Fela: One of a Kind!

"Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was James Brown, Huey Newton, Rick James, Bob Marley, Duke Ellington and ODB all rolled up in one black African fist. The protest artist was a real live, awake and hungry human being. Africa's original rock superstar. The importance, vitality and power of his work cannot be overestimated. A pure blend of ancestry and modern marvel. If you don't know about Fela you surely need to find out now…!"– Mos Def

Fela!, the production, is currently playing at the Canon Theatre to enthusiastic audiences in Toronto. The play has knocked the socks off of patrons in New Haven, CT; Atlanta, GA; Washington, D.C.; Sadler’s Wells, UK; Amsterdam, NL; Lagos, Nigeria; London, UK and New York, NY.
 
I have been fortunate enough to interview Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Fela Kuti (Oct. 15 1938 -Aug 2.1997) and the producer, Stephen Hendel, on my radio show, Saturday Morning Live on www.ckln.fm recently. Two of my dear friends, Jaheed Ashley and his wife, Peekoo A. Lewis, have produced a documentary “Fela- NYC : Fresh From Africa.” Jaheed is the Executive Producer and Peekoo is the Narrator.
 
I have been blessed to have met Kuti in three countries: Canada, Nigeria and the Kalakuta Republic (Kuti's Home). The Kalakuta Republic was the name Kuti gave to the communal compound that housed his family, band members and recording studio. The humble space also had a free health clinic. Kuti declared it independent from the Nigerian government after he returned from the United States in 1970.
 
The first time The Black President (as Kuti was dubbed by millions of grass-roots Africans) performed in Toronto, I introduced him. In 1989, Fela’s band, Egypt 80, outnumbered the audience at the Concert Hall on Yonge Street when they took to the stage. Itah Sadu, the co-owner of A Different Booklist, the popular bookstore on Bathurst Street, was one of the few in attendance. Despite the small crowd, Kuti and crew played like they were performing in a soccer stadium in front of thousands.
 
The last time I saw him perform was at Ontario Place with Jimmy Cliff in the early 1990s. This time it was a different story all together. Kuti and Cliff played before thousands that evening. After the show I reunited with Kuti. When I told him my grandmother was named Ola Mae, he laughed and said that's a Yoruba name. I was pleased. When I told him I had named my son Malik– he was not pleased. "That is a Muslim name."
 
However, when I said, "His second name is Omowale" he laughed and said, "You are still my man." Omowale is a Yoruba name.
 
Kuti was born in Abeaokuta, Nigeria in 1938, the son of Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, a prominent educator, and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a pioneering women’s rights activist.
 
He pursued music from an early age, studying at Trinity College of Music in London. It was after an eye-opening trip to the United States in 1969 where he was introduced to the teachings of Malcolm X.
 
In his autobiography, Fela: This bitch of a life, he pointed out: “Sandra gave me the education I wanted to know…She’s the one who spoke to me about ….Africa! For the first time I heard things I’d never heard before about Africa! Sandra was my advisor.” Sandra was born with the slave name Smith in the City of Angels. Today she is known as Sandra Izsadore.
 
In the 1960’s, the music of John William Coltrane complemented the politics of Malcolm X. In the 1970s, Bob Marley and Walter Rodney went hand-in-hand. Then in the 1990s, the same could be said of Kuti and Burkina-Faso’s President Thomas Sankara.
 
When Kuti returned home to Nigeria in 1970, he invented Afrobeat. He became a hero to dissident political forces and youth throughout Africa as a result of the steady stream of Afrobeat classics such as “Black Man’s Cry,” “Zombie” and “Gentleman.”
 
Today, Fela’s music is sweeping North America with the play. There was always a friendly competition between Kuti and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Kuti acknowledges that he was influenced by Brown’s music. When Kuti heard that Brown had been imprisoned in the 1980s, he performed a benefit concert at the Apollo Theater for Soul Brother Number One.
 
Brown visited Nigeria in the early 1970s and acknowledged the impact of Kuti on his brand of Funk. On his return to the United States, Brown commented: “While we were in Lagos, we visited Fela Kuti’s club, the Afro-Spot, to hear him and his band. He’d come to hear us, and we went to hear him. He was kind of like an African James Brown. His band had a strong rhythm; I think my drummer picked up on it and Bootsy (Collins) dug it too.”
 
Isaac Hayes’ Black Moses was one of the first to break the traditional model of the three minute recording for radio. Kuti refused to shorten his music to fit commercial radio. He took a hard-line on the length of his recordings. Kuti said, "Traditionally, music was long. Bach, Handel, Stravinsky, Liszt and Wagner. I was asking a producer in Europe last year, "Where do you Europeans get your tradition of short music? Your tradition was long, like Africans, but because of money you destroyed the tradition."
 
Fela was one of a kind!
 
Jalali aka Norman (Otis) Richmond is the producer/host of Saturday Morning Live, Saturday 10a.m. to 1p.m. every week on www.ckln.fm and Diasporic Music on Uhuru Radio , www.uhururadio.com, Sundays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
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