Fela. The larger than life was in his early 50’s in 1990 and in his final decade.
A view of his live performance on 30th September 1990, gives the sense is of eclectic euphoria. The sound is one of clashing sounds arousing different emotions. The sounds would go classical, spiritual and even traditional.
After his return from studies in England, a young Fela started work at the Nigerian radio cooperation. Married with two kids, Yeni narrates that his mother was still the breadwinner of the family at the time. His mum would lament “This one that you are always begging me for money why don’t you go and play highlife or something”. Fela claims that it was at that time that he got the idea to fuse African music into his jazz style music.
Paying a heavy price for musical activism, he was a major proponent of the African identity.
“Yes in England you can sing about love and who you are going to bed with next….. But in my own environment, my society is under developing because of an alien system on our people. So there is no music for enjoyment, there is nothing like love. There is only a struggle for people’s existence. So as an artist politically and artistically the whole idea about your environment must be represented in the Arts”.
This represented the very core of his musical existence, that Art must represent your surroundings. It should be able to mark time, place and events. And indeed the break came in 1971 with Jeun Koku a hit song and many more songs after that. It was a well-earned reward for perseverance and trust in the creative process as fusing different genres of music was no mean feat. “I lost a lot of crowd during that period but I still kept going,” says Fela.
A glimpse into his earlier days shows nothing too significant. “In our university days, we would host parties and the girlfriends would cook…. He thought politics was a pure waste of time until he found his satori” says Wole Soyinka a Nobel laureate who happens to be his cousin. Soyinka did, however, criticize his blindfold stance to Pan- Africanism. To him, it was absolutely naïve to sympathize with Idi Amin despite his human rights record.
FELA AND MEDICINE
Fela would not touch pharmaceutical manufactured medicine. To him, African indigenous medicine was of a “higher wavelength” when compared to western medicine. Fela would later die of AIDS at the age of 58 and his death would become a major reference point for AIDS awareness in Nigeria.
Critics have cited his death as a flaw in his argument for indigenous medicine. However, it is tempting to ask what the case would have been if he had lived until the ripe old age of 89, as many had done without any attestation to modern medicine. Wouldn’t he have proved his point? He died of an illness that even modern medicine could not cure (but can prevent). His was a classic case of an experiment unsuccessful on the balance of probabilities.
FELA AND SANKARA
Fela’s friendship with Thomas Sankara is also of worthy note. A critic of presidents and leaders all over the world, he would forge a friendship with Thomas Sankara, a one-time commander in chief of Burkina Faso. Theirs was a friendship of leftists and idealists that commanded the awe of the anti-establishment. Sadly, the friendship would not last 24 months.
As Fela was still basking in the glory of prison release in 1987, Sankara was overthrown and eventually killed by his best friend and second in command. He died on October 15th – Fela’s birthday.
FELA AND EDUCATION
Fela didn’t believe in formal education. He did not actively support his children’s education. He encouraged his first son Femi to drop out of school. This was perhaps ironical for someone who had gotten quality education on a platter of gold. His grouse could be attributed to his dislike for academic pressures and rigour.
But he did have a point. Maybe formal education is not a prerequisite for success. Maybe formal education denies you the ability and time to explore your innate qualities and primal inclinations. Today, Femi his son is a very successful Artiste well read and well versed in the ways of the world.
Contrastingly, Femi disagrees, “I could have ended up anywhere” he stated. As far as he is concerned it was an unworthy gamble which he cannot guarantee that everyone can get away with. He has decided to make sure that all his kids go to school.
On the occasion of a Fela album launch on the eve of Nigeria’s Independence Day celebration in 1990, Femi Falana, his young lawyer lambasted the government for its inability stop the dwindling value of the Naira. The lawyer jovially suggested that perhaps a recolonization of Nigeria will be necessary.
But that in itself is subject to another debate.
Abdulsalam Abdullahi is a student at the Nigerian Law school. You can follow him on Twitter @shakaabdul