Fela, Prince Of Two Cities, At 80

The Guardian (Nigeria) - - REVUE - By Ben­son Idonije

IF the leg­endary Fela Aniku­lapo Kuti were still alive, he would be 80 years to­mor­row. Age would have mel­lowed him down al­right, but his mu­sic would con­tinue to evolve mel­liflu­ously, reach­ing out to new lev­els of creativ­ity, along the path of

which he be­gan in 1986 with the land mark al­bum,

If Fela was still liv­ing, he would be ‘look­ing’ and ‘laugh­ing’ de­ri­sively now in ut­ter vin­di­ca­tion, at the cur­rent state of the Nige­rian na­tion where, al­most all the pre­dic­tions he made and the ac­cu­sa­tions he lev­eled against suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments in terms of cor­rup­tion and bad gov­er­nance are vis­i­bly man­i­fest­ing them­selves. Af­ter all, he fought hard to stem this ugly tide - from the 70s to the 90s, us­ing his mu­sic as weapon.

I was watch­ing some of his recorded live per­for­mances on the night of Au­gust 2, 2018 cour­tesy of an en­ter­tain­ment chan­nel which has be­come re­puted for di­rect iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with its tar­get au­di­ence in terms of lo­cal con­tent: ap­par­ently, this spe­cial pro­gramme was in­tended to re­mem­ber the day Fela died in 1997.

I watched with en­grossed in­ter­est and a feel­ing of nos­tal­gia the live per­for­mance of one of those early

hits at Luna Club, Cal­abar in 1973 and was deeply moved by the ap­pear­ance on stage of the late Igo Chico, the tenor sax­o­phone leg­end who le­git­imized the in­stru­ment for He wailed on the in­stru­ment with cho­ruses pro­gress­ing men­ac­ingly and in­ter­minably for al­most one hour as Fela called out his dancers to the floor in turns.

I also saw the late Henry Kofi, ar­guably the most cre­ative and per­cus­sive conga player in Africa: the vi­tal­ity of his dis­tinc­tive rhyth­mic pat­terns pushed au­di­ences into dance party ec­stasy.

The per­for­mance of this song brought home to me mem­o­ries that are still lin­ger­ing, but the mu­sic that spoke vol­umes to the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion of to­day were

and es­pe­cially

These two spoke of cor­rup­tion, poor gov­er­nance, mis­man­age­ment of Nige­ria’s re­sources, eco­nomic slav­ery and cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ism among many oth­ers - as if Fela was still around, driv­ing home the mes­sage - with ut­most ur­gency and im­me­di­acy. But in­deed, the man is still with us, body and soul, con­sid­er­ing the in­spir­ing body of work he left be­hind as legacy.

It is now 21 years since he de­parted this earth, but his per­son­al­ity looms large. He seems om­nipresent. We speak of him in the present tense; his first name is used not so much to demon­strate per­sonal fa­mil­iar­ity as it is to ac­knowl­edge the per­va­sive­ness of his in­flu­ence. To­day, Fela’s mu­sic is the in­spirer of the con­tem­po­rary that is earn­ing Nige­ria and Africa all the ac­claim and recog­ni­tion that we en­joy from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

As far back as 1988, trum­peter Miles Davis, per­haps the most in­flu­en­tial mod­ern jazz mu­si­cian that ever lived, a critic and an as­tute judge of mu­sic and mu­si­cians pre­dicted that Fela’s would be­come ‘one of the mu­sics of the world.” To­day, bands have been formed all over the world who are draw­ing from Fela’s over­whelm­ing in­flu­ence even as mu­si­cians and fans lapse into his vo­cal rasp to make a point. Need­less to say that the riffs and phrases he cre­ated to es­tab­lish the cul­ture of

have all seeped into to­day’s con­tem­po­rary mu­sic.

In­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion came posthu­mously to Fela in a man­ner that was un­prece­dented in 2009, cour­tesy of Bill T. Jones who di­rected and chore­ographed

Since then, even record com­pa­nies in Amer­ica who were op­posed to the long du­ra­tions of his mu­sic for com­mer­cial rea­sons have since em­braced Fela’s logic and ide­ol­ogy on his own terms; they are now en­joy­ing the elas­tic­ity of African mu­sic in his

But more sur­pris­ing is the per­cep­tion of the Bri­tish scene ex­pressed by Valerie Wilmer, the au­thor of and a renowned jour­nal­ist – pho­tog­ra­pher whose views are well – in­formed and au­thor­i­ta­tive. Her sen­ti­ments are pub­lished by one of Bri­tain’s most pop­u­lar and widely ac­claimed en­ter­tain­ment mag­a­zines.

Fela used to paint the pic­ture of his so­journ in Lon­don from 1958 to 1963 as a har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. He told of the hos­til­ity of his var­i­ous land lords who dis­crim­i­nated against him on ac­count of his black colour; he of­ten nar­rated how dif­fi­cult it was to in­te­grate him­self into the Bri­tish jazz scene where he was some­times re­buffed and de­spised ob­vi­ously be­cause he had the guts to play the trum­pet where fel­low Africans were as­so­ci­ated essen­tially with drum­ming at the time.

But in ac­knowl­edge­ment of the pro­found­ness of his even­tual mu­si­cal suc­cess and the huge leg­endary pos­ture he now com­mands, the pe­riod of his so­journ in Lon­don as a stu- dent is be­ing ac­claimed as one that soaked up ex­pe­ri­ence for him as well as pre­pared the ground work for his rev­o­lu­tion­ary

The four – page story de­scribes him as

an ac­co­lade which is also the cap­tion of the story for rea­son of the fact that while study­ing mu­sic at Trin­ity Col­lege where he en­rolled for piano, trum­pet and har­mony, he moved through al­most all the city’s jazz clubs ev­ery night - from and


and more, jam­ming with mu­si­cians whether he was wel­comed or not.

He was ev­ery­where - with his trum­pet as his most trusted com­pan­ion. He also led his own per­sonal groups -

which paved the way for the first tra­di­tion of the that also fea­tured Wole Buc­knor on piano and Bayo Martins, drums.

He took part in al­most all the Nige­rian and African en­ter­tain­ment shows and fes­ti­vals prom­i­nent among them,

con­cert pro­gramme where, in 1962, he at­tracted at­ten­tion not only with his mu­sic but also his pro­found con­fi­dence and ap­pear­ance, which many de­scribed as a “rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the mod­ern African.” But per­haps the most his­tor­i­cally nos­tal­gic as­pect of this ac­count is a re­minder that in all of this, Fela made his Lon­don stage de­but at the Royal Court The­atre, Chelsea (soon af­ter ar­riv­ing) play­ing trum­pet in a land mark pro­duc­tion of Soyinka’s play,

with the Nige­rian play­wright, Fela’s cousin on gui­tar.

The late Banjo So­laru, one of the pi­o­neers of ad­ver­tis­ing in Nige­ria was on hand to help with the read­ings. In 1959, Fela’s en­thu­si­as­ti­cally un­re­lent­ing spirit got him back at the court with Soyinka, this time with the leg­endary Am­brose Camp­bell as gui­tarist. Fela and Camp­bell ac­com­pa­nied the fu­ture No­bel Lau­re­ate in drama­tised read­ings of his im­mi­gra­tion po­ems and protests at the French ex­plo­sion of an atom bomb in the Sa­hara. He did sev­eral re­mark­able things in Lon­don as a stu­dent even as he rou­tinely tra­versed the en­tire city, mov­ing rest­lessly through the jazz, rock ‘n roll and R& B sub - cul­tures of that pe­riod.

In­ci­den­tally, this same ubiq­ui­tous rou­tine char­ac­terised his ar­rival in Nige­ria in 1963 – from the jazz quin­tet days through to the Nige­rian ver­sion of the Koola Lo­bitos years which lasted till 1969: he con­tin­ued to jam with the var­i­ous high­life bands in La­gos, among them Roy Chicago at Su­rulere Night Club; Ade­olu Akin­sanya, Western Ho­tel; E.C. Arinze at Kakadu; Charles Iweg­bue, Lido Bar and Rex Law­son in 1965 at Chief Osu­ala’s Cen­tral Ho­tel among oth­ers. It was not un­til the break­through came for him with in 1971 that this ubiq­ui­tous phe­nom­e­non stopped - for him to de­vote all his en­ergy to the con­sol­i­da­tion of his new mu­sic which was now driven by a pan – African ide­ol­ogy.

At 80, Fela’s leg­endary pos­ture con­tin­ues to soar, open­ing up new vis­tas and per­spec­tives - even twenty one years af­ter his death: a new ac­co­lade has been added to his al­ready over- loaded pro­file – that of be­ing the of Lon­don.

Fela is not only the

Lon­don; he is also the

La­gos. of of


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