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