By Anote Ajeluorou
The Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2012), which ended a fortnight ago, also had plenty of music in its menu. Apart from the stage performances, Crown Troupe of Africa also launched its Afro-centric CD, which some critics see as setting the pace for a culturally oriented music in the country. But beyond these, there was interface between music and the book as two documentarists got down to talking Fela in the imagination of writers.
It was vintage CORA Art Stampede with the theme, The Music in the Book, the Book in the Music.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti still commands such huge influence that some 15 years after his death, his is still a fitting subject for writers for whom Fela’s mystique continues to wax really strong. And so at the usual Committee for Relevant Art’s Arts Stampede at LABAF 2012, elder artsman, music writer and Fela’s first manager of his Koola Lobito band days, Pa Benson Idonije and poet, Mr. Chiki Ofili (author of Weight of Waiting), two of Fela’s documentarists, got talking about the essential Fela.
Both writers have two books on Fela yet to be properly published, but the subject of their preoccupation is already public knowledge. Idonije’s forthcoming book, This Fela Sef! is an insider account that attempts to illuminate certain aspects of the iconoclast’s life. It’s what he called a book of musical odyssey of Fela. Ofili’s Fela’s Rearrangement, on the other hand, is a poetic excursion into Fela’s persona, as seen and expressed by different Nigerian poets on the enigmatic chief priest of African Shrine, self-styled Ebami Eda!
These two books are yet additions to the many already written about the man, perhaps the most popular being the one written by Cuban author Carlos Moore entitled, Fela: This Bitch of a Life. Azuka Jibose, who reported extensively on Fela as a journalist also has Fela, My Fella coming to join the essential Fela book cult that is on the ascendancy.
But at LABAF 2012, Idonije and Ofili, with the moderation of former editor of Fame magazine, Mr. Femi Akintunde Johnson (also known as FAJ) the life and times of Fela were relived afresh. Considering the range and scope of Fela’s life – his iconoclastic music, his religion, his sexuality, his activism, FAJ (although he said he was enarmoured by Moore’s range of writing in This Bitch of a Life) wondered if the man could effectively be captured and contained in a book form.
Idonije did not think so. He noted the impossibility of that task, saying that there were and still are so many aspects to Fela that are yet to be recorded. He said, “It’s impossible to capture Fela in one medium. There are so many aspects to Fela. If you do a vox pox on him, there will emerge many views. So, it’s not easy to capture in one swoop even if you were to look at him from the political spectrum. Many in politics and authority or government were threatened by his music. He went to jail every month because of his radical music”.
On documentations on Fela, Ofili said what he sought to do in Fela’s Rearrangement is to look at Fela through the medium of poetry, the highest form of language, since others had looked at him through his music. Ofili found this convenient perhaps as the only way the man’s vastness could be captured to some extent, especially since Fela’s persona was mainly expressed through the instrumentality of language both in his music and yabis.
Ofili, who first encountered Fela as a pupil and school mate of one of his children when he visited his school to register his displeasure with a teacher, stated that in using poetry to document Fela, “I pursue what I call the Fela biopoetry, which is easier for me to do as a poet working in collaboration with other Nigerian poets. It’s important we take documentation seriously through film, book or other forms to preserve important historical moments and personalities”.
On whether Fela’s legacy was being kept or lost through the various features of modernity and his protest music having become a communal thing enjoyed now also by those he lampooned, Idonije opined that Fela’s creation Afrobeat has already gone commercial. He also stressed that Fela’s music was the gateway to Nigeria’s modern, newfound hiphop version that is ruling Africa’s music airwaves.
He expressed regret that Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun were more popular in Europe and America than at home and that European bands were playing Fela’s music with remarkable success particularly because of the jazz orientation of Fela’s music, which most musicians in Nigeria and Africa are yet to master. For Idonije, “What Fela lost fighting government, he has gained in the internationalization of his music. Even the elites, whom he fought are now enjoying the music and even benefiting from it”.
On why Fela changed his band’s name from Kalakuta Republic to Egypt 80, Idonije, who was first to manage Fela said the change came about when Fela learnt that world civilization started in Egypt and from then fell in love with Egypt and so renamed his band.
Also on the radicalism that eventually became his hallmark both as an artiste and a person (his having to marry 27 wives in one day and taking on the military and elite class), Idonije argued, “When I started with him, he had not become radicalised as we later knew him. When he returned from London in 1963, his mother asked him to meet me. I was on radio at the time as presenter of a musical programme known as NBC Jazz Club. He used to listen to me then.
“He drove to Radio House, then we talked. I interviewed him; because I love jazz, we soon became friends and formed the Jazz Quartet. He didn’t even smoke at the time; he respected and listened to me. But when he returned from America, where he met one Sandra in 1970, he became a different person. He became unmanageable; he didn’t listen to me again. But all the time I managed him, he was not radicalised”.
Idonije rationalized his marriage to the 27 women on the grounds that having hung around Fela all through the stormy brushes he had with government that led to around him being brutalised, he felt justified to marry them as a way of compensating them for what they had suffered with him. He noted, “His marriage to 27 wives was his way of compensating them for suffering with him during his travails. When the military raided Kalakuta Republic, these women were beaten up, raped and wounded. He didn’t want people to call them prostitutes.
“It was a way of gathering the women together and having easy access to them for sex. He was already becoming famous at this time; he didn’t want to be going around town to look for women. I saw it as a way of bringing them into one concentration. There was a lot of contradiction; but we all saw it as the right decision and we agreed. The girls really suffered with him. But I knew it wouldn’t work”.
On how much of a man like Fela could be exposed or fully expressed in a documentary, considering some of his weird lifestyle, Ofili argued that documentary should be faithful to all the sides of a subject, noting, “You don’t do it as public relations stuff; it should be a faithful account to be conveyed. How do you convey and not destroy society or convey what you should be silenced about? It depends on what medium you’re working on. Fela destroyed many youths irretrievably. I have a cousin who was destroyed by Fela. After encountering Fela, some people were simply consumed by his person!
“There were so many ideas floating around him. There’s what looked like wasted lives and so much energy, intellect around the Fela persona. Why was Dede Mabiaku not consumed by his person? He didn’t drown in the Fela whirlwind because he had education. Mothers along Fela’s axis suffered on his account; girls often threatened parents with running off to Fela if their wishes were not met. Fela was so large for those not yet matured or formed else they loose their essence.
“But we should be faithful in documenting Fela. His son Femi’s Positive Force band is actually a counterforce, a counterpoise and response to Fela’s all consuming vibes. In any case, the genius of Fela cannot be denied!”
But Pa Idonije disagreed with Ofili, saying, “It’s unfortunate for people to say Fela made the lives of those around him miserable. Rather, he comforted them, helped them, rehabilitated them and accommodated everybody”. He also stated that subjectivity was the stuff of which documentary was made, as the documentarist could choose an aspect of his subject to concentrate on rather the totality of the person.
In his intervention, Chief Tony Okoroji noted the contradiction that Fela was, saying, “Fela was a complete contradiction. You could disagree with Fela’s lifestyle and still respect him. Fela enjoyed the contradiction. He scared a lot of people. He had only a saxophone and a whole army. In spite of it all, he was able to bring up good daughters!”