BY VICTOR AKHIDENOR
We are live at the Africa Shrine on Pepple Street in Ikeia, Lagos. The Egypt ‘80 band has been playing since midnight, warming up the crowd with classic tunes before the arrival of the music legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Previously recorded songs like Power Show, Alagbon Close, Trouble Sleep Yanga Go Wake Am, Why Blackman Dey Suffer, Lady, Water No Get Enemy, Opposite People, Dog Eat Dog, and Beast of No Nation rend the air.
The music maestro, with his retinue in tow, finally arrives around 2am to a thunderous applause. Dressed tonight in a tight orange jumpsuit stitched with traditional Yoruba symbols and shapes, Fela makes his way through the crowd to the stage.
He greets his audience with a clenched-fist black power salute as he steps up to the microphone. He pauses. He surveys the crowd with searching eyes while taking intermittent puffs from the Igbo in his hand. Finally, he speaks.
“Everybody say ye-ye!”
“Ye-ye!” the audience respond.
What comes next is an avalanche of yabbis directed at the Nigerian government and its foreign cohorts. The audience shouts more “ye-ye” punctuated with cries of “yab dem, yab dem!”
With dessert served, Fela moves to the main dish of the night. Music.
“Brothers and sisters, I’m gonna play for you now a tune we call M.A.S.S. – Music Against Second Slavery.”
Fela spins around and stares at his band members who stare at him in return. Slowly, he begins to clap out the song’s tempo, wriggling his slender body to the rhythm. Despite his not so menacing stature, Fela wields enormous authority onstage. A single-note line from a guitarist is accompanied by a percussionist thumping out a rhythm atop an eight-foot traditional gbedu drum.
Showing its growing excitement, the audience respond by yelling Fela’s various nicknames: Abami Eda, Omo Iya Aje, Naija Airways, Baba ’70, Chief Priest, Black President!
Let’s pause here and take our mind off the stage.
If you are curious, like I am, wouldn’t you want to know the origins of those puzzling names of the music legend? This can help.
“I asked the new pupils in my class to blow ‘paan’, but Fela blew ‘Paan…Paan…Paan’. Then I knew I had a problem student,” recalls Mrs. Cunningham-Wilson, his teacher at Trinity College, London.
A one-word summary? Non-conformist.
“Fela was like a kaleidoscope with different shades, hues, and colours depending on the optic from which one chooses to view him” says Derin Ogundipe in his article titled, Tribute to a Cultural Redeemer, in The Guardian newspaper on August 13, 1997.
If Fela could be bottled would he have been called ‘eau de enigma’?
Femi Kuti was once asked his perception of his father’s mysticism.
“Fela’s what did you call it – mysticism? He was not a mystic for me. After all, he was my father.”
Yes, he was. But to others he couldn’t be clearly defined. That’s where Puzzles come in.
Puzzles are designed to give our problem-solving, reasoning, and concentration skills a workout. And we are about to tackle one so we can know the personality of Africa’s greatest ever musician. And if we agree he was a puzzle, which one will it be?
If you thought Fela was well-read, worked hard at keeping informed and had an excellent memory, then he was a Crossword. Which meant if someone had asked him a question that he couldn’t answer, he would look it up.
You can call him a Rubik’s Cube, instead of Abami Eda, if you thought he had the enviable ability to put thoughts into action and had a high tolerance for frustration which meant he could stick with a task no matter how unpleasant or monotonous it was.
Is it getting clearer? No? Then should we call him an Anagram and not Omo Iya Aje?
Well, if you thought he enjoyed puzzles which comprised scrambled words and he frequently plunged headlong into knotty situations but you knew he could be depended on to get at the truth and straighten things out? Then, the mystery ends here – he was an Anagram.
The mystery is not over yet? Okay, let’s continue to unravel the true personality of the Chief Priest.
When it came to problem-solving, was he afraid of trying something new? When faced with the problem of taking his mother’s purported coffin to Dodan Barracks, did he and his supporters trek with the casket or rather arrange for a van during the courtesy visit to Olusegun Obasanjo at Obalende? If he had chosen the hard way, then he was a Jigsaw Puzzle.
You can call him a Word Find if he was well-organised, hard-driven, and ambitious. When he made an important decision, he stood by it. And he couldn’t be talked into doing anything against his better judgement. That sounds appropriate, right? No?
Okay, if he liked Chinese ring, intertwined nails, or locking blocks and was a person who responded best to touch then you could call him a Take-apart or Put-together. He was a “hugger” and “kisser” who preferred expressing affection physically. He took a “hands on” approach to problems. Like he did when taking 27 women to Ifa altar on February 18, 1978.
You will call him a Cryptogram if you thought he was a private person who was not likely to divulge his personal affairs. In case you are laughing at this, you should know that that is what you would have called him if you felt he was someone who doesn’t like to borrow and who would prefer to think his way out of a problem. A Cryptogram, then? Hold on a second.
Was he a disciplined and highly responsible individual? Did I see you laugh, again? When you are done, please know that if you thought he was someone who when faced with a problem adopts a logical, step-by-step approach? Then, he was Connect-the-dots.
Back on stage, the Jigsaw Puzzle raises his hands above his head and waves the percussionists and rhythm section in. Time itself seems to slowly shift along with the sticks and the shekere rattle, whose steady chirping frames an intricate tapestry of spacy rhythm.
Stepping to his electric organ at centre stage, the Anagram begins to improvise around the tempo with greater density. At the height of his solo, the Rubik’s Cube waves in the ten-piece horn section, which enters dramatically, blaring the song’s theme.
With instrumental solos, featured dancers, and audience participation games, it will be another thirty minutes before the Crossword even begins to sing. But the audience is in delirious, swirling motion.
Another night at the Africa Shrine has begun.
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