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I Served Fela And Seun For 51 Years – Baba Ani

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Pa Lekan Animashaun popularly called Baba Ani is a musician and was the bandleader of the famous Egypt ’80 which outlived Fela after his demise in 1997. Still agile at 83, he speaks with SAMUEL ABULUDE on a number of issues including how he met Fela and his plans to complete his music studio.

What have you been up to?

I have been here in my home enjoying the gift of life given to me by Allah the most beneficent and merciful. I am still doing music.

How did your love for music start off?

My love for music had started when I was young. I had a brother who was a musician, Mr Waheed Oladipo Williams. He was a naval officer and gave me a note to see Chris Ajilo at Herbert Macaulay, Yaba. This was in 1959.  Chris Ajilo taught me the theory and practice of music. His band, Chris Ajilo and the Cubanos, was the resident band at the Federal Palace Hotel.

How did you join Fela’s Band?

I joined Fela’s band in 1965. He was a producer at the NBC.  I used to come there to perform for the NBC Dance Orchestra organised by the late Pa Fela Sowande. Fela had come back from London then. I read about him in the papers that he wanted to start a new band. So I met him in front of the reception and told him that I wanted to be part of the band. He asked me if I could read music and I told him yes. He also asked if I had my instrument, I told him I had my baritone saxophone. So Fela told me to meet at his house, 14A Agege Motor Road, Mushin, the one razed down by the soldiers, at a particular date. When I got there, I met Isaac Olasugba, Tony Allen and Benson Idonije. Fela had put down a piece and asked me to play it. After playing it, he tapped Benson Idonije saying, “I’ll take him”. That was why I joined the band, Fela Randsome Kuti and the Koola Lobitos. Our first performance was at Abalabi, a place at Idi-oro in Mushin. That was in March 1965. After we came back at the Berlin Jazz Festival of 1979, Fela disbanded the band asking whoever was interested to re-apply. He called me aside that I was going to be his new bandleader.

So how was the experience then?

It was great and not one that could be bought with money. Also, I was part of Chris Ajilo band for a short time. We were supposed to travel and perform somewhere and I excused myself, that was how I was taken off the band. I was also privileged to be part of the Independence National Band (Orchestra) of 1960 with the likes of Zeal Onyia, Ezi Arinze, Chris Ajilo and others. It was very dignifying to be among the orchestra as there were other big names that were not part of it.         

What did Fela see in you that caused him to make you bandleader?

He saw in me a musician that could read and write music. He saw in me a diligent person and one that was loyal.

At which point did the music changed to revolutionary music?

The band was singing socialising music, music like Onidodo Onimoimoi, Oloruka gb’Oruka and we had some success. Then we had a tour of the United States in June 1969. In the United States, Fela was exposed to revolutionary movement which was the black power movement. Fela had a girlfriend, Sandra Daniel, who was later given the Nigerian name Isidore. Sandra who was influenced by that movement brought Fela into it. That was a major change in the life of the band and Fela and as soon as we came back from the US, he started singing those songs like ‘Why Black Man Dey Suffer’, Suffering & Smiling, I go Shout. The press called the genre Jazz Highlife and later Afrobeat.

What was it that made Afrobeat the music of the time and who created Afrobeat?

Yes the debate has been on as some said Orlando Julius created Afrobeat, some also said Chris Ajilo created it. But to me, Fela started Afrobeat. Highlife was the music of the days in the 60s and 70s. And highlife is composed of major keys, major chords and sang on major scales. But Afrobeat is played on minor keys, minor chords and minor scales. A good musician can play on minor keys if he is skilful. It takes a lot of discipline to be part of a band talk more of a band such as the Egypt 80 Band. For me I took my job seriously and my ability to read and write music gave me an edge.

What was it that made Fela stand out?

He refused to deal and associate with the politicians whom we called “polilooters.” He stayed with the masses and fought for them. Fela refused to collect money from the polilooters. He believed in his principles which are integrity and fair play. During the FESTAC ’77 Jamboree, Fela was part of the committee and after some disagreement that violated his principles; he pulled out not wanting to be part of it. And as you can see, the problems he sang about are still there and are compounded today. Look at where I live now, (Abaranje in Ikotun, Lagos), the frontage are supposed to have been done now but because of corruption, it was left abandoned. So Fela was a man who came to open our eyes to the ills of our government and others.

How about your own songs?

My first album was produced in 1995. The title was ‘Low Profile Not For The Blind’. It has songs like Se Rere, Selfishness, World Materialism and others. I got to know Se Rere was used as sound track in the Mohammed Alli’s movie, Rumble in the Jungle. But I don’t get royalties from it. I hope to do a re-mix of some of my songs and record new ones. I served Fela for 32 years and Seun Kuti for 19 years performing with the Egypt ’80 Band. That is a total of 51 years. Have I not tried? I retired from Egypt 80 Band in December 2016. I saw in Fela a messiah through his music. The change in the name of the band was to reflect Fela’s Pan Africanism. From Koola Lobitos, to Nigeria 70 to Africa 70 and to Egypt 80, it stemmed off from the civilization started from Egypt.

How are you coping with life?

God granting me life, I will still be churning out albums. But this is my house, ‘I no rent house’. I thank my Creator; he gives good health, good mentality. He gives me everything I need. Although ‘I no get plenty money’. I will still have a band. I am building a studio in my house downstairs. So I will sing till death. Thank God that I have lived this long and will still live longer than this by grace of Olodumare. I am 83 years old now.

Having worked with Fela and the Kutis, one would have thought you would be living in Ikeja close to the Kutis and not here?

Let me tell you something, they don’t even want to see my face except for Seun because I was being used by Olodumare to keep Fela’s band alive after his death. Seun even went further to put my songs in the albums; his first three albums have my input them. I tell you something, Seun’s mother’s properties was thrown outside the house and it was Beko that salvaged the situation and asked her to move in. Then the matter eventually went to court. Incidentally, the judge handling the matter was a woman and called Yeni and Seun’s mother and reconciled the two. I was told they hugged themselves. So Seun was allowed to be performing at the shrine at the last Saturday of the month. Even an incident happened that Seun relayed to me that anytime my name is mentioned, Femi always fuses and Seun advised that I should not come to the shrine because of that. “So where is that your Baba Ani? I don’t want to see his face here.” That is Femi saying ‘that your Baba Ani’. That is someone that served your father for 32 years. The money your father made from the band was used to send you to school and took care of your mum. Can you see how life is? All the works that they did with their father, they are the only one enjoying the royalties. Won fun wa ni nkankan (meaning we were not given anything from the royalties). That is why you don’t see me at the Shrine. I am not welcomed there. I have not been invited to anything that has to do with Fela including the Kalakuta museum launching and others that have happened. Even government officials don’t reckon with us that suffered with Fela. That is the way they want it.

Did you also involve yourself with Igbo (marijuana) intake and all that went on at Kalakuta?

Oh yes, I did and I had some of the girls as my own, three of them. But you know I was married then. I met Fela in 1965 and got married in 1967.  Another thing that made me stay with Fela was that he performed at my marriage, at the Agarawu area of Lagos. He came with his whole family to my marriage; Femi, Yeni, his wife and his wife’s mother that we used to call Nanny.

How do you feel the impact of Fela’s song on today’s musicians?

What I can say is that a lot of today’s artistes love Fela’s songs but don’t believe in his ideology. They are using the songs to make money. My advice to today’s musicians is to learn their trade well about the music they are singing. Whatever you want to learn about music, know your trade well and don’t be distracted by fame, women, drugs and alcoholic drinks.

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