Nov 9, 2010

The day Fela was buried ... an article from 2008

“When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of Princes.” - W. S. ’s Julius Caesar

By the 15th of October 2008, the Legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti one of the greatest Socio-Political musicians to come out of Africa in three millennia would have been 70 years old. At the “New Africa Shrine” built by his son Femi in Lagos, Nigeria, Afrobeat lovers and fans have been celebrating the “Felabration”, a two week group of festivities to mark the 11th anniversary of his passing as well as celebrating his 70th “Birthday”. Nothing can compare with the day Fela was buried ten years ago. Millions of Nigerians travelled from afar and wide to be a part of it. Foreign “Felasophers” and “Felaphiles” came from all corners of the globe to attend. Fela’s death was the greatest shock to hit Africa, nay the World.

According to a press conference on the 3rd of August 1997 summoned by the late Professor Olikoye Ransome Kuti, Fela’s elder brother, Fela died of complications of AIDS the previous day aged 59. The death of the greatest force in modern Music from out of Africa drew to a close the greatest socio-political impact of African music on the world since the 400-year Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.

Fela was not an ordinary Nigerian, far from it. Fela means, “One who emanates greatness”. When he was aged 35, he rejected his European given surname of Ransome and replaced it with Anikulapo, which means “One who has death in his pouch”. Added to the meaning of his last name, Kuti that means”Will not die”, the echoes of his weird manifestation from beyond the grave possibly find a bizarre explanation. For a man whose military Head of State was once introduced at a European Summit in the 1970’s as, “The President of Fela’s Country,” his transition was as controversial as his life had been. The portents of his death were equally awe-inspiring. On the day that Fela died in a high-class hospital on Victoria Island Lagos, the whole State was overcast with great black clouds. Crashing thunder sundered the skies while flashes of lighting seared the eyes, but there was no rain. Surely, these were signs that a great man had died! If this could have been counted as coincidence, then the presages on his burial day were incontrovertible.

On the 12th of August 1997, Fela’s remains were buried at his Gbemisola Street Ikeja, Lagos residence after a Laying in State ceremony, which took place in the open arena of the Tafawa Balewa Square. To avoid the utter bedlam that would ensue were Fela’s remains to be brought to the arena in the daytime; the body was to be moved from the hospital to the venue at 4.a.m. After Remi (now late) the wife of his youth and mother of Femi his first son said her tearful goodbyes, the coffin was closed finally and the funeral cortège departed in a four-car convoy. Less than 400 meters on, the cars ground to a halt as the engines all died, and their headlight lenses shattered simultaneously. Next, a row of food shacks just beside the cars collapsed unto one another. Immediately this happened, all the engines came alive again, and the lights came on. The rest of the journey went without mishap until the cortège reached the venue and the Hearse halted beside the Dais. Suddenly, a long row of about 20 tall potted plants arranged alongside the pedestal toppled over in synchrony although untouched by human hands. “Fela again?” Everyone looked around fearfully. Was he sending signals from beyond the grave? Did Abami Eda, Omo Eleniyan really defy death? Did he really have the power to reach out from beyond the grave? Was he as potent in death as he was in life? Who was this enigma?

The giant Signs that formed the Coping of the funerary setting said it all. “BABA 70” (Overlord of the seventies) is an acknowledgement of his unequalled musical prowess. He was called “CHIEF PRIEST” by fans because of his pursuit of African traditional belief systems. He had gone into the study of the occult practices of his ancestors and his music amphitheatre was aptly named the “African Shrine”. Each musical show took on the form of a worship session and it began with the pouring of libation, invocations and worship at the shrine, with Fela as Chief Priest. The name “OMO IYA AJE” (The Witch’s Son) came about because of the reputed inherited witchcraft power from his mother who sent the Alake of Abeokuta; Oba Ademola II, one of the greatest Kings in Yoruba land (a nation-tribe of over 40 million) and custodian of the arcane traditions of the people, into exile. Some considered Fela an equally powerful male witch. The appellation, “ABAMI EDA” (Weird Creature) underlined Fela’s strange philosophy, non-conformism, unconventional attitudes and otherworldliness. Fela’s greatest nickname though, was “BLACK PRESIDENT” in recognition of his universal appeal to all Africans and as President of his “Kalakuta Republic”, within the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Fela was loved and followed across the spectrum of society. Millions were open in their adulation and many because of their positions of responsibility, hid their love for him in public and disguised themselves on their incognito visits to shrine. All were present to file past the coffin. Over a million Nigerians of all ethnicities lined up in orderly lines to take a last look at Baba 70, the music Maestro. Strangely, there was no pushing or shoving, and Businessman and Tout, Dilettante and Tart alike, lined up and filed quietly past the all-glass coffin to pay their last respect. It was as if no one believed he was truly gone and everyone accorded him the obedience they gave when he was alive. Fela could silence the greatest mob in his lifetime with one word. Such was the awe in which the masses held him. To them he was like a god. To be obeyed unhesitatingly. Fela meant something to everyone and was everything to some people.

A funeral procession that spanned the 26-kilometer breadth of Greater Lagos and involved close to two million people ground the City to a halt on that day, as all businesses closed down in fear of the utter mayhem that would be unleashed on the city. Fela was buried in the courtyard of his Ikeja Lagos home amidst jeers, singing, dancing and billowing clouds of Marijuana smoke, which Fela had named “Nigerian National Grass” in one of his songs. The serving Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Abubakar Tsav was present with a retinue of men. Tears accompanied the sudden shower that fell as Fela’s eldest son, Femi blew a farewell dirge on his Saxophone as the body was lowered into the grave. The Marble Vault was immediately sealed and guarded to deter those who might want a part of him. Fela was the only true champion of the masses; the poor, vagrant, the vagabond, the disenfranchised and the abandoned. These were the type that Franz Fanon had described as, “The Wretched of the Earth”. It is in this unfortunate cadre of life that hooligans, miscreants and drug addicts abound, those for whom violence is an every day fact of life with every waking moment a struggle for survival. They had lost their champion and were not happy. They took their anger out on the society. Thousands occupied the streets of Lagos beyond midnight committing rape and larceny more than six hours after he had been buried. Fela’s death shook Lagos, nay Nigeria. To some a hero had died, to others it was good riddance, but a legend lives on.

Fela is gone, but his music lives on. The outstanding legacy he bequeathed to the world is embodied in Femi Kuti and his Positive Force Band who tour the world for more than six months yearly; Seun, Fela’s youngest son who leads Fela’s former Band Egypt ‘80 to International shows; former Fela Band member and founding partner of Femi Kuti’s Positive Force like Dele Sosinmi and his Afrobeat Orchestra Sound now based in London; other Fela Band Members like Kola Ogunkoya who took Afrobeat into Christian Pentecostal Church Music; Dede Mabiaku, his protégé and ‘clone’; Keji the multi-instrumentalist, Tony Allen the King of Afrobeat Drums, Duro Ikujenyo the Keyboards Maestro and his ‘Age of Aquarius’ Band. Lagbaja’s unnamed music style reverberates with Afrobeat. Alariwo and many other Nigerians are fully Afrobeat musicians. Outside Nigeria there are bands formed in the Afrobeat genre such as Antibalas, Kokolo and Femm Nameless a 10-Piece strong all-Female Band, all based in New York … FELA LIVES ON!!!

by Femi Seguna,

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