Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Fela Kuti: 20 years after his death, I visited Fela's house and grabbed his pants

The terrace of Fela Kuti's Kalakuta Museum in Ikeja, Lagos.

Pulse Music Editor, Joey Akan, recounts his visit to Fela Kuti's home, 20 years after the death of the Nigerian music legend.

When Fela Kuti died of AIDS in 1996, I was a 5 year old with barely any memory of it. But I can still slightly recall my usually jovial father withdrawn with a sad look on his face, and every adult in the room looking sad like they had lost something. In the streets of Borikiri, a popular town at the heart of Rivers State capital, the air around the neighbourhood was subdued.

“What happened? Why is everyone quiet?” I bounced along and asked Lydia, my 10-year-old elder sister.

“Fela just died.” She said.

I didn’t care. I didn’t know the man personally. I only knew of his music which my late father blared from car stereo and sang along.

“Water, e no get enemy…” I can recall him singing, his eyes burning bright with happiness and resolve as he mimed on the steering. He once took his hand off the wheels while half-dancing to ‘Trouble sleep, yanga wake am’. I screamed in horror, thinking we were going to crash, as my dad sang “Palava, e go get, palava, e go get oh…”

 

Fela Kuti was more than an artist to the people who experienced his music. He was a preacher who spoke the message of hope and liberation to a country held down by dictatorial leadership and a colonial mentality. He embodied the dreams of generations, and the struggle of the black community in Africa. He was beaten for his views, bruised and battered for his militant activism. But he never gave up, using music as a weapon to fight against injustice in the land.

His genre of music, Afrobeat, has survived down the years – a mixture of jazz, funk, and traditional African rhythms which has provided a legacy that is still effective to this day. It serves as an inspiration to thousands of musicians who utilize his sonic formats and arrangements in their music.

Today, August 2, 2017 marks 20 years since the legend breathed his last. 20 years is a long time. That kid in Port Harcourt has gone through puberty and become a man. I have read countless books about the life and work of the great general, and binged on his music. But nothing prepared me for the experience of stepping into his home – Kalakuta Museum. Located in Ikeja, Lagos, in an unassuming neighbourhood, Fela’s family members transformed it into a museum and opened in 2012.

 

We had showed up in his home for the press conference to announce the 2017 Felabration, a weeklong celebration of the life and legacy of Fela. Organisers of the event including his daughter, Yeni Kuti had called on journalists to disclose plans for the year on this historic date.

Fela’s museum had an air of mystery about it. There were guitars hanging around his house, a keyboard decorated a passageway, and if you look carefully, around the photos spread on the wall, you could trace Fela’s entire life in photos.

“All journalists should follow me for the tour. We are going to show you around Fela’s belongings,” our guide Abdul said. He was a pleasant man, with a sound knowledge of Fela, which he regularly impacted into everyone.

I asked for a photo, he hugged me, smiled from both sides of his mouth. He actually thanked me for the photo opportunity.

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Joey Akan.”

Where do you work?”

“Pulse”

“Oh you guys…” he broke into laughter.

We first walked into a room with two huge old drums. They measured over 6ft, with native markings on them.

“Fela bought these drums from Maiduguri.” Abdul said. “When he was imprisoned in Maiduguri, he heard these drums through his prison wall, and said he was going to use them in his next album.”

When Fela was released in 1968, he ordered the drums from Maiduguri, adamant that he wanted to include them in his music. When Fela wanted something, he got it. Those drums were shipped down to Lagos, where he used them to create the classic record, ‘Beast of no Nation’.

 

We journeyed into his bedroom. The famous room where he had legendary bouts of marijuana-fueled sex with long streams of women who flocked to his side. His outfits hung from a hanger, a saxophone stood prominent, while his some of his awards lined a looking glass.

“That’s the bed where Fela slept with his wives. That bedsheet was the last he used before his death.” Abdul said, a little glitter in his eyes. Journalists crowded him, as they shared jokes about sex. During his prime, Fela had a roster for sleeping with his 27 wives. It was orderly business, a timetable instituted to maintain the peace in his household. That bed in his room, had seen action. Legendary action.

“These girls are very interested in that bird,” Abdul joked.

Fela also had a sweet tooth, which ensured that he had sweets, chocolate and sugary drinks in that freezer. "He never allowed anyone share his sweets with him." Abdul said.

Another room held newspaper clippings of his activities. Every time Fela was covered by the press, a clipping was kept. Many of these papers lined the wall. But that was not all. In 1979, Fela Kuti formed a political party, the Movement of the People. Under the banners of the platform, he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of Nigeria. His entire manifesto was typed on a personal typewriter, with pages of the lengthy document hanging on the wall.

 

It was a sombre moment as we all wondered what would have been if Kuti had grabbed the reins of this country. What would have happened to the course of Nigeria? Where would we be now? Would poverty be eradicated? Would our oil serve the people’s interest? Would Jollof rice hold its present composition? Would marijuana be a national plant?

But we would never know. Fela failed at his bid. Sadly. Next.

We walked through a new set of doors, where several pairs of shoes hung on the wall. “These were all of Fela’s footwear, he wore them during performances,” said Abdul. On another hung three pants. They were a core part of his imagery, with the singer appearing in multiple photos with nothing these pants. I grabbed one with respect. Examined it for a while, and then dropped me. The gravity of the situation hit me. I had touched something which covered Fela’s balls. His balls of steel.

No legendary homo.

 

We climbed through to another floor which had just been renovated. There were rooms for guests who would be interested in sleeping in Fela’s house. Walk the halls the way he did, and perhaps make music in his fashion.

This was a watershed moment for me. A sense of belonging enveloped me, as I climed to the terrace of the building. I just walked through the home of one of Africa’s greats, and connected to parts of his life that neither words nor pictures can capture. For that brief moment, I was a part of his home, his life, his legacy.

 

Just as I posed for my final photos and thanked Abdul for his help, I turned around to see the most ironical signage greeted me. Written with red ink on a white plastic, read the magical words:

“No Smoking Of Indian Hemp, Here.”

Really?



from pulse.ng - Nigeria's entertainment & lifestyle platform online

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