Friday, February 12, 2010

What Fela Anikulapo-Kuti Taught Me

I’m not a biographer of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-1997) or a music critic, but Fela was a constant feature in the landscape of my youth; I don’t remember a time that Fela and his music, or that the names Ransome-Kuti or Anikulapo-Kuti were not parts of my life.

He started his musical career with Koola Lobitas (1964-1968) and then ‘Fela and the Nigerian 70,’ followed by ‘Fela and the African 70’ and later as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and the Egypt 80.

My uncle was crazy about Fela’s music in the late 60s and ‘Alujoin join ku jon’ came to be my favorite, and even today, my psychoanalyst’s mind continues to try to make sense of the metaphor of that short story about animals.

Is it about our instincts, or is it about the undying loyalty of dogs? Is it about refusal to give up home and mother and emancipate oneself? In the song, there was a terrible famine in the land and every animal decided that they would kill and eat their mothers to stave off starvation, and in the meeting where this was decided, the dog agreed to the consensus, only for him to go and hide his mother in heaven, while the other animals killed and ate their mothers. And periodically, the dog would go visit his mother where he hid her in heaven.

That my mind would not rest on one interpretation to the song is because it is Proper Art— As Joseph Campbell said, “Proper art is of an esthetic object that renders wholeness, harmony and radiance. But art that excites desire for the object as a tangible object is pornography, because the relationship is not purely esthetic.” But, unfortunately those who didn’t want their children hanging around the Shrine, with all the activities of drug use culture saw Fela’s art and life as pornographic.

Fela was my hero as he was for a lot of people of my generation, and he was a celebrity that was accessible to everyone. He said it as it is. He stood up against oppressive authority as his mother, who dethroned an unjust king did before him.

Fela’s neologisms were quickly absorbed into the Yoruba language as well as the lingua franca of Nigeria, Pidgin English. Examples abound like ‘Zombie,’ ‘Suegbe,’ ‘Pako,’ ‘He miss road,’ ‘Monkey dey Work, Baboon dey Chop,’ ‘Jeun Koku,’ ‘Yellow Fever,’ ‘Shuferring and Smiling,’ ‘Opa fuka,’ amongst many others.

His music evolved over the years, from songs like Highlife; Omuti Tide; Ololufe Mi; Wadele, Wa Rohin; Laise Lairo; Wayo; My Lady Frustration; Viva Nigeria; Obe; Ako; Witchcraft; Lover; Funky horn; Eko; Gbagada, Gbagada, Gbogodo, Gbogodo, which celebrate the Yoruba culture, to playfulness as in ‘Open and Close,’ Jeyin, Jeyin,’ ‘Na Poi,’ and ‘Roforofo fight.’ Some were of simple advice as in “You No Go Die, Unless You wan Die,’ to songs of social commentaries about the absurdities in our culture, like Shuffering and Smiling (religious fanaticism); Lagos on Monday Morning (after our culture of heavy weekend partying); Yellow Fever (Skin lightening practice); Shakara Oloje (bluffing), to explicit and blatant anti corruption lyrics like ‘ITT,’ ‘Army Arrangement’ and ‘Authority Stealing’ directed at our dictator government.

Then came the destruction of his residence in an army raid authorized by the then Head of State Obasanjo, in which his house was burnt down, and his elderly mother was thrown out of an upstairs window. She broke her hips and eventually died from the injuries. Fela was nearly beaten to death, convicted and imprisoned.

On his release from prison, there was no holding him back. ‘Basket Mouth,’ ‘Beasts of No Nations,’ ‘Look and Laugh,’ ‘Coffin for Head of State’ and others came out of this experience for him.

It wasn’t until a year ago, twelve years after his death that I totally immersed myself in the music of Fela of my youth. I was listening to Boney M’s ‘He Was a Stepping Wolf’ with my son in the car and the beats brought back memories of Fela.

He was a great artist. He served music with integrity and all of his being. It is impossible to listen to Fela while sitting down; I feel the urge to march to orders while listening to ‘Zombie,’ and I must confess that I wish I could dance like his women used to dance. In my mind, I act out his songs because they are actually skits.

His style is for the beats to begin the songs, and then the Saxophone. This could go on for some 10 to 15 minutes before the lyrics finally arrive. Fela has very few songs that are under 5 minutes long, with over 95% of his songs being from 15minutes to over 30 minutes long. When you are listening to them, you know that it would be disrespectful to interrupt him by turning off your CD player, Zune or IPOD before the song ends.

And though I find him too chauvinistic in ‘Lady,’ his undying love of Lagos in ‘Eko Ile’ makes me homesick. I will not be as one sided as he is in his interpretation of African history and in his Afrocentricity. I have nothing to say about him marrying 29 women in one ceremony. But I am totally with him in all of his political and anti dictator ‘yapping’ and I absolutely adore ‘Beast of No Nations,’ ‘Coffin for Head of State’ and ‘Look and Laugh.’

But the one lesson that Fela has taught me in the past year is about Passion. It is the Raw Instinctual, Let Your Hair Down and Let It Rip Passion that a person should apply to every aspect of his/her life. Fela did. He ‘yapped’ it as his women danced it. And I have been able to master his ability to howl like a wolf.

He howled in a lot of his songs. “Mi ori iru eleyi ri o” and “egbami o” (I have never seen anything like this before in my life! and Save me, help me!),” with regards to the chaos that corruption has bred in Nigeria. And in the throes of some deep emotions, when words deserted him, he employed gibberish that still got the message across.

For a period of one month my favorite phrase was, “Yeparipa Egbami oh!” to the amusement of my children. It is a gut wrenching sound that comes from that well, deep, deep inside of you, from the depth that you didn’t even believe existed in you, and expresses emotions that there are no words for. Fela captured it perfectly in many of his songs.

While reading an article in New York Times about “Fela” the show running on Broadway at this time, the critic said that the play would reinforce the stereotype of Africans as people who loiter around and dance to music all day and that his wives were more like window dressing, I said to myself, “he missed it.” He missed the lesson in Passion that Fela was trying to impart to everyone, regardless of race. It is the passion that reconnects the body with the mind.

I thank Fela for this great lesson about life.

a novel by Kehinde Adeola Ayeni
-- ISBN 978-0981393926
Available your local bookstore, a host of online booksellers and directly from Genoa House.


  1. Are you going to write to NYT about that article?

  2. Kehinde this is well written-i'm going to comment on Fela's impact in Nigerian political history later but my comment is about how you have evolve as a 'literary lady' inspite of being in a field like medicine-whao-more grease, I'm proud of u sister


  3. Great essay!

    I've always said that the biggest thing Fela taught me was courage. I grew up in an era when if you wanted to criticize the government even in the privacy of your own home, you whispered for fear that your neighbour might be an undercover SS agent! For Fela to publicly release records boldly attacking the government and actually name names... It's something that still awes and inspires me. And even after the soldiers would beat him, burn his house, kill his mother, throw him in jail... He would still come out and name names all over again!

    That's the kind of courage I aspire to in my own life, though all too often I fall short of it.