FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI'S fearless and indefatigable spirit makes him a true African hero. He was one of the greatest and most influential pop musicians of the 20th century. Born into a middle-class family in 1935, Fela's father was an ultra-conservative reverend, Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an ordained minister, grammar school headmaster and the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. By contrast, Fela's mother, Funmilayo, was something of a political firebrand--an early organiser against British colonialism, the first woman to hold a driver's licence in Nigeria, and a leader of the country's nascent socialist-nationalist and suffragette campaigns. As an activist, she travelled to Russia, and also to China where she met Chairman Mao Zedong.
Fela's parents, wanting what all middle-class Nigerian parents aspired to for their children, no matter what their political inclinations--that they qualify for a professional career--decided to send him to London to study medicine. But he had other plans.
He dropped out of medical school and registered at a college of music, a path more usually associated with pursuing a career in classical music. While in London, he married his first wife, Remi, in 1961 and started his own band, the Koola Lobitos.
By 1963, Fela and Remi had had two children--daughter Yeni and son Femi -and Fela had made the decision to return to Nigeria with his family. But back in Nigeria, he had a hard time finding work for his band, so in 1967 he embarked on a tour of Ghana. As John Collins' new book, Fela: Kalakuta Notes, makes clear, Fela loved his time in Ghana.
Collins, a Ghana-based musician and academic, has been on the music
scene since 1969--as a musician, band-leader, recording engineer, music union executive, writer and music journalist. He is currently the resident professor of music at the Music Department of the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra; and tells us that Fela liked Ghana so much that he even considered building a house and settling there.
"Ghana, with its Nkrumahist legacy, was Fela's second home," the author states. Collins is uniquely well qualified to write about Fela's life and times, as in the 1970s he stayed with Fela in Lagos, playing in his band during that golden era.
"What Collins does is draw together the reminiscences of Fela's various friends and colleagues, mainly but not exclusively Ghanaian, and provides an illuminating interview which Fela gave to him in 1975. All together, it presents one of the most fascinating profiles of Fela ever published.
Collins manages to cover the pivotal moments in Fela's extraordinary life with great clarity. He talks with many who figured largely in Fela's life: Joe Mensah, Ghana's pioneering highlife king who first met Fela while touring Nigeria; the guitarist Stan Plange, another Ghanaian highlife legend who toured Nigeria; Fela's Ghanaian dancer and conga player Daniel Koranteng (better known as JB); and Mac Tontoh, a founder-member of Osibisa.
There are also chapters with contributions by Obiba Sly Collins who played percussion and bass with Fela; Smart Binete, a Ghanaian based in Lagos whose family owned the property that was Fela's shrine; Willie Ankuh, a percussionist and violinist who knew Fela well and transcribes one of Fela's songs, Shuffering and Shmiling in the book, and Nana Danso Abiam, the founder of the Pan-African Orchestra who met Fela in 1973 and was heavily influenced by the Afrobeat maestro.
Collins also produces extracts from diaries he kept while staying with Fela at Kalakuta, and recalls his last meeting with the great man in 1981 in Amsterdam.
Along the way, the book describes Fela's extraordinary life story, how he was radicalised in the early 1970s, nor in Africa but in California, USA, being heavily influenced by the black-power movement after meeting Sandra Smith and being introduced to the books of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcom X.
That radicalism resulted in new songs and, by the time he had returned to Nigeria, a renewed fire in his belly to take on the establishment, standing up loud and proud for the people against the brutal military governments in Nigeria. Time and again, various Nigerian governments were humiliated by Fela's intellect and his uncompromising critique of the unjust and dehumanising system the governments presided over. Collins also compiles Fela: The Complete Works, a discography that lists each of Fela's songs, giving the date first released and the original label, as well as the records available on Wrasse--a label that signed a 22-CD deal in 2000 with Fela's estate and today has the license in over 100 titles (approximately half of Fela's recording output), which are now again available--what Collins describes as "a truly impressive legacy".
Wrasse has also begun compiling anthologies of Fela's work, starting with Anthology 1, released last year, that features two CDs covering a couple of distinct periods--the very early years, from 1964 up to the 1969 Los Angeles sessions, and Fela Kuti with his band, Africa 70. It also includes a DVD entitled "Teacher don't teach me nonsense", a comprehensive documentary which includes footage from a 1984 concert.
(Fela: Kalakuta Notes, by John Collins, is published in English by Kif Publishers, Holland, [pounds sterling]24.99, ISBN: 978-9068327-489)
RELATED ARTICLE: Rescuing a fragile state
A new book, resulting from a conference in November 2007 on post-war Sierra Leone organised by the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS), the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS), and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) at Wilfrid Laurier University, has been published in Canada.
The book. Rescuing a Fragile State.-Sierra Leone 2002-2008, was edited by our correspondent Lansana Gberie, the acclaimed author of A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone (Indiana University Press, 2005).
The new book collects reflections and analysis by policy makers, diplomats, academics and development experts with direct experience of sierra Leone--both during the war and in the immediate postwar period. Like the conference that gave birth to the book, this volume is divided into two sections.
The first focuses on what can be loosely described as the political economy of post-war Sierra Leone, with chapters by Ian Smillie (a critical analysis of external assistance to Sierra Leone); Peter Penfold, the former UK high commissioner to Sierra Leone (a critique of the Special Court for Sierra Leone); Zoe Dugal (an overview of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission--TRC); Ozonnia Ojielo (on governance in Sierra Leone post-TRC); and Lansana Gberie (an evaluation of the role of diamonds in post-war Sierra Leone).
The second section focuses on the security sector, with chapters by Ishmail Rashid (a historical overview of the Sierra Leone army); Mark white (the UK's role in security sector reform); Major Don Saunders, a Canadian who served with IMATT (on the re-training of the Sierra Leone Army); and Daniel Hoffman (on the possibility, or lack thereof, of the emergence of a strong civil defence force in case of praetorian or other threats to Sierra Leone's security, in the context of the trial and persecution of leaders of the former Civil Defence Force (CDF) by the Special Court for Sierra Leone).
The contributors argue that while progress in Sierra Leone since the end of the war has been remarkable, it is important that the country's development partners remain fully engaged with it for many more years in order to sustain the progress made so far.
The book is both appreciative and critical of some of the transitional justice measures implemented in sierra Leone since the war, including the TRC and the controversial Special Court for sierra Leone.
(Rescuing a Fragile State: Sierra Leone 2002-2008, edited by Lansana Gberie, is published by the LCMSDS Press of Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, 2009)…