I remember seeing him for the first time just as if it was yesterday. Through the clouds of smoke and altered by the “come hither” glow of red and blue bulbs that ordained the club, he stood with relative ease…. an omnipotent symbol of a bold and angry new Africa.
I was instantly mesmerized and would be for life.
He was bare chested and seemed oblivious to the thin film of sweat that defied the cool wind being dispersed by huge ceiling fans above and that covered his sinewy ebony frame. One circle - in what must be some type of traditional Yoruba chalk - encircled one eye making him look more like a winking raccoon than arguably Africa’s most vibrant singer slash activist. He has now evolved into a far cry from the trumpeter of the Cool Cats aka Koola Lobitos that had once played high life and modeled evening gear for fashion magazines.
His nostrils flare a little and his eyes sparkle with obvious intelligence as he takes one last monster drag of his cannabis cigar and turns to the crowd with his now patented call to arms of “make I yab them”? The emphatic reply is a resounding “Yab them” !!!”.
Ladies and Gentlemen the place is Ikeja, it is circa late 1970 and the location is “The Shrine” and Fela Anikulakpo Kuti’s famous “Yab them Night” has just kicked off.
I had picked a good night. Well make that we. Stowed away from High School thousands of miles away in the East, my friends and I had travelled all the way to Lagos by “Air" - just to see “Baba” live. We as well as the rest of Nigeria had just been hypnotized by that first killer LP that featured both “Shakara” and “Lady” and rather than buy another pair of platform shoes, or Brutus jeans had saved our pocket money to make this hajj possible.
For the first hour it was a non stop jam session of some of his greatest work. Looking back now we can only “Thank God” that he had yet to release such great master pieces as “Water No Get Enemy” or “Africa Center of The World” because as we know Fela was not just a great performer, but a shrewd businessman and refused to play any song you could buy for yourself on wax, tape or 8 track. In as much as they were still being worked on then they were already timeless classics even in the pupa stage and “Fela” delivered them with unparallel showmanship.
In between sets his tongue wagged like a hyperactive “bulala” as he called out everyone from President, to the Pope, flogging even his own Brother Beko who was the then equivalent of the nations Surgeon General with it, as well as a gaggle of other “useless” “Madams and Ogas”. Not in fear of the jack booted thugs in uniform that had repeatedly suffocated arguably Africa’s most vibrant Press in the past, that night Music was his Weapon as we remained in stunned silence - soaking everything in. By nights end most of us had made a conscious decision to remain either part of the disease or become part of a cure. I say this because out of the four of us that witnessed sheer magic that night 2 would end of being journalists and the other 2 lawyers.
Fela would re write that art of confrontation using both satire and an in your face type of challenge virtually new to Africa. This would catapult him to instant super status especially in Ghana his old stomping ground, and in South Africa where Hugh Masakela would virtually change his new bands format and style even dedicating his maiden Album entitled "The Boys Doing It" to Fela himself. 60 years later his respect has not diminished one iota as we hear in his ode to Fela on the Album "Sixty" which not just brings tears to your eyes but also tugs at your heart.
He would be the first to actually name names in his songs starting with the fabled ITT in which he questioned not just then Chairman Abiloa’s dubious “modus operandi” but actually mentioned then President Obasanjo by name. As we know this would set into motion a hateful relationship with the Nigerian Army that would not only span decades, play an unfortunate role in his Mother’s death, but also lead to his incarceration in Nigeria’s coldest and dampest Prison located in Jos. In as much as his body was already being ravaged by the HIV virus it was here that he would catch the actual pneumonia that would cause the heart failure which killed him on August the 2nd 1997. This is made even more unfortunate when we look at the likes of say a “Magic Johnson” today, who has shown us that having AIDS does not necessarily translate into an instant death and that Fela despite being infected then could have easily lived on with today’s new drugs and given us 20 or 30 years more of sheer ecstasy.
Years later while working at The National Public Radio in Washington I would hear a nightingale like voice emit from one of the studios and carry through the myriad of its hallways. It wasn’t so much that it was beautiful but it was what it was singing that galvanized me into an almost trot – seeking its source. Stunned I peeped in and looked at the bald head of Sinead O’Connor (then arguably the epitome of controversy and female activism) “blowing” Fela’s “Lady” in perfect pidgin. Later on I would learn that she was preparing for the Manu Dibango’s Waka Africa tour and all I could do was just shake my head and smile. I mean here was one of the ultimate feminists of her time singing a Fela song that without a doubt if not encourages Sexism certainly winks at it, and she didn’t even know. Rather with eyes closed she attacked each line with such energy and passion that one despite her pigmentation, could have easily mistaken her for one of the “Kalakuta Queens. Fela himself must have been proud and smiling to the fact that not only does his music continue to live on with efforts put forth by his sons, but also in projects like Red Hot and Riot and by bands like The Roots and singers like O’Connor. Bearing this in mind he can really Rest in Peace knowing ( and I quote the NY Times ) " that Afro Jazz offers plenty of room for allies and kindred spirits, without ever surrendering its own stubborn identity".
And to that we can only add an "Amen" and a "Thank God".
12.14.06 - RED HOT + RIOT LIVE A CRITICAL SUCCESS
On December 1 & 2, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) hosted RED HOT + RIOT LIVE, an all star benefit tribute to the music and spirit of Nigerian icon Fela Kuti.
The concert featured performances from Amadou & Miriam, Cheikh Lô, dead prez, Keziah Jones, LesNubians, Meshell Ndegeocello, Yerba Buena & more.
The concert raised $40,000 for the African Services Committee, a New York-based organization that is dedicated to improving the health and self-sufficiency of local African communities.
12.1.2006 - 2007 COMMUNITY GRANTS ANNOUNCED
Eight health organizations from across the African continent have been selected for Red Hot's Community Grant Program in 2007. Approved projects include medical services, community outreach and education, microloan financing and support for orphans and families.
Attached Files International Thief Thief By Fela
Lady Featuring Sinead Oconnor By Manu Dibango
Ode To Fela By Hugh Masakela