Apr 17, 2010
Pax Nicholas and the Nettey Family - Interview
“Pax” Nicholas Addo-Nettey’s early life was spent on Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic. He would eventually appear on all of Fela’s records between 1971-78, singing and playing congas like he had been since age 6. Eventually, a teenaged Nicholas even recorded solo projects on the side (much to Fela’s chagrin). In 1978 while at the Berlin Jazz Festival, Nicholas (along with Tony Allen and other members of Africa 70) decided to stay and avoid returning to Nigeria. To this day, Nicholas, now in his mid-50s, resides in Berlin with his two sons.
Na Teef Know De Road Of Teef, one of those solo projects Nicholas made in the ’70s, was reissued by Daptone and is out now. It was discovered by Frank Gossner, a collector and DJ who—for 3 years—scoured West Africa for records. Strangely enough, he found Na Teef Know De Road Of Teef in Philadelphia before leaving on his trip. But the record “remained somehow special” to Frank, even among the thousands of records he’d eventually find. He took it to friends at Daptone and, fortunately, here we are talking about it now.
Fela flouted convention, so it’s interesting to hear the product of someone who came from that environment. Imagine growing up in Kalakuta and Fela Kuti and Tony Allen are your bandmates? As expected, Na Teef Know De Road Of Teef is strong afrobeat with long songs that are swift and exuberant. It’s a lovely record from a young Pax Nicholas who was even lovelier when we recently spoke. Nicholas still gigs, still records with his current band, Ridimtaksi. Here are some of his stories.
How old were you when you started playing music?
I have always had an interest in music from the age of six. But the decision to go into music came to me at the age of 15 years.
Did you feel it was your life’s calling? Or were you just raised into it?
I would say, I was raised into it. When I was growing up there was a lot of music around me. In the church with gospel music, and in the community where people met from time to time to play traditional music with drumming and dancing.
How did you end up in Kalakuta?
In 1971, I travelled to Nigeria on the invitation of Joe King Kologbo and his family. While in Nigeria, he introduced me to his brother the late Igo Chico who was the main tenor saxophonist with Fela’s band- Africa 70. He then introduced me to Fela as a singer and percussionist from Ghana. Later I was asked by Fela to visit his shrine at the Surelere night club. The rest is history.
Were there a lot of other children there?
Yes there were other children.
What comes to you now when you think of your time at Kalakuta?
I enjoyed my time there. Thinking back, I miss the brotherhood, friendship and the daily involvement in music. My times at the republic will not be forgotten
What was everyday life like? How was Fela as a person?
Apart from all the good times that we had at the shrine, everyday life could be a bit complicated. This was due to Fela’s ongoing clashes with the government of Nigeria at the time. The Police sometimes came in unexpectedly with attacks and the like. Having said that there was also a lot of fun. Partying, playing music and enjoying the company of each other was the order of the day. It was a whole community in itself.
As a person, Fela was very kind and generous. He in turn demanded a lot of respect and accolades from the musicians and people around him. He was a disciplinarian who acted immediately to correct anyone who did not follow the laid down principles and rules that guided the band and those living in the ‘republic’.
Do you remember any lighter moments involving Fela?
Oh yeah, there were quite a number of funny stories, but one that I have not forgotten is this day at a Kalakuta show when the police invaded the republic and there I saw all of Fela’s lawyers, including himself, running for their lives. Now one would think that the lawyers were to defend him and yet they were running. One other funny thing was the way the police came. They came with cutlasses and axes and different kinds of primitive weapons and that was really funny. We had to talk and joke about that incident for many days.
How was he as an artist and musician?
As an artist and musician, I think Fela is a legend. He was a great man with ideas and dreams. He was a godfather of African music. His style, his message and his performance was unique. I learnt a lot from my close working with him.
How old were you when you joined Africa 70? How was playing with such a great band? Did they make you a better musician or did you make them better musicians?
I was 17 years old when I joined Africa 70. Playing with the band was a dream come true. It felt very good and especially at that age. It was a well-disciplined, tight and well-coordinated orchestra. Maybe the best on the continent of Africa at the time. Certainly they made me a better musician.
Did you meet any of the famous musicians ( i.e. James Brown, BB King, Stevie Wonder, etc.) when they came to Fela’s club?
Yes, I even played side attraction with B.B King and the band at Tafawa Balewa square in Nigeria Lagos.
What was the club like? Describe how you remember it.
The club was established mainly for Fela to play his music, for worship in African traditional religion and to promote and propagate his political convictions. The club was huge and well decorated with pictures of the late Dr. Kwame Nkrimah of Ghana and other African liberational leaders. He also had a picture of his mother and other items that he used during worship.
Talk about the first record you recorded—how old were you then? What was your mind like while making it? What do you think of it now?
I was 19 years old when I recorded my first album. I wanted to portray some social realities at the time. I realized that the society was segregated into people of the same kind moving together and doing things together. They understood each other better than those who were not in their circle of engagement.
It was like this: I was playing and touring with Africa 70 band a lot. When we came back from touring we always had some free time.
This time I would use to play gigs and record with the Martin Brothers. In 1971/72, we already recorded the highlife album “Mind your business” for which I composed the titles and sang without asking anything from them. That´s why they wanted to help me with my own album later. They introduced me to Tabansi, the boss of the famous Nigerian contractor and label Tabansi Agencies. Tabansi and the Martin Brothers are from the Ibo tribe and they knew each other very well. Jacob Martin, my best friend, was able to convince him to sponsor my record so that we could get it started. Now we needed a studio and the best place to record in Nigeria was Arc, the one that had been opened by Ginger Baker some years before. By that time Ginger Baker had already left, but the studio had been bought by a Nigerian and was still working. At this studio I made my first album.
Is it true Fela was so competetive that he didn’t like you recording your own music in the same studio he used? What was your reaction?
Yes. Well I felt disappointed and sad. But you know Fela was the boss and I could not do anything about it. Fela was unchallengable.
Talk about the making of the “Na Teef…” album. How old were you then? What do you think of it now?
I was 19 years when I made the album. I think it is still a great album and many should be given the opportunity to listen to it.
What is your memory of the first attack by Nigerian officials on the compound?
My memory on the attack is the brutality of the Nigerian police and soldiers at the time on innocent civilians. It was an ugly episode in the history of Nigeria politics.
Were you there when Fela’s mother was killed?
I remember faintly the day she was killed. It was a sad day for all of us.
How was your relationship with Tony Allen? How did his drumming strike you?
We have a good relationship still but we don’t play music together because of distance. He lives in Paris. He was in Berlin sometime back and we played together at concert. As a drummer I think he is one of the best Afro-beat drummers I have known.
Why did you decide to stay in Berlin?
I didn’t want to return to all the political witch hunting and police brutalities meted out to Fela and those associated with him.
How was life in Berlin immediately different than Nigeria?
Well, life was peaceful, more structured and obviously much better than in Nigeria.
Talk about your current music, Ridimtaksi—how often do you play?
It is a band made up of African and European musicians. The idea is to bring about a new Afro-beat style of music. We play on special occasions and musical events. We also have tours from time to time.
What do you think Fela Kuti’s legacy is to the world?
His Afro-beat style of music. He brought an awareness of the fusion of Jazz, funk, pop and African traditional music and thereby promoted African music to the rest of the world.
How do you remember him?
As a friend and musician, Fela left with the legacy of hard work, discipline, keeping a dream alive and obviously to keep promoting Afro-beat music. My experience working with Fela is what keeps me researching and bringing new ideas to create a modern style of African music fused with other forms of music.
Talk about the music of West Africa in general. What makes the music special to you?
What makes afrobeat special is the bringing together of different forms of music (soul, pop, jazz and classical) to make rhythm. Afro-beat is narrative and happy music with strong rhythms. That’s why it’s lasted.
Published concurrently on Soul Culture, October 22, 2009 by David Ma