Fela Kuti, Felabration And What Makes Legend: Vibe Lives On

Fela Kuti and his wives.


BY AMBROSE EHIRIM


As usual, much has been said, about the Chief Priest, the Abami Eda, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the radical activist who had used his powerful lyrics and the vibe that he had helped coined during the Experimental years, and most musicians who had crossed over to go with the theme of a revolving musical genre over time, and the performers and key figures who had played significant role for we who had been curious to understand the origin and players who had been involved in the development of the coinages in its varieties, and the unique sound that identified each category, when the assembled music combos appeared to display their stuff in every event, amphitheater, arena and things like that they surfaced.

This was the outcome during the remarkable Experimental Era, phenomenal in its take, and the jam sessions, and hangouts, which would include folks who would energize the scene in Lagos at the peak of the city's nightlife when there was no one in particular calling the shots on what should deserve play or rating, or airplay and national audience by way of commercial.

In Nigeria and the West African concept, and music bands that erupted from cultural lines with its distinct patterns, folks were beginning to study notes and the originals to identify with each performer and what brand to connect with in what seem to have the potential for commercial success, which was key to popular music and its generation at the time. As it had happened, every region by way of its tribal line and the language spoken, became an identification of what the people in question loved to hear and danced to. In the Igbo heartland, Highlife had been the genre in every beat that was created in its vernacular lyrics and the expression which oftentimes combines calypso, rumba, ekwe omenala, ikwokirikwo, experimental era jazz, afrorock, bongo, ogene, abu owu (Amazano Jungle Blues), and the list goes on and on.

While the Lagos explosion was akin to the Experimental Jazz Era, many bands emerged with keynotes to its tribal lines and its vernacular rhythm that made the sounds representative of who they were and their origin which would be classified in coinages and musical genre--Juju, Fuji, Akpala coupled with other local make-up vibes which extended to other horizons--Ghana, Cotonou, Togo, Senegal, Gambia--and by then, Kuti was within the framework of his own local ensemble of highlife outfits carved during his Trinity College of Music years, the Koola Lobitos, after which the Lagos experiments began upon Ginger Baker exploring the talents he had bumped on, and embraced, and found becoming of singing groups, generating superb music bands of the era in a sensation that would catapult each and everyone of them to the top and high acclaim of the local waves.

Interestingly, Kuti, Joni Haastrup, Berkeley Ike Jones, and other cats of the day--Franco Adams, Lola da Silva, Paul Nwoko, Victor Damole, Michael "Micro Mike" Akpo, Remi Kabaka, Tee Mac Omotoshola, Willy Bestman, Pat Finn Okonjo, Emile Lawson, Jerry Samuels, Tony Benson, Felix Umuofia, Jeff Stone Afam, Larry Ifedioranma, Jerry Jiagbogbu, Jake Solo, Bob Miga, Harry "Mosco" Agada, and as the list goes on and on--had one thing in common, the desire to give it their best and produce what is unique and the pattern of each particular music to recognize the artists by their rights, becoming masters of their own craft.

Kuti, on his trials in what would identify and make his line of music special, dabbled into playing with some of the old cats of the day which included Victor Olaiya's All Stars Band, demonstrating his ability to go with the flow and what probably would work and identify with the ideal that would stand out on its own, as Afrobeat began to emerge, in his musical scores with the band members and a coinage that would follow, giving the Africa 70 its trademark and a music that would change the social structure of the land.

The Post Biafran War and the "Reconstruction Era" was Kuti's Lagos, when displaced persons, civil servants and related inner-city bunker hustlers who had to compromise with military dictatorships, found solace with the Afrobeat vibes, a remedy to the social ills and juntas that had overshadowed perspectives of becoming conducts in a nation blessed with overwhelming human capital and abundant natural resources.

Life has been a distress and discomfort on the public square, and Kuti's music and pot smoking had become a trademark and a way out of the frustration, and a government that didn't care much about its citizens, pushing the youths to the limit with attractions of the shrine where the rituals and following took effect making it a household name that included all and sundry, and the military juntas, too.

Kuti had made the shrine home to many and ground for comfort, justifying defiance with no restrictions to who visits and hangs out in the shrine, a plot that played well with the youths of the day, coupled with songs depicting social ills that consumed all. In beginning, to identify with the societal problems, Kuti was yet to blame the establishment on a lack of storm-drain-pothole roads, run-of-the mill structures, lifestyles and trend of a ghetto Lagos for its dysfunctional state, but on the inhabitants themselves and the nature of who cares attitude when the single "Shenshema" in its heavy, heavy-windy flavored horns, big band ensemble, postured the typical Eko situation:

...Ebe motor, den start you u no dey start
dem dey push you all over Lagos;...
Ebe black man, you no dey think like black man
You dey do like white man everyday...
You be woman, u dey bleach yourself everyday,
u forget say u be black woman...
You be Shenshema, Shenshema...


Or, the everyday drama on the streets of Lagos, "Go Slow", the musical, "Open and Close," complexion enhancing creams and its side effects in "Yellow Fever," and the excruciating pain of what one encounters trying to survive the hostile environment, doing the best out of bad situations, living basically in Eko, in power outage districts, blackout foul smell markets, open bucket latrines which had everything to do with life in the jungle where nothing in nature is organized, and where one is left with no choice but join the crowd and make life as simple as it can get. But suddenly, here you are, in the midst of a crowd where your own friend is engaged in a nasty duel and you begin to watch the real stuff of what Lagos has been all about, in a land where there are no rules to any kind of tussle which is settled on bragging rights kind of stuff, the "Roforofo Fight" duel:

Two people dey yab
Crowd dey look
Roforofo dey
Two people dey yab
Crowd dey look
Roforofo dey
Wetin you go see?
Roforofo fight eh
Wetin you go hear?
Roforofo fight eh
If you dey among the crowd wey dey look
If you yourself
You yourself dey among the crowd wey dey look
And your friend
Your friend dey among the two wey dey yab


Such characterized the legend and his beats as it swagged up all across the nation, and the West African coast, and around the world, and nothing could mean a damn thing with the public, but lyrics and rhythms of Baba, the Chief Priest, adopting what had made body and soul one in the post-Experiment Era. Everybody checked out the shrine--the clean cut image folks, the amugbo, the insane and the abnormal behavior drug addled military juntas, permanent secretaries, activists, labor union leaders, and civil servants, including journalists--all came and had a good time at a particular time what everyone wanted was to dance and have a great time and forget the sorrows of the Biafran War, which had turned Lagos into Africa's Big Apple. 

The wave had come on time at the eruption of the oil boom and what would lead to widespread scandals of bribery and corruption, of which Kuti would cease the moment and start his protest songs against an inept, corrupt regime, that had its devastating effects on the people. This had included ordinary and prominent civilians who had connived with the juntas in destroying every aspect of civil liberties, which compelled Kuti, times without number, to move up his theme and give the military juntas and their civilian collaborators some demonstrations and criticisms, requiring the juntas take their hands off the people as seen in all sound democratic societies. 

But the juntas had been absolute in their events and could care less what the public had perceived of a drastic regime and its draconian laws, invading the civilian structure with impunity, pillaging it, and angering every soul that knew the value of free press, freedom of assembly, and constitutional laws on the peoples mandate. Songs like "Alagbon Close," "Zombie," "Everything Scatter," "Kalakuta Show," "Unknown Soldier," "International Thief Thief (ITT)," "Army Arrangement," "Big Blind Country" (BBC), etc,. depicted dictatorship, bribery and corruption from the regimes of Olusegun Obasanjo to the Ibrahim Babaginda criminal mafia and military juntas, in addition to the spooky Sani Abacha years reign of terror.

More damaging were events at the Kalakuta Republic in more than one occasion from around which the first instance of plundering by the juntas had lawyers, civil servants as patrons, and the hobos who had nothing to do with anything, at all, but take life easy and move on despite a dysfunctional government, run for their lives upon invasion. Kuti had begun to get used to the challenges and barrels of the gun that confronted and threatened him regarding his protest songs, by regrouping and keeping up with the vibes each time the juntas struck. But what would take toll on the nation and the legend himself, after songs and releases that continue to denounce despots and absolute power drunk men, was the "Zombie" lyrics Kuti had unveiled upon which the juntas had swiftly act in their operation to a song that was a case of sad reality, and a necessary invasion that would be tragic in what was established and orchestrated by the junta, Obasanjo, who happened to be Kuti's own cousin and age-mate of the Egba clan.

The master composer thought deeply into what his own kin had done to him, a barbaric invasion that traumatized his mother and consequently leading to her death, and a kangaroo court of the junta's setting that puts the blame on an unknown soldier. Kuti would go to work for another masterpiece in his composition for public hearing, in what the juntas had done to a supposedly effective press and effective democracy, and his mark of symbolic speeches by measure of the nation's positioning in the world. "Unknown Soldier" was released; a hit and a national anthem, and realistically a damning indictment to the Obasanjo-led brutal regime:


One thousand soldiers them dey come
People dey wonder, dey wonder, dey wonder...
Stevie Wonder dey there too
Na one week after FESTAC too
And dey broadcast on American satellite
Around that time too now, I say to you...
Where these one thousand soldiers them dey go?
Na Fela house Kalakuta
Them don reach the place, them dey wait...
Fela dey for house
Beko dey there too
Them mama dey there too
Beautiful people dey there too
Frenchman dey there too
Press man dey there too
One-fifty of us dey there too...
Then suddenly, suddenly....

His soundbites on the ruckus between him and outrageous military regimes and governing flaws in and around the continent, was evident of his activism that was universally reached, and call to dismantle totalitarianism for effective democratic fabric, as in all organized societies, was at a terrible cost for the legend. As it had happened, the bloodthirsty military juntas did what no one could ever have imagined, silencing the people with draconian laws and back-paddled decrees, raping the entire treasury, and passing it on to their cronies, the "civilian structure" in its quasi democracy and the stealing of natural resources to continue apace.

The assault on Kalakuta Republic was begun in earnest, and all that Kuti had built over the years was gone for him to start all over again with a clean slate. He had sang about every junta and had directly questioned and challenged their legitimacy and the audacity to wrestle power from the people, and those vultures, the beasts of no nations, did not like that, at all, and had to come upon the legend in series of intimidation to quiet him, which was impossible and never happened.

Felabration, coined and established, founded by the legend's daughter, Yeni, recognizes his work and marks events that commemorates its anniversary and observed all around the Globe.

Baba Lives!

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