By Brent Hayes Edwards
The Nigerian superstar bandleader Fela Anikulapo-Kuti hosted a covert summit meeting in the summer of 1977. He received an unexpected, extended visit from Lester Bowie, the mercurial trumpeter of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their time together went unheralded and undeclared, a private conversation in the midst of what may have been the most tumultuous period in Fela’s tumultuous life. It is surely one of the more peculiar encounters in the history of black music: the African American and the African, the jazz instigator and the Afrobeat agitator, the doctor and the Chief Priest, the playboy and the polygamist, the scout and the dissident, both down and out, both uprooted and broke. They parlayed not on a stage but in a smoky hotel room. Bowie, who’d once proclaimed that “the only good school for a musician is the road,” was famously peripatetic; in addition to jazz groups, he’d played with army bands, carnival bands, marching bands, and funk bands, toured with blues and R&B hitmakers (including Albert King, Little Milton, Jackie Wilson, and Fontella Bass), and even played circus trumpet with an outfit called Leon Claxton’s Harlem Review. A few years earlier, he told an interviewer that he aimed to play in the widest variety of circumstances he could because it “broadens you,” forces you to find out “what works and what doesn’t”: “I’ve tried to play in just about any kind of situation. I could play with a bus. A motorcycle. A baby crying. You learning how to deal with all these different sounds. It’s all about sound. You don’t play bebop licks with a truck going down a highway, you have to have something that works.” But, in his first trip to Africa, Bowie travelled the farthest for a unique challenge: to figure out what fit with Fela’s tight-knit hybrid of James Brown, modal jazz, and highlife. To “deal with” the sounds of Lagos in the midst of the perverse and fleeting euphoria of the oil boom. Months later, you could hear the traces, as a string of LPs appeared: Sorrow, Tears, and Blood, Palm Wine Sound, No Agreement, Dog Eat Dog, I Go Shout Plenty, Colonial Mentality. Even on the tunes where the solos are taken by Tunde Williams (the regular trumpeter in Fela’s band, Africa ’70), Bowie is listed on the jacket as “Guest Artiste.” Sometimes, there’s even a hint of editorial comment, as when Ghariokwo Lemi’s hand-drawn cover for the LP of Stalemate notes the participation of the “Guest Artist on Trumpet, Lester Bowie (a good Afro-American).”
* * *
In the time when order had not yet been established on earth, Orunmila came down from the sky to see how things were progressing. He was met with a barrage of questions and complaints from the orishas, human beings, and animals, who were all clamouring to know their rightful place in the world. The inimitable Eshu, trickster, mischief maker, walking contradiction—the orisha with the biggest wooden stick, but a creature so small he had to stand on tiptoe to put salt in the soup—made a proposition: Orunmila should present each creature with a simple question, to which he or she must give a direct response. The answer would determine the creature’s destiny and proper circumstance.
Orunmila found this an excellent suggestion, and went about questioning the creatures of the world, one by one. He asked the guinea fowl, “Do you want to wear a cord around your neck?” “No,” said the bird, and so to this day it roams the yard without being tied or bound. Some animals were disdainful or petulant. “Do you want to eat from the ground?” the giraffe was asked, and when she scoffed at the suggestion, Orunmila caused her neck to stretch and condemned her to reach up into the trees for food. The horse, asked whether he would carry a load, sneered, “Who’s going to make me do it?” and Orunmila condemned the animal to be a beast of burden.
The human beings were asked whether they wanted to live inside or out, and they answered, “Inside.” So it came to be that men live in houses. Meanwhile, Eshu, who could not pass up an opportunity to sow confusion and dissension, was trying to think of something clever to say. But Orunmila surprised the orisha by turning and asking Eshu the same question as the humans: “Would you rather live inside or outside?” “Why, outside, of course,” Eshu sputtered, and then immediately attempted to change his reply: “No, no, on the contrary, I want to live inside.” Orunmila gave Eshu a stern look and said, “You were the one who proposed that each creature must give a direct response to a simple question. But now you are trying to unmake your own answer. I will have to take the first words that came from your mouth.” And so Eshu was condemned to live outside: just beyond the threshold, at the gateway, in the marketplace, in the middle of the crossroads.
* * *
Lester Bowie decided to go to Nigeria on something of a whim at the end of May 1977, after performing with the Art Ensemble at the Moers Festival in Germany. He had enough money for a one-way plane ticket and about $100 in cash. Bowie had planned to support himself by playing any gigs he could find, as he had done when he lived in Jamaica for a number of months in 1975-1976. But he quickly discovered that he’d miscalculated the cost of living in Lagos. After the taxi from the airport, a meal, and a $50 room at the Hotel Bobby, he didn’t have enough money for the next night—and he didn’t know anybody in Nigeria. “And Nigeria,” as he would tell one interviewer later, “was really OUT. I thought, This is it, man. You’ve done it! Finally you’ve bitten off more than you can chew! This is it!”
That night, he went up to one of the waiters in the hotel restaurant and attempted to explain his situation, saying that he was a musician and that he was looking for a place he might be able to play. The waiter gave him the once over and said, “You need to go see Fela.” Bowie, who had never heard of Fela, responded eagerly: “Where does this guy live?” The waiter smiled as he walked back into the kitchen and said, “Just get in any taxi and tell them to take you to Fela.”
Bowie found this advice somewhat dubious—to him, it sounded like getting in a cab in Manhattan and saying, “Take me to Miles’s house.” But, with no other options, he decided to risk it. The next morning, he grabbed his horn and headed to the street. The first taxi driver he tried didn’t seem at all surprised at the request, and took Bowie to a hotel where, the driver said, Fela was staying with most of the members of his band.
Wondering what he had gotten himself into, Bowie stepped out of the taxi in the hotel courtyard and looked up at the building. The place was called the Crossroads Hotel. As he strode toward the lobby, a short man came out and approached him. “Hey, man. What’s that you got, is that a horn? Is that a trumpet?” When Bowie nodded, the man went on: “Where are you from?”
“Do you play jazz?” asked the man.
“Yeah, I play jazz.” Bowie wondered whether to ask him about Fela.
“You must be heavy then,” the man commented.
“Well, you know, a little.” Bowie smiled in spite of himself.
The short man paused and then proclaimed, in a conspirational stage whisper: “Listen, my friend. You’ve come to the right place.”
“Why is that?”
The man looked around at the other people passing in the courtyard, and explained, “Because we’re the baddest band in Africa.”
They both laughed. It turned out that the short man was a guitarist in Fela’s Africa ’70. He took Bowie into the Crossroads to the suite of rooms the band was occupying. It was eleven in the morning, but Fela was still asleep. Another musician disappeared into an adjoining room to wake him up. The curtains were drawn, with only a thin crack of sunlight shining into the suite they’d entered, and the air was hot and cramped. As his eyes adjusted, Bowie realized that the modest space was almost impossibly cluttered with a dizzying array of items—trunks, suitcases, cardboard boxes, music instrument cases, clothes strewn on every surface, plastic buckets and basins, empty and half-empty bottles of cola and beer, a few books, and great piles of multicoloured fabric on what seemed to be mattresses distributed on almost every available inch of the floor. He realized that there were a surprising number of people in the room, as well, men and women in various states of undress, most of them still sleeping. There was a slight but distinct scent of marijuana.
A small, wiry man clad only in a pair of tight blue underwear emerged yawning from the other room and stared at Bowie in the half light. Bowie stared back. “Who’s on duty?” the man barked, and a woman appeared out of the layers and mattresses on the other side of the room and approached. She opened the curtains and everyone in the room squinted at the sudden brightness. Some on the floor pulled covers over their heads or shielded their faces with their hands. A few sat up on their elbows to peer at Bowie.
The wiry man came over to Bowie, stepping nimbly over the bodies on the floor, and shook his hand. “You’re Lester Bowie, of the Chicago Art Ensemble,” the man observed. Bowie assumed that this was Fela, although the man did not introduce himself. His body was taut and muscular, and up close, Bowie was taken aback to notice that the man was covered in a gruesome pattern of what seemed to be recent scars—rows of thin slices on his shoulders, a welt that looked like a burn mark on his stomach, ugly dark red dots (from the tips of cigarettes?) along one of his forearms, a scab at his hairline. Around his neck, he wore a cord with a clasp at the end, to attach a saxophone, and also a chain necklace of thin circular iron links, from which hung a small bell the size of a walnut.
Bowie began to explain his situation; he’d brought a few of his records (Les Stances à Sophie, Fast Last, Bap-tizum) as a sort of sonic curriculum vitae. “No, no,” Fela dismissed them, and turned to the woman who’d opened the curtains, growling something in pidgin that Bowie didn’t quite catch. She pulled a record out of one of the boxes near the window, and brought it to a portable phonograph that was sitting on a low table in the middle of the room. Fela opened one of the black cases on the floor and brought out an alto saxophone, clipping it on and looking at Bowie with a sly smile that was almost confrontational. “Let’s play together, my brother,” he said.
Still standing near the door next to the guitar player, Bowie took his trumpet out. Strangely, it was easy to ignore the people lying around him on the floor; it was as though he and Fela were alone in the room. The record was a sort of “Music Minus One” compilation, a piano trio playing straightforward changes. A medium-tempo blues. Bowie thought to himself, What the hell, and started to blow. Fela stood by the table and listened, licking a saxophone reed but making no move to play himself. When Bowie reached the turnaround on his second chorus, he heard Fela exclaim, “Stop, stop! Hold it! That’s enough!” Bowie lowered his horn, and the woman lifted the needle off the record. “That’s enough,” Fela repeated in a severe tone. Then he broke into a grin as he turned to the guitarist: “Go get his bags. He’s moving in with me.”
* * *
In January 1977, the Nigerian military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo hosted the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, popularly known as FESTAC. Organized as an enormous, expensive announcement of the country’s emergence as a global force (underwritten by the newfound petrol wealth), the festival carefully constructed the representation of Nigerian national culture, emphasizing the “traditional” and ignoring the majority of contemporary artists in the country. Fela had been asked to serve on the planning committee for the musical events, but publicly resigned in the summer of 1976 when he realized that FESTAC was, in his words, “just one big hustle.” He proffered a nine-point proposal for reform on his way out the door (arguing that the festival should, among other things, “re-educate the common man in Nigeria and Africa in general, about the truth of Colonial forms of African history and religion”), and in January he held a “counter-FESTAC” of nightly concerts at his club the Shrine in the Surulere district of Lagos. Despite the festival’s attempts to dissuade extracurricular activity, many of the visiting performers (most famously, Stevie Wonder) made a pilgrimage to jam with the Africa ’70.
The pianist and composer Sun Ra had been invited at the last minute to bring his big band the Arkestra to FESTAC. The festival offered no money up front, and many of the members of the band had been sceptical, but Sun Ra apparently chastised them: “Your ancestors came to America without a cent. How much money do you have?” “Fifty cents,” answered one of the musicians. Sun Ra said, “That’s fifty cents more than your ancestors had,” and insisted they make the trip. Musicians in the Arkestra later reported that when a Nigerian at the airport yelled, “Welcome home, Sun Ra!” as the Arkestra got off the plane, Ra responded acidly, “Home? Your people sold mine. This is no longer my home!” Not every interaction was characterized by such hostility: Sun Ra told one Nigerian journalist that his music was an attempt at “opening the way for the people of Africa to be part of the space age. Since they were never formally invited to be a part of it I am inviting them to join.” (Still, he considered it “unwise” to visit the Shrine, and refused to go; some of his musicians went on their own to play with Fela.) When the journalist asked how he had been able to attract such an impressive number of “creative people” to play in the Arkestra for so many years, with so little financial reward, Ra mused: “Well I guess it’s just that they are out of it. They’re out of it, and since I am way out they just had to come and join me.”
* * *
Fela met Bowie at the Crossroads because his former communal home, the “Kalakuta Republic,” had been destroyed by Nigerian army soldiers a few months earlier, on February 18. Fela referred to the attack as the “Kalakuta massacre,” and at the tribunal the Lagos government set up to inquire into the cause of the events, he called it a “planned and mechanized burning.”
The Kalakuta Republic was a small, fenced-in compound at 14A Agege Motor Road in Surulere. In size it was modest: a yellow two-story building with a slanted roof made of corrugated iron, surrounded by small outbuildings that included rehearsal studio and a health clinic run by Fela’s brother Beko. In the courtyard, there was a small plastic swimming pool and a petite menagerie: a monkey who clambered near the entrance, a donkey in the yard, and the shaggy Alsatian, Wokolo. On the side of the main building, above the doorway, there was a painted logo: a silhouette of the African continent next to a thick-lined black “70.” On the top bar of the “7,” “Fela Anikulapo Kuti” was inscribed in white, and an image of Fela’s face looked out from the middle of the “0.”
Kalakuta housed most of the dozen or so musicians, the more than two-dozen female dancers and singers, and much of a staff that—according to John Collins, a music writer who’d stayed there in January 1977 while working on Fela’s never-completed autobiographical film The Black President—included bodyguards, drivers, a valet, a public relations officer, a lawyer, and an electrician nicknamed Nepa, after the acronym of the Nigerian Electrical Power Authority (the residents of Lagos joked that it really stood for “Never Expect Power Always”).
Tension had been building for months between the residents of Kalakuta and soldiers stationed at the nearby Abalti Barracks. Many considered “Fela’s boys” to dominate the neighbourhood by fiat, especially on Saturday nights, when traffic would come to a halt around 1 A.M. for the slow procession of Africa ’70, in full regalia, to the “Comprehensive Show” at the Shrine club a couple of blocks away. The appearance a few months earlier of Fela’s thunderous hit record Zombie, comparing the army to the undead—“No brains, no job, no sense”—did not help matters. (When one soldier criticized the song as a deliberate provocation, Fela told a reporter for the Lagos Daily Times that “Zombie was for African mind and not for soldiers,” although he added somewhat contradictorily that many soldiers were regulars at the Shrine.)
In mid-February, a couple of the drivers for Africa ’70 were involved in an altercation with an army corporal who was serving as a traffic officer at Ojuelegba-Yaba Point Road. A group of soldiers came to Kalakuta intending to detain the drivers, but Fela refused to turn them over, noting that the army was not the police, and that it had no authority to arrest citizens. The next day, nearly 1,000 soldiers massed around Kalakuta. The army had the power cut off from the compound, and Fela responded by turning on a private generator he had installed on the grounds, which electrified the fence.
There ensued an extended, chaotic exchange of projectiles—rocks, bottles, bricks, cudgels, tin cans—thrown in both directions across the fence. Fela went onto the second floor balcony and attempted to speak to the soldiers, while some of his musicians shielded him from the hailstorm with a big black umbrella. He said later that he wanted to be seen by the crowds that had gathered to watch the stand-off, “to place the judgment on the public mind,” as he put it. Meanwhile, Fela’s 77-year old mother, Funmilayo Thomas Ransome-Kuti, one of the great heroes of Nigerian independence (who in the late-1940s had organized legendary anticolonial protests among the market women in Abeokuta), ran out into the courtyard, yelling “We want peace, we want peace,” until some of the men dragged her back inside.
A schoolbus passed the house, and dozens of young children leaned out of the windows, raising their fists in the Black Power salute and yelling, “Fela, Baba-o!” Incensed, the soldiers stopped the bus and whipped the children as well as the bus driver. Finally, a soldier threw a jerrycan full of kerosene onto the backup generator, which was sitting on a Ford by the fence. The generator caught fire and the soldiers burst in.
The government inquiry into the incident in March and April heard testimony from 183 witnesses who recounted the brutal fury of the soldiers’ invasion of Kalakuta. Fela was beaten into unconsciousness, as were many of his musicians and staff. His mother was thrown out of a first-floor window, breaking her leg. An undetermined number of the dancers were raped, or violated with knives, bottles, or sticks. The residents were then taken naked through the streets on open carts to holding cells or to the military hospital. Firemen testified that when they arrived on the scene, the soldiers forcibly kept them from entering. Kalakuta was utterly destroyed.
Fela was held in prison for twenty-seven days. The final blow came with the report from the tribunal. The Lagos State Government found that “an exasperated and unknown soldier” had set the fire, and exculpated the military for any responsibility for the destruction. Although Fela attempted unsuccessfully to sue the military for damages, his most powerful response was a song he recorded nearly two years later, a thirty-minute indictment called Unknown Soldier, in which Fela’s saxophone solo screeches and squeals with a caustic, barely controlled fury.
* * *
This is to say that Fela and Lester Bowie met at the crossroads in more than one sense. Years later, Bowie didn’t remember whether Fela’s leg was still in a cast when he arrived, although he plays in the ensemble on Sorrow, Tears and Blood, the first session Fela recorded when he was able to go back to the studio; the album cover bears a photo of Fela standing in front of a drum kit playing a tenor saxophone, and wearing a knee-high cast on his left leg. In any case, it must have been obvious to Bowie that he’d arrived in the wake of trauma. “He was hurt,” Bowie said simply to one interviewer, adding that he “used to go to court with [Fela] when they were giving him a lot of problems.”
What does it mean to share a space of musical interaction when the world is crumbling on every side? Two styles of uncertainty learn to dance at the crossroads. The outcast shelters the wanderer. How do we listen to the encounter? What does it sound like? Is it violent, uneasy, distracted, mutually supportive? Part of what’s complicated is that, although Fela continues to dominate the music—commonly taking lengthy solos on electric piano or organ and tenor or soprano saxophone, as well as singing the lead—he makes space for Bowie, not just as a member of the horn section, but as a solo voice. When he does, the drama resides in the cohabitation, a familiar African American brassy insouciance speaking about, and in the midst of, a postcolonial African militancy. What do you play to “fit” the state repression of the arts?—a suffering that’s not yours but that, in some sense, you’ve come to find, in a larger, unending search for the sound of something called blackness, a sound that might be shared or passed on? Does your own suffering stay in the bag? Or do you fit precisely by not fitting, by slipping a blade into the music, by tugging it, note by fugitive note, out and away from a city that would crush it?
One of the most memorable of Lester Bowie’s solos with the Africa ’70 is found on a simple instrumental track called “Dog Eat Dog.” It opens with a two-chord, eight-beat interlocking pattern shared between the two guitars, with drummer Tony Allen playing a single hit on the snare every two beats. Fela’s electric piano meanders above them, somehow shrill and wooden at the same time, until the music is suddenly granted depth with the entrance of the shekere and the bass (walking an ostinato of two ascending groups of quarter notes) and then, the horns. About six minutes into the tune, Bowie takes a two minute solo that opens leisurely but devastatingly with a single note, an ambiguous major-9th, held for a full twelve beats. Then, as the horns riff behind him, he flees in quick-footed runs that smear into inaudibility, soiling the edges of the harmonic fabric. He closes buzzing at a single note in the middle register, wrenching it into something that sounds like a squelched exclamation of a word that strains just beyond the threshold of decipherability. After Fela takes an excursion on electric piano, Bowie solos again with the same puckish authority before Fela moves to tenor sax.
To hear the piece as a diasporic encounter, one would have to consider the ways Bowie’s near-vocal exclamation is echoed later when Fela momentarily removes the sax from his mouth and moans a mournful phrase—Aye-aye-aye-aye-aye-aye!!—that seems to announce the insufficiency of the instrument, an impatience with its limitations. Why is the song called “Dog Eat Dog?” If it’s meant to be a dirge or a diatribe, why does it make us dance? Are we meant to take it simply as an observation on the sorry quagmire of competitive greed—a comment on the perverse appetites of oligarchy? Or could we hear it as a description of the jostling enacted in the music, two strong solo voices clamouring for space, aggressive and voracious but fully aware of the slippery slope of their hunger?
* * *
Bessie Head’s 1974 novel A Question of Power makes recourse to a striking figure in its depiction of the psychological instability of a young Coloured woman. The main character, Elizabeth, a refugee who has fled the cruelties of racist South Africa to live in a rural village in Botswana, is tortured by voices in her head—internal recriminations, stereotypes, and attacks that she refers to as “records,” as though she is burdened with a perpetual inner jukebox of racial hatred. “Someone had turned on a record inside her head,” we are informed at one point without explanation. “It went on and on in the same, stuck groove: ‘Dog, filth, the Africans will eat you to death. Dog, filth, the Africans will eat you to death.’” The book equates the world-reordering power of racism with the infectious allure of a song you can’t get out of your brain. Elizabeth is “broken” not just by the voices of hatred, but also by the “records” that others force on her in the casual viciousness that infects their day-to-day banter. One patronizing Danish aid worker constantly berates Elizabeth with her own “favourite record,” a nonchalant contempt for the Botswanan villagers: “I don’t understand these people. They don’t know anything at all, and they’re so lazy. . . .” Elizabeth’s unfaithful lover Dan attacks her with abusive remarks, “records” that go “round and round in her head the whole day.” He cheats on her brazenly and repeatedly (with a succession of women that for her are only euphemisms and attributes: Miss Sewing-Machine, Miss Wriggly Bottom, The Womb, Miss Pink Sugar-Icing), and then crushes her with comments that reverberate in her mind: “You are supposed to feel jealous,” or “You are inferior as a Coloured,” or “I am the king of sex. I go and go. I go with them all. They’ve been specially created for my desires. The road to me is past all those women. But need you try? You have nothing.”
Unexpectedly, the only alternative is offered by a young, white American just out of college with a degree in Agriculture who spends a few months in the village working on the collective farm. Tom is “crude” and “exhibitionistic,” the kind of brazen Westerner who feels at ease everywhere. And yet, Elizabeth is surprised to realize, he is possessed of an unusual wisdom. When she first meets him, he is singing poorly (but exuberantly) as he works in a garden: “Hello, Dolly. This is Lewis, Dolly. It’s so nice to have you back where you belong. You’re looking swell, Dolly. I can tell, Dolly. You’re still growing, you’re still going, you’re still going strong. . .” Elizabeth listens carefully to the words, since for her they “fitted her own circumstances! Maybe Dolly had been to hell and back.” She asks Tom, “What happened to Dolly?” and “Why is Lewis greeting her like that? Was she in trouble of some kind?” but Tom says he doesn’t remember.
Still, this is the beginning of their friendship. It starts with music—oblique, misappropriated, mediocre, perhaps, but a common ground of sound that neither corrodes, nor haunts, nor tortures, but instead opens up whole new realm of questions, associations, and references. A music of the crossroads, then? In the mid-1970s, Fela explained why his music wasn’t sorrowful: “Despite my sadness I create joyful rhythms. . . . I want to change sadness. I want people to be happy. And I can do it by playing happy music. And through happy music I tell you about the sadness of others. So they will come to realize that, ‘Oh, we can be happy!’” The music points you to an outside, in other words, an entirely different path. Or, as Lester Bowie put it, “one of the immediate goals of our music is to stimulate thought. . . . It makes you think about everything. You start thinking about yourself and once you get people thinking, they think of many things. They think of how to make a better mousetrap. Music can open people’s minds up.”
* * *
The first Louis Armstrong record that Lester Bowie heard was Ambassador Satch, when he was about 14 years old. Somehow it seems appropriate, given the photo on the jacket of the Columbia LP of a smiling Armstrong in a long tuxedo jacket with a small suitcase in one hand and a trumpet cradled under his other arm. The album is a compilation of concert recordings of the Armstrong All-Stars on tour in Italy and Holland in the fall of 1955. In the liner notes, the producer George Avakian quotes a journalist who says that “American jazz has now become a universal language. It knows no national boundaries, but everyone knows where it comes from and where to look for more.” Armstrong himself tells Avakian about the Russians who, on a previous tour, had sneaked into West Berlin to see the All-Stars: “Hardly any of them could speak any English, but that didn’t bother them or us. The music did all the talking for both sides.”
Ambassador Satch is raucous New Orleans-style polyphony, one of the most thrilling documents of Armstrong’s too-often dismissed post-war band. In the Milan concert, the band plays the “West End Blues,” which Armstrong had first recorded in the summer of 1928 with his Hot Five. As Avakian glosses it, “Anyone without his original recording (CL 853) is missing one of the finest performances in the history of the recording industry.” But it’s intriguing to imagine being a young Lester Bowie hearing this version of the “West End Blues” before the earlier, justly celebrated one. The leisurely quality of the 1955 version is remarkable: Armstrong plays the famous unaccompanied introduction with effortless virtuosity, inserting a few minute hesitations and slight variations, particularly a proliferation of flourishes in the concluding run, as though to let us know that there’s no reason to reproduce the original exactly—although he could if he wanted to. The call-and-response vocal chorus, in which Armstrong’s scat is intertwined with Edmond Hall’s clarinet, slides close to articulate language in a sort of mumbling acquiescence, son to father, parishioner to priest: Ba-ba bo dee faden / Yes, fad-de, mm-mm / Yes, vo-zan, fapa jo-sigh-igh-z / Oh yes I know. Likewise, in “All of Me” (another take on a classic recording from a couple of decades earlier), the scat chorus drifts in and out of intelligibility, as isolated phrases bob up out of liquid phonemes: “Oh, can’t you—,” “I’m no good without you, baby,” “Oh, take my lips,” “Your goodbye—.” In the place of the lyric “You took the best, so why not take the rest,” Armstrong improvises a laugher with one of his nicknames (“You have your Pops, so don’t abuse them chops”), and it’s difficult not to wonder whether Satch had just been in a mood to meditate on the significance of paternity on that particular December 20th in Milan. But for a young Lester Bowie, starting with the copy rather than the original, the LP must have provided a crystal clear demonstration of the irreverence native to genius. And in that sense it might help to explain the mood of one of Bowie’s most notorious records, his version of “Hello Dolly” on a 1974 album called Fast Last, which some have heard as a satire of Armstrong’s late style. “Some of the sounds seem humorous, but it’s not necessarily humour,” Bowie once explained regarding to the raspberries and splats and hoarse whispers that populate his playing; “actually I’m just extending the sonoric range of the instrument.” Just finding a means of egress, to put it differently; or looking to take a trip. In 1972 Bowie told a journalist that as a teenager, having read the story of how Armstrong joined King Oliver’s band, he used to practice with his horn aimed out the window, hoping that Armstrong would ride by and hear him and hire him and take him away.
* * *
The Kalakuta Republic was inspired in no small measure by Fela’s first trip to the United States in 1969. Stranded without a means of income, without valid papers, and without support, Fela’s seven-man band drove across the country by car, hoping to find work in Los Angeles. As he told the writer Carlos Moore, “We weren’t in the America we’d dreamt of. No, man. We were in trouble! No gigs! No bread! No shit! Nothing! And our visas finish-o! I said, ‘Now we’re illegal immigrant motherfuckers!’ No visa, no work permit. . . . Stalemate!” When we recall that the exclamation was the title of one of the tunes Lester Bowie recorded with the Africa ’70 in Lagos, Stalemate takes on multiple meanings. On the one hand, it is an allusion to Fela’s blocked position in relation to the authorities and to his record company, Decca, which in the wake of the February 1977 conflagration had refused to release records the company considered “seditious” (such as Sorrow, Tears and Blood). Bowie may well have been present when the entire Africa ’70 organization occupied the Decca offices in the Anthony Village section of Lagos toward the end of the summer, in a desperate, failed attempt to demand the release of the music and the payment of royalties. On the other hand, Stalemate may be an evocation of a blocked situation in a larger sense: a dead end, an aborted attempt at experimentation and discovery. Just as Fela never forgot the African Americans who helped him survive and eventually flourish in L.A., one might suggest that he set up Kalakuta with the vague intention of returning the favour. “When I came back home,” he explained to Moore, “I said to myself: ‘All African countries should open their doors to Africans from everywhere, especially those in the Americas.’ . . . So the idea of creating a place open to every African escaping persecution began taking shape in this my mind. Was that my first pan-Africanist idea? Maybe. At any rate, that’s how the idea of setting up a communal compound . . . came about. A place open to everybody.” In an interview collected in a FESTAC souvenir brochure, Fela boasted of the pluralism of his vision of Kalakuta, which he intended to gather not just musicians, but also “dancers, dry-cleaners, plumbers, drivers, tailors, electricians, acrobats, boxers, bouncers—every man from every profession in the world. No one is invalid in Kalakuta Republic.” So Fela built a Republic for Bowie, but the trumpeter showed up a little too late. Instead, they found themselves together at the crossroads, exiled from that diasporic safe haven, scrambling to earn enough to pay the bills. They played Stalemate, that is, in the hope of extricating themselves from one.
* * *
They “just hung out,” Bowie would say later. They would talk about “music and its ramifications. What it implied. What is it. What can it be used for.” Because the government had closed the Shrine, and actively prevented other clubs from showcasing the Africa ’70, the band mostly lingered around the hotel during the time that Bowie was in town. They did give some informal performances in the courtyard of the Crossroads, and recorded often in the studio. Now and then, Bowie recalled, Fela would ask, “Lester, you feel like playing tonight?” They’d find a concert, pack some of the band in a bus, and go sit in and play. But they spent a great deal of time just talking.
Often they’d talk in a room at the Crossroads, or in the courtyard, surrounded by Fela’s musicians and dancers. But with Fela, Bowie had the sensation that they could have a conversation in a crowd, with other people at their elbows, that was more intense, more intimate—more private—than a conversation with most people on a desert island.
One afternoon they were sitting in a bedroom in the hotel, Bowie on a chair by the dresser, fingering a Cuban cigar, and Fela on the king-sized bed, nearly naked as usual, splayed across the pillows. He was smoking a huge joint, and not making much of an effort to keep the ashes off the sheets. He would inhale slowly, longer than seemed possible, and then exhale the smoke in languid puffs, clouds of it massing and dissipating around his head.
There had been a lull in the conversation. Bowie was contemplating whether to light the cigar or to save it for another occasion. It was the first one he’d seen in a month. He looked up at Fela. “Why was your place called Kalakuta?” It was something he’d never asked about before.
“In 1974 they locked me up for eleven months in a prison here in Lagos called Algabon Close, my brother,” Fela replied. “That’s how I got the name. The cell they locked me in was called Kalakuta. In that cell, my brother, I met people of high intelligence—men with brains—people who will do much better for our society outside than inside a cell at Algabon Close. I asked myself: Why should these men be locked up here? Or is Algabon Close the new accommodation or hostel for men with brains? One of them, his name is Rock-well. My brother, this man has an exceptional talent. He was detained a long time ago for forging Nigerian currencies, but they could not take him to court. You know why? Because there is no difference between his forged note and the genuine Nigerian currency note. They brought people from Interpol and Scotland Yard, they brought microscope and every machine manufactured by man to detect and difference in the notes, but they could not find any slight alteration, so you know what they did? They locked him up at Algabon Close without trial. They knew they could never convince a judge that Rock-well’s currency note was forged so they threw him into Kalakuta. That cell in Algabon Close, to me, my brother, is the home of intelligent people. So I decided to name my Republic after Kalakuta because the people of Kalakuta Republic are intelligent people.”
Bowie looked nonplussed. “But if there was no proof, how do you know he was really a forger?” he asked, still fiddling with his unlit cigar. “What if they just said that so they could put him away?” Deep within the cloud of smoke, Fela just stared at him with a pitying half-smile that said: My brother, you haven’t understood a damn thing.
* * *
The Kalakuta Republic was described more than once as a farce. John Darnton, the New York Times Nigeria correspondent (who was summarily expelled from the country when he attempted to attend the tribunal regarding the Kalakuta incident in mid-March 1977), wrote that “Authoritarianism has an appeal for Fela, who, despite his sympathies for the underdog, is in many respects a mirror image of the militaristic society he criticizes.” Fela controlled everything in the compound, from the distribution of resources, to the resolution of disputes, to the handing-down of punishments, especially among the women. Many found it hypocritical that the punishments apparently included beatings (called “FBs” or free beatings) and even confinement, in a “symbolic” wooden hut in the yard that was named either “Kalakusu,” “Kalakosa,” or “Kalakanu,” depending on who was telling the story. It was tied shut only with a string, but the confinement was real, they said. Fela himself matter-of-factly told a reporter for The Punch that “Without discipline, no organization can run effectively. And the way we do it is very democratic.” But if there was no difference between Kalakuta and the military government, how could Fela claim to be fighting for the people? Can a mirror image be a critique?
Commentators offered a variety of explications of the name of his former prison cell. Fela told some that when he went to East Africa, he learned that Kalakuta was a Swahili word that meant “rascal.” “So, if rascality is going to get us what we want,” he would say, “we will use it; because we are dealing with corrupt people, we have to be ‘rascally’ with them.” In a Daily Times article of March 17 that promised to explain “What Kalakuta Means,” Fela is quoted as saying that the word refers to “the moving boat that never reaches destination.” Another journalist, Lindsay Barrett, contended that Kalakuta was a “linguistic corruption” of Kolkata and, as such, a reference to another notorious prison of the former British Empire: “The Black Hole of Calcutta,” where an exaggerated legend has it that, in 1756, an Indian rebel commander had 146 captured English troops stuffed into a tiny, windowless prison cell without food or water (when the guards returned the next day, 123 supposedly had died, many still standing because of the cramped conditions).
The compound merited the name “Republic,” Fela declared, because “I wanted to identify the ways of myself or someone who didn’t agree with that your Federal Republic created by Britishman. I was in non-agreement, man.” In fact, when Bowie was in residence the Africa ’70 recorded a tune called “No Agreement,” which features another fine solo by the trumpeter. The song is built up around the hesitating figure of a rhythm guitar lurching between two notes. After solos by Fela and the great baritone sax player Lekan Animashaun (whose sound was the cornerstone of the Africa ’70, much as Harry Carney’s was in Duke Ellington’s orchestra), Bowie takes his turn, starting with a breathy huff and puff that explodes into descending major-6ths, piercing shots in the dark. Purrs and growls unfurl into lyrical phrases that sometimes end on a pinched note, or chromatic ducks and feints and half-valve curls. After a raspy descent into the lower register of the horn, Bowie’s solo ends abruptly with a yelp. The music stops entirely, and then kicks in again, a few seconds later. One would be tempted to assume it’s two separate takes, spliced together, except that the rhythm guitar flubs the ending of the first part (continuing four notes into another repetition of his pattern rather than stopping). And then Fela is audibly sings the guitar part to start up the music again.
The lyrics are minimal, an antiphonal reiteration of the title: “No agreement today, no agreement tomorrow.” Fela elaborates the phrase as a refusal of silence, a refusal of complicity in the abuses of an oppressive regime: “I no go agree make my brother hungry, make I no talk / I no go agree make my brother homeless, make I no talk.” If Kalakuta is a critique, it holds up a mirror that exposes the fault lines and hypocrisies of the military state, without itself claiming purity or transparency. It means: We are rascals. We are lost at sea. We swallow up Englishmen. This is the reason the awkward pause after Bowie’s solo needs to stay in the recording: it is a crack in the glass.
* * *
Bessie Head’s first major literary success was a short autobiographical essay called “The Woman from America,” which was published in the New Statesman in August 1966. Rough-hewn and frank, it is a discussion of her relationship with Jane Kerina, an African American aid worker who had come to live in Botswana with her husband to work with refugees from South West Africa. They had quickly become friends, and “The Woman from America” is a fascinating portrait of the politically strident and outspoken visitor. “She descended on us like an avalanche,” Head writes, explaining that “it took a great deal of courage to become friends with a woman like that” because Head herself was “timid and subdued,” like “everyone” in her village, cowed in the face of authority “because authority carries the weight of an age pressing down on life.” “It is terrible then,” she goes on, “to associate with a person who can shout authority down.” Head published another essay about Kerina a couple of years later, where she advances a surprising and somewhat disturbing claim: “It seems to me that it is only the Afro-American, because of what they have suffered, who is capable of this deep compassion. Because when I compare her against us I really see the African continent as if filled with a lot of squabbling, petty-minded, vicious little tribalists who are likely, as in the case of Nigeria, to repeat the petty little bigotry of the tribal wars all over again, until the Gods, being fed up with this nonsense, send in some other colonial power to divide the continent of Africa up again for their own ends.” And yet, what kind of person chooses the troublemaker, Head seems to be asking herself—becomes friendly with the agitator? It amounts to a choice, she concludes. Which road do you take? “It has come down to this. Either the woman is unreasonable or authority is unreasonable, and everyone in his heart would like to admit that authority is unreasonable. In reality, the rule is: if authority does not like you then you are the outcast and humanity associates with you at its peril. So try always to be on the right side of authority, for the sake of peace.” And yet, she goes with the rascal.
* * *
The April 1977 tribunal report was especially disturbed by the association of the word “Republic” with Fela’s compound. It called for the prohibition of the use of “Republic” to describe any individual’s “domain” within the Federal Republic of Nigeria. “The use of the word is not only misleading,” the report worried, “but . . . leaves the impression of a separate and distinct republic proclaimed within the Federal Republic of Nigeria in defiance of the constitution.” This conclusion was echoed in editorials throughout the country, as in the magazine Spear’s argument that “no single person should try to set himself above the laws of the land. Nor should anybody set up a republic where morals and decency are cast to the birds.”
The ethnomusicologist Michael Veal, in his excellent biography of Fela, comments that “‘politics’ to Fela ultimately represented a desire to empower the masses so that they might lead dignified lives and attain life’s basic necessities, rather than any real desire to participate in the political process.” But one might suggest on the contrary that even as small and as theatrical a gesture of claiming the word “Republic” is nothing if not an attempt to “participate in the political process.” The furore of the official response is proof of the seriousness of Fela’s challenge. One could go back as far as the entry for “République” in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, in which de Jaucourt contends that “it is in the nature of a republic that it only has a small territory; otherwise, it can hardly subsist. In a large republic, there are large fortunes, and in consequence little moderation of minds.” A man is tempted to think that he can be great without his country, and even “on the ruins of his country.” More recently, writing about the French understanding of the term, the historian Pierre Nora has pointed out that as the putative “expression of the general will,” a republic “requires its outcasts.” A republic, he suggests, is “thirsty for a combative unanimity.”
The Kalakuta Republic made the point that any self-professed Republic is necessarily founded on exclusion. The young writer Chris Abani, who was imprisoned with Fela at the Kiri Kiri maximum security prison in 1985, writes in a poem dedicated to the musician that the Kalakuta Republic was named “to honour the death / of conscience.” (The corollary, of course, is that “truth is a risky business,” as Fela apparently quipped to Abani, smiling his gap-toothed smile.) But it might not be possible for this point to be made from the street. That is, it might not be possible for there to be a “Crossroads Republic” in any real sense of the term. Fela goes on to rebuild Kalakuta elsewhere, but when he and Bowie meet, it is in a kind of limbo or afterlife, in a gap between declarations of independence.
* * *
In his later years, Bowie would sometimes tell interviewers that he’d stayed with Fela for five months, or six, or even seven. In fact, he seems to have been in Lagos about three months, basically during the summer of 1977. The Art Ensemble played at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago in mid-April, and Bowie participated in the AACM Festival of avant-garde jazz broadcast by the radio station WKCR in mid-May, before performing at Moers in Germany in a duet with the drummer Don Moye on May 27. He left from there to go to Africa.
Bowie wasn’t in Chicago for the series of concerts to celebrate the 12th anniversary of the AACM in mid-August. He came back to the States through Europe. The photographer and manager Isio Saba remembered that Bowie stayed with him in Rome when he arrived from Nigeria. He must have arrived there around the beginning of September, since he played in the Laboratorio internazionale di musica creativa e improvvisata, which matched Bowie and some of the giants of European free jazz (Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Enrico Rava) with various younger Italian musicians. In the final concert, on September 14 in Modena, he performed a duet with the pianist Antonelle Salis. They ended their show with a brief, elliptical version of “Hello Dolly.”
Fela and his band left Lagos as well in late September or early October 1977. The Africa ’70 couldn’t survive if it couldn’t play concerts, and they were offered a long-term gig at the Apollo Theatre in Ghana.
The next April, Bowie recorded two albums in Italy with a quintet including the reedman Arthur Blythe, the pianist and organist Amina Claudine Myers, the bassist Malachi Favors, and the drummer Philip Wilson. The 5th Power, recorded for Black Saint, is the better-known of the two (it has long been available on CD). But on African Children, the more obscure LP the band recorded for the Horo label at the Mama Dog Studio in Rome, there is a twenty-minute tune titled simply “For Fela,” which Bowie said was his own adaptation of Afrobeat. It is not clear whether Bowie was aware that they recorded it just three days after the death of Fela’s mother, who had never fully recovered from the injuries she suffered in February 1977.
* * *
“Hello Dolly” is of course a song of return, a prodigal coming back where she belongs. On the version of the tune on the soundtrack to the film, Barbara Streisand sings, “I feel the room swayin’ / For the band’s playin’ / One of my old favorite songs from way back when / So bridge that gap, fellas / Find me an empty lap, fellas/ Dolly’ll never go away again.” When Louis Armstrong sings his version of these lines, welcoming Dolly into the club where he is performing (and stealing the scene in the process), he revises the fourth line, commanding: “So show some snap, fellas.” Might the implication be that the gap cannot be bridged, somehow—that we cannot simply step over the distance that divides us? We can demonstrate some discipline, however, here characterized as a certain sound—a resonant friction—and an alert, quick-witted mastery of time. Might we say then that Lester Bowie, in his 1974 recording of this song, is attempting to honour that snap, that sharp departure, rather than indulging in the pretence that a new version can bridge the distance back to an old favourite song? Bowie’s fellow traveller, the cornetist and conductor Butch Morris, may have said it best when he commented on Bowie’s approach to tradition in his playing, his admirable way of “pointing back without quoting.”
Fela’s Unknown Soldier makes no call for reconciliation or forgiveness. On the contrary, it insists on distance even in the midst of its fire. The opening call-and-response seems peculiar in a song that gives witness to a “massacre.” Fela announces, “I never come again / I still dey faraway,” and he tells us, “Just wait small make I reach where I dey go.” In response, the female singers passively intone a repeated echo, “where you dey go,” as though they are watching him turn the corner at an intersection down the road. Hearing this introduction, we look in two directions. There is the promise of the song, the deposition it will record. And simultaneously, there is the promise of the voice’s escape, never to come again, as it slips away to some unknown republic.
*This interview originally appeared in print in Chimurenga 8: We’re All Nigerian! (2005).