By Anote Ajeluorou
Afrobeat music legend and revolutionary social crusader, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, took centre-stage on Tuesday when friends, family and fans gathered at Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, to reminisce on the man and his extraordinary life. The occasion was at the launch of a book entitled Kalakuta Dairies, written by Uwa Erhabor, one of the boys at Fela’s famous shrine.
With an eye for details and keen to document the lifestyle of the master musician for posterity, Erhabor’s book has come as a forerunner to several already in the works on the enigma known as Fela.
Not least in the audience that came to honour Fela, now immortalised yet again in the written word were Fela’s earliest musical and revolutionary soul mate, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi; Fela’s inimitable lawyer in his many years of travails in the hands of Nigeria’s military authority, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN); rights campaigner, Mr. Yinka Odumakin and MD, Cowbell Plc and author of Insider Outsider, Mr. Keith Richards. Others were Mrs. Bose Kuti, and Fela’s sons - Kunle and Seun.
Gbadamosi said he counted himself extremely lucky to chair the event, especially going by his long-standing relationship with Fela both as rivals in different secondary schools, academic sojourn in London and later as a trio in a musical and revolutionary group with one Wale Bucknor, now late. He said Fela was such an important individual to him that he would always say ‘yes’ to anything concerning him.
The business technocrat and art patron then traced their paths together through their teenage years to studies in London and their revolutionary group back in Nigeria in the 1960s. Gbadamosi said Fela was very shy as a schoolboy and had hid himself after his school, Abeokuta Grammar School, lost out in a tennis contest. He recalled further, “It’s difficult to be part of Lagos in the 1980s and not have been infected by anything Felaism. The life of a schoolboy without Fela wasn’t it. As students in the U.K., Fela used to entertain with his Koola Labito band at Pancreas Hall. He used to play at Maharani Hotel as a jazz trumpeter, where the seed of Afrobeat was sown.
“It was at Empire Hotel that Afrobeat took root. His mother had challenged him to invent his own music and stop playing oyinbo music. Three of us formed an association of music and political radicalism and we used to meet at Yaba College of Technology and punching solidarity fists in the air. But I had to pull out when I became part of Lagos State Government, especially when he started pouring invectives on government officials”.
Gbadamosi also recalled Fela’s sad end, how he prevailed against MUSON Centre to allow Fela perform at that conservative music spot. Fela typically made everyone nervous with his usual yabis; but by then, he had begun to deteriorate, a situation Gbadamosi said his wife alerted him on. But Fela believed so much in the African way of doings things, so much so that he would not seek orthodox medical help even when his two brothers were medical specialists.
It took Fela’s protégé, Dede Mabiaku’s insistence for Gbadamosi to impress it on Fela, after so many long arguments and his having to camp out at Fela’s Shrine, the need to seek medical help; which he eventually did. Fela’s last request, Gbadamosi said, was to be served jollof rice. “Then he passed on,” he recalled. “But even to the end, Fela’s humour and radicalism did not desert him. Then the aftermath, the glorious accolade and public applause, the great glory that Fela got at death, not even heads of state can compare with it; it was very memorable.
“Fela was a great mind, a wonderful human being, who made great impact on all who knew him. We must thank Uwa for helping us to remember Fela today.”
His lawyer, Falana, on the other hand, brought the iconoclasm of Fela home to bear on Nigeria’s current political reality, and how Fela’s voice still echoes stridently through the grave to impact on current, sordid affairs. Falana praised the author for producing a timely book on Fela, adding that Fela was a big donation from the Kuti family to the African project.
Fela’s classic ‘Authority stealing’ music that was recorded in 1988, Falana recalled, captured the essence of the current state of corruption in the political life of the country. “What Fela was saying then was that you should not talk of armed robbery but of pen robbery, which is very sad. Now, pen robbery is not in millions as in Fela’s days, but in billions. Fela was indeed a prophet. Africa is the richest continent but our riches have been cornered by a few people.
“These were the things that Fela tried to tell us but he was branded a madman. Walter Rodney’s How Europe Under-Developed Africa was a catechism for Fela. What the author of Kalakuta Dairies has done is to capture the essence of life at Kalakuta; nobody has done it before now. It’s going to the innermost part of Kalakuta”.
Falana also shed light on the many legal battles he waged for Fela who frequently had brushes with the military government of the day. He recalled an incident when he insisted that as his client, Fela should see him in his chambers for his briefs rather than being invited to Kalakuta, as he was wont to do. So one day, Fela went to his chamber with about 5,000 of his followers and caused a major scene on Awolowo Road, Ikeja. From then on, Falana never asked Fela to see him in his office.
Falana described Fela as the “most intelligent, interesting client I’ve ever had; he would deliberately commit an offence. Fela’s cases were the toughest and easiest of cases to handle. Fela has been the best suspect I’ve ever had. You’ll find in Erhabor’s Kalakuta Dairies what Fela was; he was generous. He didn’t leave riches behind but he left a good legacy”.
FELA’s split image, who has also taken after his father as a musician, Seun, commended the author for writing a book about his father’s musical journey. He described Erhabor as being close to the family, who has been like a big brother to him, and has written from a vintage position. He recalled the author giving him a toy as a birthday gift when he turned eight. He said Erhabor always kept them informed about the book’s progress while it was being written.
The young Kuti also said, “the integrity of the book is intact, nothing exaggerated; it will make a great read for anybody who wants to see what happened in Kalakuta”.
On his part, Odumakin praised the Kuti family for being the source of “great blessing to this country”. He recalled seeing Seun performing one of his father’s great hits, ‘Sorrow, tears and blood’ so dexterously, when he was just six years old, a musical tradition he has kept alive ever since. The human rights activist said “Generations yet unborn will remember Fela; he has left a good legacy. He didn’t leave riches, but he left a good name”.
Richards is the author of Insider Outsider, an outsider’s view of Nigeria. He has lived in Nigeria a long time and have managed Guinness Nigeria and now Cowbell Plc, noted that he regretted not having met Fela even though he used to visit Nigeria while the iconic musician was alive. Richards humourously said how ironic it was that he, Fela’s typical colonialist, was at a Fela’s event spotting a jacket, something Fela always frowned at.
He lamented the dearth of social history on Nigeria’s intellectual space and said it did not make for coherent information gathering about the country. “If we are to break stereotypes, we need more of Kalakuta Dairies. If we are to disseminate correct information about Nigeria, we need more of this. What Fela fought for is the true situation today. Fela should be a role model for Nigerians today. To understand more about Fela, we should read the book”.
The author Erhabor, who lives in Germany, said it was “sad that people in Europe were the ones that usually reminded Nigerians about how great Fela was. The relevance of Fela’s music has never been so real today than back then when he sang it. The more people shout corruption, the bigger it gets. When Fela was talking about corruption, it was then in millions; now, it’s in billions and growing to the trillion mark. Well, what I know is that the Fela clan will always do what Fela expected of us”.