by Tunde Giwa
Growing up in post civil-war Kaduna, Northern Nigeria, in the early seventies, I had been vaguely aware who Fela Kuti was when he led a band called Koola Lobitos. But it was not until my mother brought home a copy of the monster hit ‘Jeun K’oku’ and put it at the very top of the list of songs she’d sometimes pay my siblings and I to dance to, that he really established a place in my consciousness that persists till this day. Lyrically, ‘Jeun K’oku’ was an inconsequential pop dance hit that was immensely popular at the time. Over the years, numerous Fela songs followed covering the different thematic eras of his life – and mine. They included such early songs as ‘Beautiful Dancer’, ‘Jehin Jehin’, ‘Who Are You re?’ and the scandalously rude (for that time,) ‘Na Poi’ which was about sex and had a risqué album cover that was responsible for many of my barely-pubescent erections.
Then followed a period when Fela, for me, lapsed into near-irrelevancy. His music became one that, while not completely shunned, was quite low on hip play lists. Like most of the kids around me, I much preferred imported US funk and disco standards of the day. Sometime while attending the University of Lagos in the late 70’s, a Fela redux occurred and it lasted to the end of his life. Those were the days of late night visits to the Afrika Shrine, Fela’s nightclub. The Shrine and its immediate surroundings was a very engaging place populated by an assortment of vivid characters. Start with rudeboys and rudegals, sex workers, facilitators and commission agents, weed dealers, ordinary people out to have fun, a sprinkling of oyinbos (White people), sundry vendors, lookers on, passers-by. Throw in some alcohol, weed smoke and dim lights. Add to that mix, Fela live, at his languidly un-hurried best, and you should be able to picture the vibe.
There was always an sweetly illicit quality to the exciting experience of kicking it at the Shrine.During sessions, Baba could sometimes lapse into excruciating verbosity. He could go on and on and on with his yabbis (diatribes and assorted other tirades about whatever topic was on his mind that evening.) He had a habit of not ever playing songs he had recorded, so you would always hear new songs. He did relent on this towards the end of his life. Between songs people would loudly suggest their favorites.
A visit to the Shrine remains an unforgettable experience. I also recall with great fondness, the savory piquancy of the excellent Jollof rice and stewed fried meat sold outside of the Shrine. I recall nights during my Univeristy of Lagos years when we visited the Shrine area just for the food. One other image of the Shrine that is also indelibly etched in my mind is that of the largest joint I had ever seen in my entire life. It was dangling from the lips of this slight woman who was also sucking on a bottle of odeku (large bottle of Guinness stout).
Fela was a true Pan African who had no strong or obvious ethnic affiliation. This is was a most uncommon trait for a Nigerian of his era. A vast majority of his songs were mainly rendered in NPE (Nigerian Pigeon English) – the virtual lingua franca of the Nigerian street. This meant that regardless of where you came from in Nigeria, Fela was perfectly understandable to you irrespective of the quality (or lack thereof) of your education. Fela’s appeal therefore cut across ethnic and class lines. His most important quality, one that distinguished him from all others – was his innate ability to explain complex national and international issues in easily-comprehensible language to the great masses of the Nigerian unwashed.
Part of Fela’s legacy is being a major figure in the battle to de-colonize African minds. The lyrical content of Fela’s music in fact helped liberate the minds of a generation of Nigerians and others. He sang redemption songs that helped breed pride and confidence in our selves as independent Africans. Some people think of Africa’s colonial experience as a relatively benign affair. Some, worse still, think the experience was beneficial to Africans. What is not in doubt is that it left a huge mess behind. Not just on the ground, but also in our minds.Fela taught that it needed not be so. He preached endlessly about the pathetic, self-defeating imitativeness that we Africans had about Western ideas and mores borrowed wholesale without regard for fit.
Like many others, I now accept many of the elements of his catechism as an integral part of my worldview. To this extent, he was a prophet bearing an important message. But he was also a most improbable prophet. Fela had loony ideas aplenty. From his baffling belief in the mystical and supernatural powers of one Dr. Hindu, (who as far as I could tell, was a 2-kobo magician.) To other questionable ideas about modern science and medicine.
The content of Fela’s songs can be divided into two broad categories. The Anti-colonial/Pan Africanist, like ‘Why Black Man Dey Suffer’, ‘Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’, ‘Beast of No Nation’, ‘Yellow Fever’, ‘Follow Follow’, ‘JJD’, ‘Colo Mentality’. And those bemoaning the Nigerian condition, such songs as: ‘Go Slow’, ‘Upside Down’, ‘Sorrow Tears and Blood’, ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’, ‘Army Arrangement’, ‘Power Show’, ‘Overtake Don Overtake Overtake’, ‘Big Blind Country’*, ‘Alhaji Alhaji’*, [* unreleased].Fela himself, seemed to address the difficulty people had fully grasping the true meanings of his message in an unreleased song he performed near the end of his life, ‘Chop and Clean Mouth’, he says:
Any time I sing a song
When I sing the African problems
It dey take ten years to understand me
I want to say to you my people
Make you understand this one quick quick
Or the suffer go plenty more more
I beg you, understand me quick-quick,
kia-kia, masa-masa, ngwa-ngwa, yao-yao,