Apr 16, 2010

Ntama Journal of African Music and Popular Culture: Fela Kuti - Rethinking Fela

Source: Ntama Journal of African Music and Popular Culture

© Eppi Fanio, Wednesday, 12 August 1998 14:03
Musician and former vice-president of the Music Foundation Archives, Lagos

Rethinking Fela

In life, and in death, he is relevant. When the poor passes on, it is in the tranquillity that such a passage desires but when Fela died, the crowd that he pulled when laid in state testified that the heavens themselves blazed forth his death, like that of a prince. Fela was not a prince. He was a king in his own right, the king of Afrobeat and the absolute ruler of "Kalakuta Republic", his own commune.

Many, his foes and his admirers alike, only thought of his past, his innovation of a genre of popular African music, his escapades, his brushes with the law, his anti-establishment stance and bohemian life style. They thought of the Fela they knew in the flesh. Few thought and still think of Fela as he is now. Where would he be by now in the beyond, because Fela as a conscious human spirit is still existing in another realm. All religions of the world teaches this. Documentary evidences of life-after death have corroborated that truth. So when the news of his death was still as hot as freshly fried "akara" (bean cake) balls, one of my daughters asked; "Daddy, where would Fela be by now, in heaven or in hell?" I was hit to attention. The question struck me as very significant because only very few people, perhaps, think beyond the contribution of Fela to music and his visible style of living.

Since it is better to satisfy the queries of tender minds instead of sweeping them under the carpet, I had to give a reply in the knowledge of the truth which has now been permitted to be revealed to mankind;"!t is not for man to judge where Fela would be. Wherever he may be, would be in accordance to the way he lived his Life while on earth, the purity of his thoughts and actions to enable his environment, his body, and all that he came into contact with in his day to day activities.
"This, in obedience to the Laws of the Almighty in creation, would propel him to spiritual community of similar propensities in accordance with the Law of Homogenous Species. It is a community where consciousness exists, but the environment is different to that of our material world". That was my answer to the question.

Fela's transition was shocking, but it was the newspapers' delight. Screaming headlines and articulate features graced the pages of the Nigerian tabloids. The electronics media, radio and television were not out done. It had been all praises, eulogies and analyses of his music with its caustic or lewd lyrics. That is the usual when a great man dies. Fela was born great and he achieved more greatness by virtue of hard work and his intelligence, hence he strode like a colossus. But great men do not incarnate by accident. They are meant to be beacons to Iesser beings. They are supposed to be role models, powerful opinion leaders with the responsibility to change the earth and make it a better place.

If people like that die, should people be made to look at only one side of theirexistence through this earth life?

It is in this light that an alternative focus is being projected on Fela, the music legend of our time. Such an expose perhaps could serve as a lesson to other mortals, great or ordinary whose spirits are still encapsulated in the gross material earthly cloak.

Fela's first constituency outside his immediate family could be taken as the music community. Before "Jeun Kooku", he was a Super-Star, a star to other stars, when he came back home from England in 1963 he was easily noticed. He would storm the Various music shows organised by the youths of the time in his shirt, front but tons opened halfway down, its collar turned upwards and a trumpet in his hand. Fela would perform if it was necessary with the youths and criticised the performances of the unabashed imitators of Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Cliff Richards et al. At "Kakadu" Night Club in Yaba, Lagos, he gravitated the youths like an exposed lump of sugar attracts a column of ants, to his one chilling Sunday afternoon shows. To some of us who were aspiring musicians, our saviour had arrived. We just loved him.

We followed his progress. We bought his records, right from when it was on Phillips to RK and until later times the EMI labels. We patronised his shows all over Lagos and Ibadan, especially if he was billed for the Havana Night, an annual youth Mecca organised by the Sigma Club of the University of Ibadan.

After his American odyssey, resulting in the impact of American black consciousness movements on his psyche, Fela became a new being. Apparently, his ego got the better part of him.

In music it was Fela and nobody else. He was instrumental to the organisation of music competition between himself and Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson who was then the king of hi-life music. His mother Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was one of the judges, if not the principal judge. Fela "won" and was proclaimed the greater of the two. He would discourage any of his band boys who furayed into any musical adventure. If any of them improvised on the musical riffs he had' instructed them to play, wahala had descended on that one.

He would compete with his acolytes. Some saw that as the spirit of competition but others saw it as ego-tripping per excellence. Young musicians learning the ropes of the trade looked up to Fela to lead them to organise a union' of musicians, to encourage and educate them. They were disappointed.

Fela was for himself and all those aspiring musicians were left to themselves, to the vicissitudes of the uncertainty of the emerging music industry. It is a fact that Fela's ego tripping and grip control of his buys had historical antecedent in the annals of Nigerian popular music. Hi-life band leaders were not known to be lovers of performers'; unionism. Obviously, such movements if they were permitted to exist would have led to the demand for a minimum wage and other conditions of service for the boys.

But with Fela's education and potential as a leader, he was looked upon to bring change to the status quo. He must have known the advantage of the power of collective, bargaining because during, his music tutelage in England, he was a performer and the Great Britain had a strung union of musicians. On hindsight, one may think that his dream of changing the Nigerian political status quo when he became ideological after his American tour might have been easily realised if he started his political movement from the Union.

Saying that Fela was intelligent is an understatement. In one of his shows, he claimed that University Professors were intelligent. He , as a Musician belonged to, the group of the intelligentsia. Whatever that meant, he displayed admirable superlative intelligence in his approach to the marketing of his music. The identification of his target audience, the lyrical contents of his music, the exploration of Nigerian "pidgin" English, young lady chorus line and dancers seductively dressed to appeal to that target market are the hallmarks of ingenious marketing. Mention should also be made of his close as sociation with Rod Publicity for his image building. All the mix qualified Fela as a music marketing guru. The question now is, was he really a freedom fighter for the masses, or did he use his knowledge of mass psychology to satisfy the need of his ego? What practical steps did he take to exemplify his ideological stance? Did he have the intention to truly free the masses that was why he floated Movement of the People - MOP - his unregistered political party? Or was his the case of an incarnated spirit who later on derailed from his mission? The answers are left for historians and other scholars to unravel.

What is common knowledge is that Fela's earthlife started in the proximity of freedom fighters. His father used the platform of education to free the minds of the young. He was the principal of Abeokuta Grammar School and a strict disciplinarian. Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, his mother made history by mobilising women to fight for their rights. In contemporary Nigeria his older brother Olikoye was first among equals in delivering the people from the pang of diseases, especially little children, his achievement in primary health delivery system is yet to be equalled. Opinion were traded on Fela's girls. The thinking in some circles is that with the amount of money he made at his peak, setting up vocational training for them in the commune would have been an ennobling venture. If he had done that instead of the apparent encouragement of laise-de-faire attitude to life's "enjoyment", society could have been better for it. Most of these girls would have had a productive future to look forward to. Fela's world wide name is unquestionable, when he died the Cable News Net work - CNN, British Broadcasting Corporation BBC, Radio France International and many more international broadcast media paid him glowing tribute. His fame could perhaps have been greeter if he had been positive to some ideas and offers that came his way. POP megastars, Paul Mcartheny of the Beatles, Ginger Baker, the drummer for the super rock trio Cream, among others were his admirers. Some of these stars were attracted to Nigeria because of Afrobeat. Consequently, they visited our shore for inspiration from African music from where Fela also drew his own inspiration.

Ginger Baker packaged an aggregate of Nigerian young musicians. Tunde Kuboye, Joni Haastrup, the Lijadu Sisters with Remi Kabaka to infuse into a new rock band, SALT for a European tour.

These foreign musicians were not given open arms by Fela. Similary, the firms at 'Tamla Motown Records' and tem - CBS-Records which offered international distribution deal, were turned down. He was, however, required to collaborate with American arrangers and producers for the project to be of international appeal. Fela turned all of them down. His reason, we understood, was that he would not want his music to be "adulterated". The thinking was that had Fela accepted those offers, it could have been an opener for internationalising Afrobeat. His successful outing could have opened floodgate for other Afro artistes. His music would have been the most colourful with the contribution from other talents. Consequently, some of his recordings could have burst the charts. By now Afrobeat could have been to Nigeria, what Reggae is to Jamaica our Soca , to Trinidad and Tobago. Afrobeat could have been a foreign exchange earner for Nigeria in international popdom. His refusal was an opportunity lost or at best delayed.

Fela had come and gone. His existence was not for nothing. He had a mission, but did he actually come to recognition of his calling? The answer depends on the perception of whoever is an swering that question.

To know Fela is to love him. His sense of humour and his depth of thought are admirable. Those who know him closely would always be thinking of him. They would miss him. They can, however, have consolation in the truth that he is still living though they cannot see him. The conviction is that the AImighty in His infinite mercy would avail him the opportunity to make straight his path for joyful activities towards the lunged - for heights.

Source: Ntama Journal of African Music and Popular Culture

© Eppi Fanio, Wednesday, 12 August 1998 14:03
Musician and former vice-president of the Music Foundation Archives, Lagos

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