela married 27 of them forty years ago, Laide said, “Fela loved us and was not happy with the way people were treating his women. He married us because he wanted to make us proud; he did not want us to be disgraced. They used to call us prostitutes and Ashewo, Igbo (Indian hemp) smokers and this made us very unhappy. He knew how we had fought with him and suffered for him. We left everything, sacrificed everything just to be with him. We never abandoned him to surfer alone; anywhere they were taking him to we went with him. By marrying us he gave us honour and showed us appreciation. He wanted us to be respected as responsible and hard working wives.

Shedding light on how Fela’s mum, Funmilayo Kuti was brutalized, she reminisced, “Of course, I was beside mama when they came for her. I don’t want to relive the moment again. I never had any premonition that anything untoward was going to happen that morning. I was in Mama’s room and I had just made food for her which she ate and we sat down and were chatting, while Fela was sleeping in his room. Suddenly, all hell broke loose; I was lucky to have escaped with my life. At the hospital, I was Mama’s nurse and we were there together at LUTH and at General Hospital in Lagos Island. Her condition was so bad she could not speak for a while because of her injuries. I was the one feeding her alongside her first daughter.” Laide who still looked beautiful even in her mid-50s, said that Fela’s love for her and standard made her not to marry any other man afterwards. The lady who suffered from a medical condition as a result of the police brutality at Kalakuta said, “I was so in love with Fela that I could not remarry or stay with any man. His standard was too high. He was too generous. He was every woman’s dream; he was a disciplinarian who knew how to handle his women.”

Fela’s Family Hold Forth

Yeni Kuti, the first child of Fela Kuti noted that the family had forged ahead and maintained the ideals of their father and patriarch, Fela through conviction and dedication to what Fela stands for even twenty years after. She said, “My father would have been 79 years old this year if he were alive today. I learnt a lot from him and the family has tried to remain stronger together. Through sheer conviction and dedication to what he stands for, we have been able to make sure Fela Lives On! Felabration, a week long music festival and symposium on his dreams for every African youth, is held in every October and it has become an international program of celebration of Fela”

Imagine if Fela was still alive today, he would have reaped from his sweat- the numerous music production and videos he did are quality intellectual property that would have yielded royalties. Secondly, Fela would have been bemused and sad about the gloomy situation of Nigeria where neo colonialism and ex-military chiefs are still in power as politicians though. The fact that Fela’s songs are still relevant and real with the times- ‘49 sitting-99 standing yeye rolling’ are one of the lyrics that resonate with our present times of suffering and struggling.

Conclusion

Fela who was from a nominal Christian home changed to Africanism and the worship of all Yoruba gods who could be appeased with the blood of chickens and goats. His spirituality led him to predict the burning of Windsor Castle. Scion of Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti professes neither to be a Christian or muslim but is an avid reader and believes in the existence of Olodumare- the Yoruba God. Part of the image, the singer cum saxophonist wielded was Fela, the Chief Priest and Baba of African Shrine who takes delight in smoking igbo (weeds). In 2006, TIME weekly news magazine named 60 Most Influential Persons globally from its panel of experts and FELA was identified as one of the two Nigerians who have the most profound positive impact on the world in the last sixty years. Incidentally only 3 Africans made the list.

Many international afrobeat bands have sprung up as a result of the charismatic hold that Fela had on world music. What we call Afro pop music today has its strong influence from Afrobeat and pop music. The likes of D’Banj (remember his song Emergency), Oritsefemi, W4, Kola Ogunkola and other modern day music artistes credit Fela Anikulapo Kuti as their inspiration.



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