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SOYINKA'S TRIBUTE TO FELA


police officers unleashing their kindred monsters on black protesters in
Apartheid South Africa – at no time did the thought ever cross my mind
that I would some day come close to taking over those victims’ role, in
Paris, especially as an honoured guest.  My mission, I assumed, was to
deliver a message to the world, thereafter escaping into the sanity of
the furthest café from the raucous, drug-stoned environment within
which millions of presumably sane people actually find hours of
ecstasy.  Still, once within the protective barriers, I carried off my
mission with all due dignity as became an ambassador of the Black
President – one of Fela’s many unofficial titles – and delivered my
message against the background of his blown-up image even as his
music was blared over the Paris night.        For nearly the last five years
of his life, Fela was fully convinced, not only that he was a reincarnated
Egyptian god, but that he had actually begun to reverse the aging
process, that is, was growing younger and would again revert to
childhood and infancy.  By that token, my àbúro would have watched
his own funeral, unobserved by mere mortals.  Wreathed in a marijuana
induced serenity – for I have no doubt that there would be gardens of
vintage ganja in Fela’s heaven – he would have enjoyed the irony of his
funeral, the magnitude of which was an unintended gift to us exiles of
Abacha’s misrule.  He was laid in state at the huge Òníkan Race
Course in the heart of Lagos, a now degraded monument to vainglory
that an earlier dictator, Yakubu Gowon, had built for himself.  It was
designed as a parade ground that would show off the might and
splendour of the military regime, and the first visiting dignitary to grace
those grounds would have been Queen Elizabeth II of England.  Alas,
while attending a meeting with other African heads of state in East
Africa in 1976, Yakubu Gowon learnt that he had been overthrown in a
coup that was mounted by his own palace guard.  The royal visit was on
those very grounds as nearly a million of his countrymen and women
came to pay him tribute.
On the day of Fela’s funeral, the whole of Lagos stood still, all
businesses were suspended and any governmental presence
banished.  The mammoth crowd at the funeral of this most vocal and
unrelenting dissident being was, firstly, a tribute to his person.  
Following this however, it was also a statement of defiance to the
regime of Sani Abacha.  Despite his quixotic outbursts, near
blasphemous, since they appeared to support the rule of Sani Abacha,
the fundamental message of Fela’s art and life-style was anathema to
any military or dictatorial regime, and thus he remained a persona non
grata even to Sani Abacha, whose persecution of Beko, his brother,
was a warning to the maverick tunesmith that not even he was
untouchable.  Fela’s funeral was thus an occasion that the people
exploited to the full, pouring out in a way that defied the regime’s ban
on public gatherings, making the Black President the mouthpiece of
their repressed feelings, even in his lifeless form.  Neither the police nor
the military dared show its face on that day, and the uniformed
exceptions only came to pay tribute.  Quite openly, with no attempt
whatsoever at disguising their identities, they stopped by his bier,
saluted the stilled scourge of corrupt power, mimic culture and
militarism.  It was a much needed act of solidarity for us.
Outside public adulation however, my mind remained retentive of a
decades old image of Fela, a private one, not the familiar stage torso
swivelling above sequined trousers, leaping about on stage with
inimitable verve, a leaner version of James Brown.  It was a fleeting
moment of revelation, glimpsed during one of my infrequent visits to
him, a trapped moment of repose when his inner thoughts appeared to
overcome his darting eyes and they remained in place, deep windows
into a wistful, deeply dissatisfied being.  There was no audience, no
need for role-playing.  His familiar, loose wrapped marijuana stick of
almost mid-size cigar proportions smouldered over his lower lip,
diffusing sufficient smoke to intoxicate an audience of a hundred or
more.  He had a faraway look, filled with discontent, and I thought I read
in those eyes a longing that they could will the pungent fumigation that
emerged between his lips into a transforming agent for a nation’s
putrefactions, yet acknowledging that he was powerless to effect this
dream, that the mocking immensity of the task would for ever render
him tormented, inconsolable.
I found a private symmetry about his passing, mostly in the way it chose
to touch me in a remote space of separated, yet close kinship, as if this
public death had been sent across radio waves to re-attach me to that
distant, but progressively depleted landscape.  Despite the weight of a
double bereavement, I accepted, quite factually, that I was not destined
to be buried in Bekuta, but remained cautious about whether or not I
should read the loss of Fela-Bekuta as an omen that I was not meant to
perish in exile.