Dec 3, 2009
Kaleta - An interview ....
Afrobeat music has become a global phenomenon with musicians from different racial and ethnic background buying into the uniqueness of the sound as well as the language which features predominately within the music. The language is pidgin English – a form of broken English that is spoken predominately in Anglophone West Africa. Although Afrobeat music is associated with Fela (who began the genre), the music, with its varied instrumentation, will not have had its uniqueness and appeal without those who played behind him. One of such people was Kaleta who was a former member of several top notch musical bands in Africa; the list run from King Sunny Ade, Fela, and Fela’s son, Femi Kuti to other big bands in the region.
Kaleta is the lead singer in Akoya – one of the predominant Afrobeat groups in New York. I got a chance to speak to him about life with his days at Fela’s defunct Kalakuta Republic, his music, politics and women.
What attracted you to Fela’s kind of music?
It was the uniqueness of his style of music: it was one that I had never heard before.
How did you start working with Fela?
I knew that Fela needed a guitarist because he had lost a lot of his musicians during a tour. I wanted to play for Fela and as such I went to the Kalakuta republic to meet him for an interview. I was kept waiting but then was finally allowed in to see him in the evening. During the interview, he asked me for my experience – I then mentioned that I played for King Sunny Ade (this was problematic because Fela and Sunny Ade did not like each other) based on that and my religious preferences, I wasn’t supposed to get the position. Fela decided that he wanted to test me. He gave me a rusty guitar to play. I played it very well and he was impressed, he then asked me to join his band and I did.
You cannot talk about Fela, without mentioning his lifestyle – What did you think about that life style?
I respect Fela because of the brand of music he played but I disagreed with the lifestyle – I was what could be called a church boy.
We all know that Fela’s lifestyle was synonymous with the women that he kept around him and that at one time he was married to about forty of them. Did band members have sexual access to these women or were they only for Fela’s use?
Well, they were there for Fela, he had the first go at them but a couple of band members were having relationships with these women. They were called Fela’s queens. Everyone knew that some of these women were sleeping around.
Apart from sexual relations with Fela – what other functions did the queens have in the Kalakuta Republic?
They prepared food for Fela, they served food to him, they also were traders. They traded to those that were within the republic as well as those who came to the shrine and that was how money was generated to fund the republic.
Who were these queens? What were their family backgrounds?
Many of them were girls who had run away from their family. The Kalakuta republic was a place where anyone could come in and reside. A lot of these girls were constantly harassed by the police.
Were there any rules in the Kalakuta republic? What were these rules?
Yes, there were several rules. Some of these rules were that you could not touch any woman during confrontation. No hard drugs were allowed in the Kalakuta republic.
Hmm, research has shown that Marijuana use is often times a pathway to other heavier drugs like cocaine and heroine, so what was the reasoning behind allowing the sale of hemp and refusing other drugs.
Fela believed that Marijuana was from nature and anything from nature is there for human beings use and consumptions. These hard drugs are artificially created – I think that might have been the main reason that he detested them. If anyone was caught using them, they were instantly punished, they were thrown into a cell, till the drug was waned out of their system.
Some of the documentaries that have been done on Fela have tied his cynicism of the Nigerian government to what happened during the Biafran war. Did the Biafran war affect you or open your eyes to Nigerian politics?
At first I wasn’t consciously aware of the war that was taking place. I was in the Republic of Benin when the war began and I remember Ibo refugees coming into Benin to stay. A lot of Beninese families took them in and took care of them. Eventually, a couple of them ended up settling in Cotonu which is the main business centre in Benin. I became more aware of the war when I moved to Lagos in Nigeria, Lagos wasn’t really affected by the war, everyone was going about their business as if nothing was happening in other areas of the country but Peter Obe did a book on the war, in which he showed starving children, people being shot at and killed in the war and then that was when it dawned on me. War is a terrible thing.
What informed your own political consciousness?
After listening to what Fela was talking about, it led to some discontent about the political situation in the country. We could all relate to what he was singing. It led to a mental coup d’etat.
I know that you are currently working with Zozo Afrobeat. What makes it so different from the other Afrobeat projects that you are involved with?
I use pidgin English which is the language of Afrobeat. That is the language of the common man. I use a lot of Beninese instruments like some of the drums used are from Benin. The music is still political. Zozo Afrobeat is a marriage of both cultures (Nigerian and Benin).
Why do you think that Afrobeat has such a strong pull on people regardless of where they come from originally? Afrobeat is huge in Japan and Sweden right now – why is that?
I think everything comes down to the uniqueness of the message, the jazz elements in it, the political aspects of the music as well as the man himself. Fela was a legend. You forgot to mention that it has a huge fan base in Israel as well.