Fela and his band with dancers on stage. Fela has been depicted in a Broadway play that began in 2009., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Fela resurrects in Lagos
Wednesday, 04 May 2011 00:00
THERE was something mystical about watching the Fela Broadway show during Easter and at this time of elections in Nigeria.
Learning more about his life story and fusing it with what I had known before at this time made it seem that a messiah who truly cared for the masses and even ran for presidency had resurrected. Indeed to many of his admirers, Fela never died. After all he said he had death in his pocket.
For those of us who lived in the 70s and 80s, our Fela experience probably have a lot of similarities. I first came across him in my dad’s collection of LPs. Having developed an ear for music I constantly fiddled through that collection. It was a time when LP covers had a message and a meaning but Fela’s had more than that. They were very graphic and told a story. The short comic sketches were also quite amusing. The “Follow follow cartoon” got imprinted in my brain at that young age and that is why it has been hard for me to follow anyone blindly. The lyrics were also written on the album covers for all to read and digest. Thus at a tender age, I also made up my mind never to be an “Original Sufferhead” and not to do the “Suffering and Smiling thing”.
“Shakara” and “Lady” must have been the first Fela songs I heard though. The words of Shakara guided me in my first and only physical fight in primary school. My opponent was bigger and louder than me and bullied me a bit. One day I decided it was all Shakara and took him on. Thankfully I won more than the fight that day. I also won his respect. I think Shakara taught me how to learn when someone was bluffing. Of course I made a few wrong calls but thankfully the prices were not too high.
As for “Lady”, I think that one made the female sex more mysterious to me. He put the African woman on a high pedestal and I looked up to them. Perhaps, the sharp tongue of African women, oops, ladies, Fela depicted in that song also made me a bit wary of them early on in life.
However the stories of the ladies that hung around Fela and the way they dressed and danced created a paradox in me. His decision to marry all 26 of his dancers was a surprise. I concluded that he wanted to give them some dignity. My young mind wondered how he would cope with them all and my respect for him grew. What a man!
The first Fela song I remember dancing to was “Zombie.” The pace of the song was intoxicating and the lyrics were catchy. I remember how we sang and danced to them at those birthday parties in the 70s. Then the song was banned and our parents told us not to sing it anymore.
However that was the cue a young mischievous mind needed to reinforce the love for the song and its lyrics. Watching soldiers all my life, the song seems so apt. The first Fela song I listened too maturely was “Power Show”. It remains my best Fela song till date.
As my uncle who introduced the song to me in the late 70s said, one night we listened to it as we drove down the Apapa bridge, this is pure African Jazz. Palaver is another jazzy tune that appealed heavily to my auditory yearnings. Army Arrangement takes me to another plane.
Fela was always in the news. He seemed to be the bad boy of Nigeria. Like the fantasy notoriety many tried to achieve in secondary school, Fela was doing his on the Nigerian and world scale. The stories of him swallowing marijuana when arrested, the police raiding his house, his mother being thrown from a building, his carrying her coffin to Dodan barracks, his names, his girls, his shrine and what happened within, glamorized and mystified him all the more. He was the Kaiser Sose (Usual Suspect) everyone knew and could see. I did laugh when he declared his intention to run for presidency though. Original Bad Boy.
As the years rolled in the 80s and we waited 4 years for Michael Jackson to release an album, Fela churned out the hits with a regularity that was remarkable. Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense was a hit at parties in my early university days.
The best of those was when the deejay would turn off the sound and the entire party would chant the words as we gyrated to the African beat. When he came out with “Beast of No Nation”, we just couldn’t get enough. Then my friend, Folanrin Sojinrin’s Volkswagen beetle, “Ocho,” didn’t have a sound system, so we would load our cassette player with batteries and “f’ese lu” all over Lagos.
I did get to see the legend on 3 or 4 occasions. The first time I tried in 1986, I waited for him at an Independence Day concert at the Tafewa Balewa Square. I was ordered to be home by 10pm. At that time Fela was yet to grace the stage and Alex Zitto and Danny Wilson had less than thrilled me. I tempted my dad’s wrath and waited till 12midnight. Still no Fela. We left disappointed.
Thankfully Lekki Beach New Year Sunsplash was an afternoon show and in the second edition in 1988, I got to see the man himself. What a man! What a performance! After he performed the show paled. Poor Ras Kimono, he came on next. As we walked towards our car in the usual traffic jam leaving the beach, I looked at the passengers in a coaster bus held up. In the middle was the man himself! I managed a smile and a wave as the goose bumps hit me. He looked directly at me in the crowd that was gathering after I had attracted their attention to him, gave me that toothy smile and the fist, before closing the curtain for some privacy.
What a man!
The first time he visited University of Ibadan in my time, there was a carnival atmosphere on campus. People came from all over. As always, it was quite a show. The second time, my friend Zeze and I walked a quarter of the way back to UCH in the early hours of the morning with the excitement and the gist of the show for company. That was in 1991 and that was the last time I saw him.
The next memory was a sad one. It was when General Bamaiye of the NDLEA arrested him for drug possession and was publicly interrogating him. With his infected skin in faded underwear and a tired face capped with rough tangled hair, Fela seemed to have lost it.
He was incoherent and didn’t seem to know where he was. I almost cried that day. When he fell into a coma, I prayed for his soul because I didn’t believe he deserved to go to hell. When the news broke that he had died…..of AIDS, I shed a few tears. On the day he was buried, from the balcony of the 4 room hospital flat in Ikeja bus stop where I worked, I watched a crowd of his admirers dance down Obafemi Awolowo Road from his house. The crowd grew as it moved. I felt like joining in as a mark of respect.
Regrettably, I never went to the shrine to watch Fela. I was always scared and believed the day I went was the day the place would be raided. I amost missed the Fela! the Broadway show too as I dillydallied on getting tickets. I thus had to join the last minute rush for the finale of the show. It was worth the hassle. The show depicted a Fela show at the shrine. Not quite the real thing, indeed far from it. However his story was told from another angle and I gained more insight into the man. For those 3 hours his life, women, demons, ideologies and music had me mesmerized again. He had seemingly resurrected (prompting me to write this article). Like Bob Marley, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, Fela will never die. As far as Nigerian icons go, it will be hard for his legendary to be overtaken.