Fela Kuti and Tom Schnabel at KCRW, 1986

The musical Fela! returns to Los Angeles at the end of this month. It’s fantastic to see that a Broadway musical has been devoted to this dynamic Nigerian musician, let alone that it’s coming back to LA by popular demand.

KCRW has had a long relationship with the Nigerian firebrand known as Fela Anikulapo (“one who carries death in his/her pouch”) Kuti. It started in 1980 when our first African show, Morning Goes Makossa, began airing every Tuesday during the third hour of Morning Becomes Eclectic. We had LP’s from Fela Ransome Kuti & The Afrika 70. There was a slight Nigerian slant to the program for two reasons: a guy named Loughty Lasisi Amao, percussionist for the popular British-based Afro-pop band Osibisa, was living in LA at the time and brought all his Fela records into studio; and there were no African albums to be had otherwise. Later, having two Nigerian hosts on KCRW’s long-running African Beat program also helped spread the afrobeat gospel in Southern California. Even before the internet, KCRW’s influence over other radio stations in America, Europe, and Japan was felt. By popular request each month, we air mailed hundreds of playlists all over the world.

Fela was supposed to perform in 1984 at the Hollywood Bowl, but he was arrested on trumped-up currency charges and put in jail. I recently unearthed a cassette recording of an interview I did with Fela on Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1986, where he recalled the experience.

Looking back, it’s a wonder that Fela received so much radio airplay on KCRW, given that his songs were typically 15–30 minutes long. Only a station like KCRW could afford that kind of freedom. Fela was the first show that KCRW ever presented, back in 1986, at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown LA, a boxing stadium that was built for the 1932 Olympics. I think it has since been converted to a Korean church.

I had the privilege of seeing Fela perform many times. He would let the big band cruise along for awhile with saxes blaring before making his entrance onstage, where an assistant would then light his joint. He would sing, deliver lectures on colonial mentality, zombies and mental slavery, occasionally breaking for hits off spliffs. Once, while performing alongside all 27 of his wives on stage (at The Greek Theatre, I think…but it could have been the Wadsworth Theatre), his wives lowered down to their knees in their short skirts with their bottoms facing the audience, and I noticed—from the second row—that some of them weren’t wearing underwear. Now I’m no peeping Tom, but you certainly don’t forget such moments.

When I interviewed Fela, he complained that his wives weren’t giving him enough freedom (he married all 27 of them at the same time), so I turned the tables on him and asked if he would allow his wives the same freedom he was demanding of them. He uttered, “Whoaaa…” and shook his head. He didn’t like that. Here’s the clip.

Fela wasn’t wearing underwear himself, as was often the case during interviews at his compound. However, he did sport the bodysuit that he wore onstage. He was a small, svelte man—no body fat, just all muscle and sinew. He reminded me of Miles Davis, who had a similar body type but with a different sense of sartorial expression.

I knew about the Lagos army’s ransacking of his compound, which Fela called the “Kalakuta Republic.” It was there that 1,000 army soldiers raped and pillaged, brutally throwing his famous, much-revered mother from a third floor window. She later died from her injuries. Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a famous Nigerian, who championed women’s suffrage among other issues, and was honored in Moscow with the Lenin Peace Prize for her efforts on behalf of women in Nigeria. It was a shocking and horrific incident, but one all too common in Africa.

Years later, I was coming home from LAX in a taxi driven by a Nigerian guy. I could tell from his accent that he was Nigerian. We started talking music, and I asked him about Fela. He turned around to look at me and exclaimed, “I was Fela’s road manager!” I asked him about the storming of the Republic. He pulled the taxi over, drew his sleeves back, and showed me the many bullet scars up and down his arms. I was both horrified and amazed by this heavy dose of reality.

Fela was a privileged upper-middle class kid with a politically active mother and a strict religious father. He spoke pidgin as his lingua franca to better connect with regular folk. Sent to England to study economics at university, he chose music instead and formed his first band, Koola Lobitos.

Here he talks about what it was like growing up in his household.

But the real turning point, one that changed Fela’s life forever, was when he came to LA in 1969 and met a woman named Sondra Izsidore. It was through her that he discovered the local, burgeoning Black Power movement. He never turned back.

In that 1986 interview, I asked him about his belief in a unified Africa.

James Brown scored a huge hit among people in newly-independent African nations with his 1970s hit song, “Say it Out Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The song resonated with young Africans, who after hundreds of years of colonial rule, were eager to embrace their new African identity. That same year, Fela took his lessons from Sondra Izsidore and Los Angeles and went back to Lagos. Black history and pride returned to Africa. Africa influencing America and vice-versa. It was cultural counterpoint, a tango, if you will.

Fela ran for President of Nigeria but didn’t win. He chided multinational corporations with songs like “I.T.T.” (the conglomerate IT&T becomes “International Thief & Thief”). He angered those in power. Everybody else loved him. And now his sons Femi and Seun continue to carry the torch and further the legacy that is Fela.

If Fela had lived to see his name on Broadway, he wouldn’t have believed it. He may not even have liked it, but I think he would have because underneath it all, Fela was a showman. And if somebody had told me ten years ago that he’d be on Broadway, I wouldn’t have believed it either.

Here’s a video of Fela performing “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense.”

 

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  • http://www.afrobeatmusic.net Julio

    Great review. However, Fela's mother died one year after the attack of the Kalakuta Republic and not a few days later.

    • tom

      thanks for the clarification. as the musical shows, she was a huge inspiration on her son.

  • tom

    no newsletters, just this blog….glad you like it.

  • Paula Davis

    I saw Fela live at Olympic Auditorium in Downtown Los Angeles in 1981! It was amazing and I still have the backstage passes from that show that I put in my reggae and African Music "scapbook." Then I also saw him at the Greek Theater. I saw the show at The Ahmanson and met many of the cast backstage and they signed the beautiful program of that show! I miss Fela.

  • Paula Davis

    After reading my blog, I realized that I may have been confused as to the dates and locations of the concerts I attended. But, it is true — I did attend those shows. Also, I met Sandra Isadore at the Fela! concert at The Ahmanson. She is so beautiful and can really dance & sing!

    • tom schnabel

      Sondra and Fela's mother were the biggest influences in his life. Sondra was on KPFK with Derek Rath last Monday and it was wonderful to hear her. Derek was also at all of Fela's shows.

    • tom schnabel

      p.s. the Olympic Auditorium show was in June (or July?) of 1986…he was supposed to play the HOllywood Bowl 2 years before but got arrested at the Lagos Airport on false currency charges…..

  • tom schnabel

    Fela was thrown in jail as well, but not for the things you mention above….on trumped up currency smuggling charges at the Lagos Airport in 1984. I suppose you could call his nights at the Shrine "dionysian".

  • tom schnabel

    you're right…he was one of a kind…..

  • tom

    you are most welcome!

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