Fela at the African Shrine

By Deen Ipaye

Buy this CD at Amazon.com! FELA ANIKULAPO-KUTI was a multi-facetted personality… serious, comical, rebellious, and uncompromising. No matter what the image of Fela that you have, there were a few constants—he was always a thorn in flesh of the establishment, a fearless voice of the oppressed masses, and a stubborn crusader for human rights.

He was loved and admired by millions and affectionately called, “Baba” (Father), “Chief Priest” and “Black President,” and later “Abami Eda” (The Strange One) amongst numerous other monikers. Whenever Fela traveled the streets of Lagos (Nigeria), the chants of, “Fela! Fela! Fela!” often brought the traffic (which was already bad enough with ‘Go Slow’) to a halt.

He was one of the very few African musicians who made social awareness the central theme of his lyrics. His fans flocked to his African Shrine nightclub to see him perform because he always had something to say about the corrupt and oppressive Nigerian military and civilian governments and because he represented the voice of millions who were too timid to speak up about the social wrongs.

Buy this CD at Amazon.com! He wrote numerous scathing songs to slam the police and the military for their mindlessness and brutality. Fela’s earlier confrontations were with the Nigerian police but as military took over and became entrenched in power, they began to bear the brunt of Fela’s lyrical salvos. Though he wrote numerous songs that derided the military, the hard-driving and set-to-a-military-march-tempo, “ZOMBIE” is unquestionably the most poignant in the way it graphically dehumanized the soldier as a mindless robot who took orders without reasoning or self-evaluation of the catastrophic consequences of carrying them out—“Zombie nah go-go, unless you tell ‘am to go… Zombie no-brake, no-sense, no-jam.” essentially means that, “Zombie” is like a car without brakes and steering controls. It just goes straight, where it is pushed, until it crashed.

In the mid-70s, I had the privilege of witnessing several of Fela’s theatrical performances of “Zombie” (before it’s release) at his night club, “Africa Shrine” at Ojuelegba, Yaba, on the outskirts of the city of Lagos in Nigeria. Fela’s band usually started to warm up the audience with instrumental Afro Beat grooves for about one and half to two hours before Fela takes the stage. One of my favorite instrumentals performed by Fela’s band was “Jealousy.” They also performed, “Sense-Wiseness” as an instrumental piece before it was released with lyrics.

Fela would enter the club just before midnight, ushered in by fanfare from the horn section. He is flanked by his sticks and maracas players as he enters the main floor and head for a corner of his club where he set up his “shrine” for his African heroes like—Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure and others. He pours libation, smokes some “N-N-G” (Nigerian Natural Grass or Marijuana) and recites some incantations. He “shacks (drinks)” some of the “ogogoro” (illicit gin) that he used to pour the libation. Then, he takes the main stage and the marathon show starts and didn’t usually end til’ dawn.

Before each of the songs that he performed, he would narrate and act out the characters in the songs (in comical fashion) before he involved the band in the full rendition. For “ZOMBIE” he depicted a thoughtless and disheveled soldier, blindly taking orders from his drill sergeant—”Go and kill, go and die, open you’ yansh (ass), salute, fall-in, fall-out…” It was very hilarious!

“I no be gentleman at-all, at-all, I be African-MAN, original!”

After a few long sets, Fela’s band would take a break. Fela would then launch his trademarked diatribe, “Yabis session” where, he yaps about whatever was the current political hot topic. Or, he would select or name some highly placed government official or socialite who would bear the brunt of his “Heavy Yabis” (criticisms). Fela was never afraid to speak his mind, named names; even that of the Head of State. Nothing or nobody was sacred as far as he was concerned! Also, when he wasn’t slamming the authorities, Fela would always find subjects or patrons on the dancing floor to ridicule (in jest). The rest of the audience would usually encourage him to “Yap ‘am!”—give them a piece of your mind!

After a few more numbers, Fela would kick on the lights to the little dancing cages, where his scantily clad dancers climb and start dancing and electrifying the audience with their exotic, pelvis-gyrating dances (“Yansh Appreciation”—Fela loved to refer to the sight of a woman’s buttocks while dancing).

Once in a while, Fela would treat the audience to the “Nu-Toons” (new tunes) that he and the band where still working on. I heard unpolished versions of “JJD- Johnny Just Drop,” “Custom Check-Point,” “Kalakuta Show,” “Rere run—Everything Scatter,” “Colonial Mentality,” “Mr. Follow-Follow,” Monkey Banana and others in this fashion. He would issue disclaimers that they were not ‘perfect’ yet, “Nah so he dey be for the first time but when we really get down to it, he goh be one heavy motherfucker!”

Fela’s regimen and delivery style was nearly always the same for most of his songs… he would narrate, yap, and act out the song, then he cued the band to start the basic rhythm. The sticks and lead guitar players usually started to set the beat and Fela joined with his organ/piano, the rest of the band would join on cue from Fela. Later, Fela does an extensive sax solo with the backing horns section join him in a call and response fashion.

After a marathon instrumental set with the full band, Fela lays in the vocals; with his backup singers responding with the chorus similarly as he did with the horns backup section.

A rather comical and memorable Fela incident happened during a court arraignment for one of his numerous arrests by the police. Fela, like many of his fans knew, loved to wear his shirt unbuttoned all the way down to his navel (which fit his rebellious image). The judged noticed this at his court appearance and warned that he would be charged with “contempt of court” if he did not dress in a “gentlemanly fashion” on his next court date. (“I no be gentleman at-all, at-all, I be African-MAN, original!”)

Next court date—Fela wore a grossly oversized coat-jacket, with sleeves hanging way over his wrists, and made his fingertips barely visible. He also wore a tie that hung from his neck down to his knees! (Talk about over-compliance with the judge’s directive!) The whole court broke up into hysteric laughter! The charges against him, like many others were later dismissed.


©1998 Deen Ipaye

EDITOR’S NOTE: To see Deen’s personal photographs of the late great Fela, click here.

Fela: July 22, 1990, at El Casino Club, Tucson, Arizona