Mar 10, 2011

Fela Kuti’s Mentor – Sandra Smith Isadore

Sandra Smith Isadore

I remember reading somewhere where Fela said the two most important influences in his life were his mama and Sandra Smith. She opened his mind and exposed him to new ideas, thoughts and music. I know many of y’all have never heard of Ms. Sandra. So I thought I would present her to you all with a few of Sandra and Fela’s words from Michael Veal’s book on Fela. I understand that the women in Fela’s group hated her and made her time on the road with Fela difficult. I guess she was more than a piece of tail and that did not sit well with them.

It is fascinating that I had never heard of Fela before I began associating with Naijas. I know 99 percent of AAs have never heard of him either. It is only the Pan African types and folks like me who know him by way of associations. Enjoy!

Words of Fela concerning Malcolm X:

“This book, I couldn’t put it down: The Autobiography of Malcolm X….This man was talking about the history of Africa, talking about the white man….I never read a book like that before in my life…..I said, ‘This man is a man!’ I wanted to be like Malcolm X….I was so unhappy that this man was killed. Everything about Africa started coming back to me.”

Words of Fela about Sandra Smith Isadore – his mentor. Fela said the two most important people in his life that influenced him the most were his mama and Sandra.

His words:

“Sandra gave me the education I wanted to know. She was the one who opened my eyes….For the first time I heard things I’d never heard before about Africa! Sandra was my adviser. She talked to me about politics, history. She taught me what she knew and what she knew was enough for me to start on.”

During the course of their relationship, Smith introduced Fela to a number of political and musical ideas that profoundly reshaped both his worldview and his musical approach. Through her, Fela became familiar with the political ideas and rhetoric of African-American political and cultural figures such as the Black Panthers, Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmicheal), Angela David, Martin Luther King, Elijah Muhammad, Jessie Jackson, and Malcom X.

Sandra Smith:

“At that point in my life, I was an extremely passionate person—especially when it came to blackness, Africa, and Malcolm X, things like that. But the Fela that I met was not into Africa as a concept at all. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that was something he was learning from me as we went along. It was like I was turning him on to Africa. Later he went to the other extreme, where everything about Africa was good, even the bad was good.”


“It’s crazy; in the States people think the black power movement drew inspiration from Africa. All these Americans come over here looking for awareness. They don’t realize they’re the one who’ve got it over there. Why, we were even ashamed to go around in national dress until we saw pictures of blacks wearing dashikis on 125th street.”

Through Sandra, the --- now renamed “Nigeria 70” – was finally able to secure a regular gig at a Hollywood club called Citadel d’Haiti. Although unknown, the Nigeria 70 quickly became popular and built a steady audience. Meanwhile, the influence of new ideas from Fela’s intense discussions with Sandra – combined with his continued desire for success—forced him to reexamine a number of his own fundamental ideas and ultimately to formulate a new conceptual framework encompassing music, culture, and ideology.

Fela words to Sandra:

“One day I sat down at the piano in Sandra’s house. I said to Sandra: ‘Do you know what? I’ve just been fooling around. I haven’t been playing African music. So now I want to try to write African music… for the first time.’ …I went to play this new number. I didn’t know how the crowd would take the sound, you know. I just started. The club owner was behind the bar and he almost jumped over it. ….’ Fela, where did you get this ****ing tune from? Whaaaaat!’ The whole club started jumping and everybody started dancing. I knew then I’d found the thing, man. To me, it was the first African tune I’d written ’til then.”

The new song, which he titled “My Lady’s Frustration,” was a homage to Sandra and an acknowledgment of the strain his career troubles placed on their relationship. My Lady’s Frustration is neither Fela’s old highlife-jazz or pure rhythm-and –blues. Rather it is a hybrid style in which elements from both genres are arranged in a mutually complimentary way.

Originally published in "Fela: The Life and Times of a Musical Icon" by Micheal Veal

Article published by

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