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SOYINKA'S TRIBUTE TO FELA

Extract from: YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN (an extract)

This tribute to Fela is taken from Wole Soyinka’s latest memoir. While we at
The New Gong do not subscribe to all the sentiments expressed – notably
that Fela somehow gave succour to the Abacha regime even as he stood his
ground while others fled into exile – we welcome the insights of his fellow
Abeokuta cousin. This extract is published here by kind permission of
Bookcraft Ltd.

*

Dispirited, we returned to our hotel.  And then, while lying in bed and licking
my wounds, from across the oceans, thousands of miles away, another Ègbá
spirit flew away.  The news came on my portable radio and it sounded so
strange, a floating contradiction that was at once detached from, yet infused
with the world from which I had myself just earned a lover’s rebuff.  My young
cousin, the abàmì èdá1 that the world knew as Fela, was dead.  He had not
yet attained his sixtieth year.
A naked torso over spangled pants, over which a saxophone or microphone
would oscillate on stage, receiving guests or journalists in underpants while
running down a tune from his head, in the open courtyard at rehearsals or in
any space where he held court – all constituted the trademark of his
unyielding non-conformism.  Far more revealing than such skimpy attire
however was his skin-taut skull and bulging eyes, permanently bloodshot from
an indifferent sleeping routine and a dense marijuana diffusion.  His singing
voice was raspy, not intended to entice but arrest with trenchant messages.  
Sparse and lithe, Fela leapt about the stage like a brown, scalded cat, whose
miaaow was a rustle of riffs eased from a saxophone that often seemed better
maintained than his own body.  Fela loved to buck the system.  His music, to
many, was both salvation and echo of their anguish, frustrations and
suppressed aggression. The black race was the beginning and end of
knowledge and wisdom, his life mission, to effect a mental and physical
liberation of the race.  It struck me as a kind of portent – that it was while
visiting this distant outpost of my home, Abéòkúta, in Westermoreland,
propelled – but quite soberly, objectively – by thoughts of death of that other
musician member of my family – the irrepressible maverick, Fela Anikulapo-
Kuti.
How would one summarise Fela?  Merely as a populist would be inadequate.  
Radical he certainly was, and often simplistically so.  Lean as a runner bean,
a head that sometimes struck me as a death-mask that came to life only on
stage or in an argument – more accurately described as a serial peroration,
since he was incapable of a sustained exchange of viewpoints, especially in
politics.  Only Fela would wax a record jointly according heroic virtues to such
an incompatible trio as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea
and – oh yes, indeed, Idi Amin Dada the terror of Uganda.  It was however
sufficient for my cousin that, at one time or the other, they challenged, defied
or ridiculed an imperial power – any voice raised in denunciation of the
murders of a western stooge, CIA agent and imperialist lackey.  There were
no greys in Fela’s politics of black and white.
Memories flitted across the night – such as one of my least treasured
experiences – the feeling of being designated as dog food!  It was 1984, and I
had travelled to Paris in order to campaign for Fela’s freedom at a mammoth
music concert under yet another dictatorship, that of General Buhari’s
government had flung him in prison on spurious charges of currency offence.  
Under the general anti-racism and human rights slogan – Touche pas à mon
pote – Don’t touch my mate! – the organisers of the concert planned to
devote a special spot to publicise Fela’s unjust imprisonment and mobilize
world opinion on his behalf.  I had accepted their invitation at extremely short
notice, had never before attended a pop music concert, having no inclination
towards high-decibel events and mass excitation.
The trouble came from my efforts to approach the sacred arena where the
artistes, handlers, etc., were tented – I shot to the venue straight from
dumping my bags at the hotel and without the dozen or more passes required
to open up the succession of barriers – someone had omitted to provide
them.  My lasting image from that concert was that of me about to be eaten at
each barrier by teams of obviously starved Alsatians, launched – it appeared
– by their handlers, even while they pretended to restrain them.  Nobody will
ever persuade me that those dogs are ever fed, or that they are not trained to
identify innocent humanity as their next meal!  I had seen footage of white

                                                                                         
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