The musical Fela! returns to Los Angeles at the end of this month. It’s amazing to me that there is a Broadway musical devoted to the dynamic Nigerian musician, let alone one that its coming back to LA by popular demand.
KCRW has 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, started airing every Tuesday in the third hour of Morning Becomes Eclectic. We had lp’s from Fela Ransome Kuti Africa 70. There was a slight Nigerian slant to the program for two reasons: there were no African albums to be had, and a guy named Loughty Lassisi Amao–percussionist for the popular British-based Nigerian band Osibisa–was living in LA at the time and brought all his Fela records in. 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 on other radio stations both in America, Europe, and Japan was felt. Each month we airmailed hundreds of playlists all over the world.
Fela was supposed to come to LA in 1984 to perform at the Hollywood Bowl, but he was arrested on trumped-up currency charges and put in jail.
I unearthed a cassette recording of an interview I did with Fela on Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1986 and he talked about that experience:
It’s a wonder that Fela got so much radio airplay on KCRW–his songs were usually 15-30 minutes long. Only a station like KCRW could handle that kind of freedom.
Two years later in 1986, KCRW presented him at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown LA, the boxing stadium that was built for the 1932 Olympics. I think it’s a Korean church now. This was the first show KCRW ever presented!
I saw Fela many times. He would let the big band cruise along for a while, saxes blaring, then come out and have an assistant light his joint. He would sing, deliver lectures on colonial mentality, zombies and mental slavery, then break to take the occasional hit off the spliff. One time, performing with his 27 wives all on stage (at the Greek I think, but it could have been the Wadsworth Theatre), his wives were on their knees in 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 don’t forget such moments.
When I interviewed him he complained that his wives weren’t giving him enough freedom (he married all of them at the same time). I turned the tables on him and asked him if he would give 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:
He wasn’t wearing his underwear like he often did in interviews at his compound. He did sport the body suit that he wore on stage…he was a small, muscular man, no body fat, all muscle and sinew; he reminded me of Miles Davis, who had a similar body type but had a different sense of sartorial expression.
I knew about the Lagos army ransacking of his home–1,000 army soldiers did the pillaging, raping, and beatings–Fela called it the Kalakuta Republic–it was their his famous and much-revered mother was pushed out of a second floor window. She later died from her injuries. She was a famous Nigerian, having won women the right to drive after being the first woman to drive, and was honored in Moscow with the Lenin Peace Prize for her efforts on behalf of women in Nigeria. It was a shocking and brutal 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 and looked at me and told me, “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 bullet scars all over his arms. I was 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 used pidgin as his lingua franca to better connect with regular folk. He had been sent to England to university to study economics. He chose music instead, forming his first band, Koola Lobitos.
Here he talks about what it was like in his house growing up:
But the real turning point, one that changed his life forever, was when he came to LA in 1969. There he met a woman named Sondra Izsidore, and discovered the local, burgeoning Black Power movement. He never turned back.
In that 1986 interview, I asked him about his believe in a unified Africa:
James Brown scored a huge hit among people in newly-independent African nations in 1970 with his 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 back to Lagos. Black history and pride returning 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 in 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 are carrying the torch and furthering 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–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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