By Pelu Awofeso
Benson Idonije, 75, crossed paths with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian creator of Afrobeat (who died on 2 August 1997, aged 58), in 1963 inside the studios of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC).
“On the day of our meeting,” the Jazz aficionado recalls, “he [Fela] came with an album of Jazz which he had recorded in London; I played it on my Jazz programme and from then on we became friends.” Shortly after that episode, the Fela Ransome Kuti United, a Jazz band, was formed with Idonije managing the ensemble. Several collaborations followed, and the bond between the two men grew even stronger, to the point of them having a shared pet name, Oyejo.
Says Idonije: “Fela was a great musician who, like Bob Marley, endeared himself to the youth…he lived the life of a genius; he was true to himself, bold, fearless.”
On October 16 (2010), a day after Fela Anukulapo-Kuti’s posthumous 72nd birthday, book and music merchants Glendora and Jazzhole in Lagos hosted a discussion session among personalities who are believed to have exclusive insights into the Fela phenomenon. Idonije was one of them.
And there was also Dr. Sola Olorunyomi, author of Fela: Africa and the Re-Imagined Continent, who teaches at the University of Ibadan’s Institute of African Studies, where there is an ongoing effort to document all of Fela’s imprints on the world’s consciousness. Olorunyomi appears to be the arrow-head of these efforts, which has seen him traverse three continents in his search for all things Fela.
“I have been doing much documentation than writing, that’s the point,” he tells the audience in a room walled around with books and music CDs, “I went across Europe, to private homes, anybody who had anything. Every country I’ve been I try to find out whoever did anything with Fela. It’s not about me; it’s about the heritage.”
Possibly one of the few unsung experts of Fela, Olorunyomi began his probe before the artiste’s death of complications arising from HIV/AIDS in 1997. But he didn’t have a smooth sail. As he himself recalls, there were times Fela was so pissed he threatened to have the scholar thrown out of his Lagos home. Then even after Fela’s passing, associates and contemporaries would not venture any information on the musician to someone they considered too young to take up the challenge.
“Not to be able to write about something I didn’t experience is not a problem,” Olorunyomi says, displeased at being denied information he believes should be documented for posterity. “But let’s face it, people are still writing about Shakespeare. If my child wakes up one day and says: ‘I want to write about Fela,’ so be it. It will be her own experience of Fela.”
Idonije, who currently writes a music column in The Guardian of Nigeria, has already written a book on his friend, scheduled for release on 18 February 2011, the day in 1977 when Kuti’s commune Kalakuta Republic was raided by soldiers and sacked. Titled This Fela Sef, the book explores many aspects of Fela’s musical life not previously tackled by earlier authors.
“I am one of the people who think that most of the books written about Fela have portrayed him mainly as a fighter, as a turbulent person and all of that,” says Idonije, after reading the book’s first chapter. “The core of Fela was his brilliant musicianship. And so people are selling their books based on all those terrible aspects of him. Mainly, the man was a brilliant musician, and this is one of things I have succeeded in doing in my own book.”
There are a whole chapters, he says, devoted to Fela’s early years as an upstart; Fela at work (rehearsals); Fela’s stints with other local musical groups; his evolution from Jazz player to Highlife-Jazz and eventually to Afrobeat (the name Fela coined for his type of music inside a clubhouse in Accra, the Ghanaian capital in 1967); his inspirations and dealings with recording companies and so on.
“His most brilliant era was in the sixties,” says Idonije, “that was when he played brilliant music. But it was when he started to play popular, watered down music that people knew him.”
No one contests that Fela was famous within and outside his home country of Nigeria while he was alive or that he was popular with the masses. At the height of his fame, the message in his songs reverberated around Africa and across the world. “It was so organic, like it grew out of the ground or something,” says South African playwright and poet Lesego Rampolokeng, who first heard Fela’s music (Lady, Shakara) in the 1970s as a seven-year-old growing up in Soweto. “We could absorb it run with it or match down the street with it. So it was not surprising that few years later Soweto exploded in the June 1960 riots.”
And it appears that a whole 13 years after he passed on, his legend continues to add more dimensions, aided in large part by Felabration, the weeklong annual concert organised by his two eldest children (Yeni and Femi) and held every October in their father’s memory.
Felabration this year  was bigger and better than it had ever been, attendance and all. “If there’s one cultural ambassador Nigeria has produced, it is certainly Fela Anikulapo-Kuti,” says Human Rights lawyer and activist Femi Falana, at the ‘Fela Debates’, which looked at the subject of ‘Music As A Weapon’ (October 11).
Typically, the Nigerian government didn’t associate with the programme. That was no surprise, really, because in his lifetime, Fela was always anti-ruling class (but pro-masses).
That’s no cause for worry, says Falana: “At the appropriate time, he will be duly honoured.”