When Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died on August 2, 1997, one holier-than-thou friend became outraged that I was mentioned in The Guardian’s front page report of the passing as one of the notable apostles of the Afrobeat legend.
I shut the poor fellow up by hollering: “I swear by Fela’s Shrine!”
My love of Fela is a very long story but I plan to make it short and sharp here. Back in my first year at Great Ife, Fela was billed to perform on campus in a concert tagged “TV is 20” to celebrate 20 years of television in Nigeria. While Fela was having his rehearsal at night on the Oduduwa Amphitheatre stage I saw this young girl walking about. I accosted her, saying: “Go to sleep! A young girl should not be walking about this late in the night!” She laughed good-naturedly and replied: “You are the young boy who should be on your bed, sleeping!”
She was Sola Anikulapo-Kuti, Fela’s daughter. I repeatedly called her Shola but she always corrected me that she was Sola, with no “Sh” as was normally the case. We became instant friends, walking all over the place together. She introduced me to a handful of young boys and girls who had come with her from Lagos. The boys in the group did not like me at all because I was carrying on like I owned the entire campus. Truth to tell, in those days I could do and undo!
Sola promised to get me tickets for the concert proper the next day. I was sleeping and had completely forgotten about Sola when a boon companion of mine woke me up to announce that Fela’s daughter was looking for me at the porter’s lodge. I ran up to the place and she promptly produced some tickets for me and my friends. I sat with her near the stage while her father played after being introduced to the teeming audience by, as Sola said, “Uncle Wole Soyinka.”
It is incumbent on me to fast-forward this story. Sola died! But before the death of the beautiful one I had come to Lagos to settle. Sadly Fela was in Buhari’s jail. Fela spoke from prison after Buhari was overthrown by Babangida, to wit, “Judge don beg me!”
After Fela’s release from prison I took to visiting the great man in the company of my buddy and colleague, Mallam Abdul Okwechime who had earlier lived in Fela’s Kalakuta Republic. Fela was then staying with his brother Beko at Imaria Close in Anthony Village. In the midnight hours Fela would drive us in Beko’s ambulance all over Lagos and we always ended up at Jazz 38 in Ikoyi where his niece, Fran Kuboye, played delightful music.
Whenever policemen stopped us at checkpoints, Fela would tell the cops: “Una dey here dey suffer while una officers dey hammer una wives for barracks!” The policemen would cheer Fela on thusly: “Baba 70! Abami Eda! Baba!”
Fela once told me that Nigeria can win the World Cup by carrying a very big drum into the stadium and playing the drum behind the opposing goalkeeper. I told Fela that FIFA would not allow it only for Fela to reply me thus: “But how can FIFA see it ni? FIFA can’t see it ni!” I instantly kept my mouth shut!
After Fela’s elder brother, Prof Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, addressed a press conference at the Afrika Shrine on Pepple Street, Ikeja to announce to a startled world that Fela died of AIDS-related complications, Adewale Maja-Pearce and I decided to take some of Fela’s band boys out for a drink. In the course of the drinks one of Fela’s boys unaccountably exclaimed: “Na God go punish that Fela sef!” We were shocked at his utterance and asked him to explain what he meant. The distraught fellow lamented that Fela had no business dying thus leaving them, his band boys, stranded on earth. The guy explained that Fela ought to have taken the Western medicines that could have saved his life; “after all, the saxophone he was fond of blowing was equally made by the white man!”
Even so, I still swear by Fela’s Shrine because Fela had death in his pocket!