We like neat narratives, stories we can remember and recount easily. But neat narratives sometimes leave us unaware of context, limiting our understanding of the full story. The story of Fela Kuti, the venerable Nigerian afrobeat maestro, and his home and communal compound, the Kalakuta Republic, is a perfect example of a narrative that has often been rudimentary simplified, robbing music fans of a more complex web of stories. Uwa Erhabor looks to rectify this with his new book, Kalakuta Diaries. He fleshes out the stories, gives them full context and provides the back-story for a lot of what we know, and a lot of what we don’t know.
Uwa Erhabor didn’t write this book from the outside looking in. This is not a book based on secondhand interviews, hearsay or articles written in the western press. Erhabor was right there with Fela at the Kalakuta Republic, as a friend and, later, a personal aide. He describes the book as “a personal narrative of events and characters that propelled and defined an African social-political setting in the heart of Lagos, Nigeria. Kalakuta was a creation of an iconic rare-breed par excellence, whose enduring legacies have left an indelible footprint in the sands of Africa and the world’s political times and consciousness. This narrative apart from the well-known battles against the establishment, is also an attempt to emphasize the roles played by the different characters that shaped the actions and policies of a die-hard Pan-Africanist who had an uncanny ability to read and predict exactly, outcomes of diverse political and economic actions of the ruling elite years ahead most of his fellow countrymen.”
The book touches a wide range of issues and topics, from his beef with Obasanjo (Head of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria from 1976 – 1979, and later president of Nigeria), to Fela’s exile and expulsion from Ghana, to incidents like the author breaking the news of Thomas Sankara’s assassination on October 15th to Fela (the date also happens to be Fela’s birthday), to the interpersonal relationships and struggles within the Kalakuta Republic compound. However, for the sake of brevity, I will focus on the two topics below.
1. Fela’s decision to focus on African music.
2. Fela’s intense rivalry with politician and businessman M.K.O. Abiola.
The narrative usually given is that Fela became socially- and politically-conscious and changed direction, musically, when he went to the US and his African-American girlfriend Sandra Izsadore introduced him to the Black Power movement. While it is indeed true that Izsadore introduced Fela to America’s Black Power movement, the shift in the direction of his music came about because of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.
Fela’s music initially was more western inclined, as his idols were jazz icons like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. At the time, he played the trumpet, and would play his horn with a white handkerchief, emulating some American trumpeters. But his mother didn’t understand why his music sounded so westernized, so she asked him “Fela, why don’t you use African rhythms in your music instead of this oyinbo, oyinbo you are playing?” The question apparently occupied Fela the whole night, and he began the next day to experiment. The change came naturally to him, and he started to compose and record songs that tapped influences closer to home. In addition to the usual guitars, bass and horn heavy sections, he now included congas, as well as backup singers, with the explicit purpose of lacing his music with heavy African rhythms. This was the birth of Afrobeat and it happened before he went to the US in 1969.
Depending on whom you ask, M.K.O. Abiola is either a hero of the people or a dirty rotten scoundrel. For Fela, he was most definitely the latter. When Fela was arrested on trumped up hash charges, he was taken to jail and forced to excrete in a bowl so his feces could be tested for hash. He wrote the song Expensive Shit following that incident. Upon his release, he became even more ardent in calling out the powerful elites for their corruption, and there were few more prominent than M.K.O. Abiola. At the time, Abiola had close ties to the military top brass, and was awarded a telecommunications contract by Murtala Muhammed's government. Abiola, allegedly, pocketed most of the money and, with what was left, procured cheap, old, secondhand telecommunications equipment from Brazil for use in Nigeria, thus lumbering the country with a communications grid more suited to the stone age. Despite this, Abiola was later appointed to be the Vice President of the Africa and Middle East division of the ITT Corporation. Livid, Fela penned the song ITT (International Thief Thief) as a direct attack on Abiola.
Their tumultuous relationship didn’t end there. Abiola was also the head honcho at Decca Records West Africa. Feeling invincible, he proceeded to release 10 Fela records without a valid contract. Upset at being financially cheated, Fela and members of the Kalakuta Republic stormed Decca Records, chased everyone out and took over the building. Left with no other options, the Inspector General of the police told Abiola that he would have to pay Fela his money. Abiola was afraid of Fela.
In another instance, Fela confronted Abiola in person when he went to visit the office of his friend Sam Amuka, the editor of The Punch newspaper in Nigeria, and saw Abiola there. The conversation apparently went as follows:
Amuka: Eh Fela, how nice to see you.
Fela: Yeah Sam, I was just passing by and thought to say hell… (Sighting MKO), what is this thief doing here?
Amuka: Fela please don’t start any problems.
Fela: (Now facing Abiola) Oga Mr. Big man, now you look like a frightened rat. There is nothing that would give me more pleasure than to blow your fucking face. But I am going to let you be for my friend’s sake.
After Fela left, a frightened Abiola thanked Sam Amuka immensely for saving his hide. However, Fela wasn’t done with Abiola. Fela got an idea to give Abiola shit, literally. The idea came from his daughter Yeni, who felt that the police and powers that be weren’t going to do anything to apprehend Abiola, despite his crookedness. Fela agreed to go to Abiola’s luxurious home in Ikeja to throw shit at it, but he wanted to do it in an epic way. He arranged for his pianist, Duro Ikujenyo, to organize the collection of as much shit as possible. Ikujenyo went to the Waste Disposal Unit in Lagos Island and procured 10 buckets of shit. Fela, covering his face and dressed as an Agpebo (shit disposer), then drove with the buckets to Abiola’s compound. When security officials at Abiola’s home came to see who the guest was, a bucket of shit came crashing down into the compound. Realizing what it was, they all ran. Abiola and his family were forced to evacuate the premises. Fela had no fear of even the most powerful, and that was why he was considered such a threat.
At 148 pages, Kalakuta Diaries is a brief yet thorough account, a reminder of the social-political atrocities that have been committed - and are still being committed - by the elites in Nigeria. It is a must for anyone interested in African social-political history, and for Fela and afrobeat fans, and I urge you to get yourself a copy.
Kalakuta Diaries is available at all the usual stores, including:
The Book Depository
Barnes & Noble