The surreal Afrobeat ballet of Fela’s Nigerian shows
by Peter Kirn
You can hear the sonic ripples of Fela Kuti’s legacy anywhere in the world. But to appreciate the explosive power of the man as a musician, a bandleader, and a booming voice for social justice, the tale becomes a Nigerian story, an African story. Rikki Stein was Fela’s manager and close friend, a veteran of management and event production, and the author of Fela’s obituary, but equally able to articulate the future promise of the music. Just getting that music heard could be a challenge, requiring everything from face-offs with police to DIY PA systems.
In the U.S., land of high-tech music gear and Guitar Centers in every city, noise-making equipment is plentiful, but Africa is a very different situation. “Equipment? In Africa?” laughs Rikki. “Forget it! There’s nothing there except that which lovers such as I bring them. There may now be a few enterprising Nigerians that have begun importing guitar strings and saxophone reeds and a few amps. There are then the enterprising promoters who import entire systems—for which they probably pay too much—but they’re few and far between. Those that do exist and are properly maintained are in high demand.”
That often meant Rikki had to bring a DIY spirit to producing Fela Kuti—going as far as, on one occasion, building the PA for an event from scratch: “I had flown two sound engineers to Lagos who had provided concise instructions to carpenters for the speaker cabs, monitors, et cetera. They had then returned to London, and some weeks later when the boxes were ready, we returned with all of the necessary contents and cabling, plus a mixing desk. As the boxes took inordinately longer than planned, we arrived the day before the first show, due to take place in Port Harcourt, some thousand kilometers from Lagos. Everything was shipped there and actually put together onstage. The moment of truth came when we connected everything together and powered up. It worked! Hallelujah! I’d been keeping a beady eye on the promoter, as we hadn’t yet been paid and saw him heading for the door. I asked where he was going and he told me, ‘To NEPA.’ NEPA was the Nigerian power company—commonly referred to as ‘Never Expect Power—Always.’ I asked why, and he explained that the technicians on duty there knew that we had a show that night, and if he didn’t go there and grease their palms, there’d be no juice for the show!”
Amidst this somewhat chaotic background, Fela Kuti himself was a picture of order, says Rikki: “Fela’s approach to performance was meticulous in every detail. Sound check involved him personally tuning every instrument himself. During the performance itself, heaven help any musician who strayed from the groove.
“A Fela concert in Nigeria was a wild experience. [There were] regular shows in Fela’s club, the Shrine, where he would arrive around 2:00 AM and play until dawn to packed and appreciative audiences. A Fela show outside would normally be in a stadium attended by twenty to fifty thousand and secured by an enthusiastic belt-wielding police force, though those being chased were pretty adept at avoiding getting cornered. The whole thing became a sort of surreal Afrobeat ballet. It was immensely amusing to watch and participate in—if you had the balls!—all taking place under the aegis of the chief priest and his high-energy music and volatile lyrics.”
Live or recorded, Fela’s musical creations had a carefully planned life cycle, with an end product and a quasi-political, radical spirit baked into the process. “Each Tuesday in the Shrine would be ‘Yabis Night,’ when Fela would discuss issues of the day with his devoted audience, using the occasion to air his forthright ideas. These ideas would, over a period of days and weeks, consolidate into lyrics and music. Fela would then come back to the Shrine in the afternoons to begin translating, with the full band and singers, his lyrical and musical ideas into a full-blown song. Once the song was ‘cooked,’ Fela would begin performing it during his shows. This might go on for some weeks, but as the underlying issue within the song could now be seen as ‘old news,’ Fela would tire of performing it. At this stage, he would go into the studio and record it, releasing it shortly thereafter. Following the recording, the song would never be performed again.”
Speaking with Rikki is a reminder that, far from our capitals of popular music, access to equipment and political opportunity taken for granted in the U.S. are far scarcer in Nigeria. It’s also a reminder that, as he is quick to observe, petroleum riches are not the nation’s greatest offering to the world.
“I have a thirty-five-year love affair with Africa that shows no sign of abating,” says Rikki. “I am amongst those who consider that Africa has a tremendous contribution to make in the world that we haven’t seen yet, above, beyond, and apart from the raw materials that they’ve been providing the world for a century or more.”
Peter Kirn edits the website createdigitalmusic.com.
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