How time flies. It is now 20 years gone when we watched an obviously distressed Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, a former Minister of Health and the elder brother of Fela announcing on National television the death of the renowned maestro. The announcement of the professor, who is now late also, took the nation by surprise because not much was heard of his illness before the announcement of his death.
Fela’s popularity took the nation by storm in the early 1970s and those of us who were coming of age then and were in the university could not have been indifferent. Nevertheless for me Fela was just part of the musical trend of the time. I didn’t regard him any different from the Nigerian musicians of the time such as Bongos Ikwue, I K Dairo, Sunny Ade, Victor Uwaifo, Ebenezer Obey or the ones from the Western World that dominated our radio waves, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Jimmy Cliff, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Jackson 5 etc. Fela’s bohemian lifestyle and his rambunctious political rhetoric were yet to register with me. I also was fairly ignorant of the larger-than-life figure he had cut for himself on the Lagos-Ibadan landscape.
Fela and many other events were part of the culture shocks that confronted me when I moved down south of the country to do my National Service in 1976. Coincidentally, it was one the most tumultuous periods in the life of Fela himself and being in Lagos I became an unwilling spectator of it all. Initially I had looked at my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) posting to Lagos with trepidation but my brother-in-law in Kano who had travelled a lot calmed me and even bought a Nigerian Airways ticket for twenty five Naira, to enable me fly to Lagos. It was my first flight ever and on arrival joined my colleagues in the camp in the Baptist Academy, along Ikorodu road. However due to logistics challenges we were, a few days after, moved to Yaba College of Technology. The college was just a walking distance from Kalakuta Republic – Fela’s sprawling compound housing his club, Africa Shrine, and home.
However let me begin with the first culture shock. On the first Friday in the camp we attended the usual Friday prayers along with my classmate Abubakar Bukari held in a mosque within the vicinity of the college. Prayers over and we rose to leave when suddenly loud drumming emanated from inside the mosque. We were dazed but we stood to watch as most of the congregation joined in some dancing celebration processing which surprisingly was led by the Chief Imam himself. For me, coming from Borno where religious practices lack such fanfare, it was an amazing display.
A visit to Kalakuta was the second culture shock. Fela Anikulapo Kuti had established his base in that part of Lagos in a cluster of dwellings, with assortment of bars and other gaudy settlements. A nearby large barracks and its surrounding mammy-market completed the picture. Actually Fela living and operating in that environment was a kind of class suicide because had been born into an upper class family in Abeokuta. Both his parents were well-known. His father Rev Ransome-Kuti was a school Principal and was reputed to be the first President of Nigerian Society of Teachers while his mother, Funmilayo was a famous political agitator.
Fela along with his elder and younger brothers were sent to the United Kingdom to study Medicine but he opted to study music. After completing his studies he lived in Ghana and USA before finally settling in Lagos. By then he had created the musical genre called Afro-beat which was a synthesis of western classical music, which he had imbibed, and West African highlife, the rave of the time plus Yoruba fuji and other local influences.
By the time we were encamped in Yaba, Fela was at the height of his popularity in Lagos. His music and the pungent politics laced with it ruled the air waves. His abode Kalakuta which he had christened a republic, possibly in a pugnacious gesture to the military regime of the time who were constantly harassing him, was a must place of visit for young men. In the first few days of our stay in Yaba we decided to pay a visit to Kalakuta because it was the talk of the camp.
One night a group of us sneaked out and walked across. I had seen rough areas in Sabon Gari, Zaria and Bulabulin in Maiduguri but nothing prepared me for the scale of what I saw in the environ of Fela’s Kalakuta Republic. It was a seedy and sordid environment. But we were determined to watch Fela’s show and had to endure the company. After that first encounter I regularly visited the place whenever Fela was billed to perform, until the close of the orientation camp when I moved to my permanent place in Mende village, Maryland.
While living in Lagos I kept a keen eye on Fela and his music because I genuinely identified with the rhetoric in the lyrics of his songs. And whenever I had the opportunity I went to watch his show. Fela’s shows were my introduction to real live shows. He was the ultimate show man whose gigs were truly a pleasure to experience. Normally Fela’s shows lasted a number of hours when the audience is taken through a number of his songs interspaced with what was known as yabbis, political talk on topics ranging from military rule, corruption to apartheid.
He was a consummate musician who obviously took his time to prepare for his shows. The meticulous ways he coordinated his dancers and those who handled the instruments easily gave away Fela’s genius. He was multi-talented with the instruments, particularly with the saxophone which he handled with great dexterity. To date I have not seen in the Nigerian music scene any musician blowing the saxophone the way and manner Fela did. His shows were meticulously planned and I am sure his back up girls and the dancers must have gone through rigorous practice. That kind of meticulous planning, the control and delivery is what I, probably, only witnessed with one of Fela’s contemporaries, Bala Miller whose show I used to watch in the late 1980s in his Costain club in Kaduna.
It was inevitable that Fela would get into trouble with the authorities with the kinds of lyrics in his songs openly insulting high-ranking government officials which he rendered in Pidgin English, the language of the common folk in Lagos. His bohemian lifestyle, in open intransigence to the norms of society, encouraging smoking of Indian hemp and keeping run-away under-aged girls in his compound under his protection, was also a source of concern. Matters came to a head on a Friday 18th February 1977 when soldiers invaded and burnt his compound.
That day I had visited Zayyana Ahmed who was serving in the Central Bank Headquarters in Lagos Island and was in a bus getting back to Maryland when I was caught up in the confusion in Mushin around Fela’s Kalakuta Republic and watched the incredible spectacle of burning and looting going on. I had to walk most of the way to reach my house which was over 10 kilometres away. It was to Fela’s resilience that he was able to pick up the pieces in time to relocate to Ikeja and begin afresh while his fans and devoted followers only increased many fold.
Today Fela is the face of the Nigerian music that is probably most recognized all over the world. Wherever you might be around the globe when you hear that Nigerian music was going to be played it would most likely be Fela’s. Sometimes in 2010 I was visiting London and was pleasantly surprised to learn that a drama production on Fela was running in their National Theatre. That same production had been round the world to USA, Australia and many parts of Europe.