Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Jackie Hits Broadway

Jackie recently had the opportunity to perform with the YES Broadway Academy in Penang. YES stands for Youth Excellence on Stage and is sponsored by the US Embassy and American Voices, part of the US State Department's international cultural outreach program. Jackie was among about 50 young people chosen from around Malaysia to participate in this 10-day intensive program, which ran up to 12 hours per day. The program combined workshops in singing, dancing, and acting and was Jackie's first chance to do choreographed dancing on stage, which she did well despite her lack of experience and sore knees. 

The YES Broadway program culminated in two performances on June 16 at the Penang Performing Arts Centre as part of the Georgetown Festival. The second show was a "VIP" performance for US Ambassador Paul Jones and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and guests. Jackie had a brief vocal solo on Hakuna Matata from Lion King, backed by the entire ensemble, shown here in a clip from the evening performance. 
Broadway veteran Michael Parks Masterson was the lead instructor; Jackie really appreciated his no-holds barred coaching technique, which had her doing things she never knew she could within a few short days. She now can add dancing to her on-stage arsenal of singing, acting, scriptwriting, and playing saxophone. Thanks to Michael, John Ferguson, and the sponsors. The only downside is that I could not be there to see her live since I was in Africa at the time.

The US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur has a review of the June 16 performance on its web site, found here. The Embassy's web site features a nice photo of Jackie fronting the ensemble during Lion King which can be seen by following this link.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Nigeria's Graceland - Fela's House to be a Museum

I was invited by Showboy to Egypt 80's rehearsal today at Fela Kuti's old house off Allen Avenue in the Ikeja district of Lagos. This was to be their last rehearsal before I leave for a trip back to Malaysia and Seun Kuti takes the band to Europe for a month-long summer tour.

I arrived at the house at 7 Gbemisola St. to find an industrial generator booming and a jackhammer pounding away. The place was a construction site. The band was inside with their instruments but other than warm-ups no music was being played; it was way too noisy. Showboy was at the keys composing a tune on notebook paper.

Apparently today's start of renovation work was just as much a surprise to the band as to me. The Kuti family has decided to turn Fela's Kalakuta into a museum for the public. Much restoration needs to be done and the work just started. Knowing that construction always takes longer than expected (and in Nigeria things usually take even longer than that), a date for the museum's opening cannot yet be predicted. But soon, Fela's Kalakuta will become Nigeria's Graceland.

Although the rehearsal did not come off as anticipated, I got to meet and exchange stories with the Egypt 80 band members and look through some of the relics left in the house, such as Fela's shoe cabinet (!) and a couple of old Selmer baritone saxes that needed total restoration. These were the Series II baris that Showboy told me about, one of them being the one he used to record his solo on Pangsa Pangsa. I even got to use Fela's facilities.

The house itself was a three-story concrete construction ca.1979. Fela apparently moved in around 1981 upon his release from prison (or should I say one of his releases from prison). It was a big house but didn't really stand out in this urban neighbourhood, and it was a far cry from the Beverly Hillbillies-style mansion you would associate with a big international star. Fela is buried on the grounds; his pyramid-shaped marble mausoleum is sited in the front yard.

Showboy and I went around the corner for lunch at a very local restaurant and sitting across from us at the shared table was a man, a musician, who remembered Showboy from Fela's house in 1974. 38 years ago. Good memory.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Femi Kuti's 50th Birthday Party

Femi Kuti at 50
Last night Femi Kuti held his 50th birthday party at the New Africa Shrine in Ikeja. This was a by-invitation-only event, one of the media and social events of the year in Lagos. Fortunately, Showboy told me Thursday that Egypt 80 would be playing on Saturday and invited me. I had no idea it was such a big deal at the time; I only found out on Saturday night at about 7:00 PM when I arrived at the Shrine and there were cars parked several blocks away and the building was surrounded by a big crowd and decorated with streamers. A new entrance had been constructed at the side; I had noticed the construction on Thursday. After fighting through the crowd, security asked my for my invitation as it seemed every Femi fan in Lagos wanted to get inside. Luckily, the mention of Showboy's name got me in the door no problem. 

Once inside, the normally informal Shrine had been transformed - there was a crowd of at least a thousand, tables were decorated, people were dressed for show. There were guest acts on stage. I looked around and couldn't find Showboy. I had tried phoning him about a dozen times and the notoriously poor Nigerian cell phone service gave me every sort of error message from "invalid number" to "network busy" to "phone switched off", but in any case I couldn't reach him. I got a table and went up to the stage to find him. I never did, but Femi came over and shook my hand as I was standing there and I had a chance to congratulate him. Very down-to-earth for a celebrity. 

A friend arrived late. I went to the side gate to bring him in and as a result got my first-ever taste of tear gas. The surging crowd was being controlled by canisters of tear gas set off near the entrance so both legitimate guests and rowdy wannabes got a lungful, me included. Nigerian crowd control. 

The energy of a man 20 years his junior
Femi was exceedingly generous to his guests - food and drink were on the house all night, a full menu of Nigerian dishes and drinks ranging from beer to champagne (good stuff too, Laurent Perrier). We laughed because Nigerians love to eat and some of the party guests around us were eating multiple plates of everything and ordering successive bottles of champagne, Guinness, and scotch. Everyone was dancing. I had to laugh, this was a different crowd than the normal Shrine crowd, more into Femi's celebrity than his music; in between live shows, the PA played pop and disco music instead of the mandatory Fela. I swear I heard Get Down On It for the first time in 10 years as well as insipid Lionel Richie. Not what I expected to hear at the Shrine. ROFL. 

Not long after I arrived, I spotted some of the Egypt 80 band members mounting the stage. Showboy finally found me, said he had been looking outside for two hours but we never located each other in the crowd. A special occasion, Seun Kuti and Fela's band Egypt 80 asked to perform for Femi's 50th birthday, the brothers brought together by the event. Showboy led off with African Soldier, one of his more recent compositions. Seun then took over the band and performed for about 45 minutes, singing and playing keys, but no sax. Such a powerful horn section. 

After the Egypt 80 set, local celebrities (like rappers who were recognized by all the people around me as big stars) and paparazzi crowded around Femi on stage, where there were gifts given and a too-long version of Happy Birthday sung with different big shots taking turns. Femi, however, seized the occasion not to sweet talk but rather to rail against corruption in Nigeria and the corresponding lack of electricity, decent health care, equal education et al. ("Nothing to show for it..."). I was really glad to see him use this forum to demonstrate that he is more than a mindless media star. He then brought his band out and did a short set of hits, including Beng Beng Beng, where he sang and danced like a madman but again didn't play any sax. He has the energy of a man 20 years his junior. 

Rappers and disco music notwithstanding, a good time was had by all. Thank you, Femi.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Showboy's Tales of Touring with Fela Kuti

Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi recounted tales from being on tour with Fela Kuti while we listened to Femi Kuti's band rehearse at the New Africa Shrine in Lagos on June 14:

You see, music the way I see it, there is no difference between music and some of the international conferences, because at the conference point some will speak wisely, some will speak weakly, and some will speak ignorantly because they don't know what they are saying, and they will be contemplating on believing that is the right thing because is their expression... 

I had one experience, we were having a show in Washington DC and we were coming from Milan, 68 piece band travelling from Europe to America. When we got to Milan airport they could only get the seats on Pan Am Airlines, 60 seat, not 65 seat. Fela now say to me, "What do I do? Some will have to wait and join the flight tomorrow morning." So I choose to stay, he gave me the passport of 5 people and gave me money to take them out of the airport and find a hotel, and 5:00 AM we come back to the airport for a 6:00 AM flight. So, I came out of the airport and find a taxi and told him to take us to a hotel. I said, "How far is the hotel from here?" and he said "35 to 40 kilometers." So I gave him one of Fela's cassettes. 

When he started driving he said, "I'm sorry, man, something is happening around here." That's the driver. He said "This is what's happening." He said he had just heard this song that his daughter was requesting as her birthday present, that he had searched for the song, and for us to give him the cassette. I told him "Let's get to the hotel, let's find the hotel before we can talk about your daughter." You know, because of that song that this guy heard on my tape. Imagine somebody looking for a hotel from here and before we can find a hotel we got to Eleko Beach. Imagine the distance. So when we finally found the hotel, I now told him that "I understand your daughter need my tape, but before I can give you this tape, you have to come and pick me tomorrow back to the airport. Then I will give you the tape." He said "No problem." So he left us at the hotel. 

So about an hour later I couldn't sleep in my room. I took a shower, I took my clarinet, I walked down the street, I walked like from here to Ikeja bus stop. I found this night club, there was a live band, a triplet. They were having fun, people were drinking, so when I got there I said I am at the right place. I now went to the stage and introduced myself, we started playing my own kind of music. You won't believe it, I was given like 5 liters of wine, they were just bringing it, I had wine from the hotel owner, I had wine from the audience. So at the end of the day I ended up spending about 5 hours there, so by the time I left this place for my hotel it was 4:30. I had to shower and get ready by 5:00. I now joined him, he took us up to the airport. You won't believe it, this guy was so desperate about the tape that he said if I only give him the tape, he doesn't need the money, but if he doesn't get the tape as a birthday present for his daughter, there is a problem. I had to give him the tape. 

On that day we were having two shows in Washington. we were supposed to have two shows, so by the time I got to the airport we took a flight from Milan to New York, so when we got to New York there was Paul Troutman waiting for me, he worked with Gordon Mayer, 20th Century Fox. They were there waiting for me to pick me up. So he took me - I just saw my name on a sign - "Showboy" - I told them "I am Showboy." They said "We are here to pick you and four other guys." I said "We are all out," so they took us, they said "The limos are outside." They took us with the limo from JFK, they drove us to LaGuardia Airport where they bought tickets for us and put us on a flight to Washington. When I got to Washington, there was another limo waiting to pick me up. 

So when the limo took me from the front of the Constitution Hall in Washington, Fela was balancing the first tenor saxophone. He has finished with the trumpet and fluegel, he has finished with the alto, he was doing the tenor and from the tenor he would be doing the baritone. I was changing my dress in the vehicle at the door of the Constitution Hall outside. So by the time I came in Fela was about finished when he heard BOM!...he say "What's that?" Somebody told him it's Showboy..."They are here?" I said, "Yes, I want to do my balance"...he was very, very happy. Now we were on time. I did the sound check and we went for the show. We played at the Constitution Hall in Washington DC and we played at the Kilimanjaro, Kilimanjaro nightclub in Washington. It was BAAAD.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Showboy and Femi Kuti's Band, Together for the First Time

On Thursday, June 7, I was witness to an historic occasion of sorts at the New Africa Shrine in Lagos. I had gone over after work to meet and talk to Egypt 80 band member and Fela Kuti contemporary Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi, subject of a series of interviews earlier this month. Femi Kuti holds a public rehearsal of his Positive Force band on Thursdays when he is in town, and this was one of those days.
Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense

As noted in yesterday's post, Showboy and I (!) were recognized by the band's announcer as VIPs and a few minutes later Showboy was invited on stage to perform with the band. They did Fela's Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense with Showboy on vocals. You can download and listen to the June 7 performance here

When Showboy returned to our table after singing, he told me, surprisingly, that this was the first time he had ever performed with Femi's band in the 15 years since Fela's death. Apparently there was some bad blood between Femi and Fela that extended to band members; Femi wanted to do his own thing with his own band and own music after his father died. Somehow, last Thursday night, any tension lingering after all these years dissipated and Fela's bandmate Showboy was called on stage as honored guest. 

Afterward, Showboy was asked back for Femi's regular Sunday night performance on June 10 and he again sang Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense with the band (download and listen to the June 10 performance here). He later told me he called two other Fela tunes but the band didn't know them. He will be returning this coming Thursday to rehearse those tunes with the band. Perhaps the beginning of a new development in Afrobeat, the joining of the hottest contemporary band with its roots. 

When I turned 50 my first thought is that I had outlived Pres and Jug, both of whom passed at 49. Then I looked in the mirror and saw my father. Perhaps Femi has had the same thought.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Femi Kuti's 50th Birthday

Nigeria's Afrobeat star Femi Kuti turns 50 on June 16. Interviews with Femi have been all over the Nigerian press. The local papers are more fascinated with Kuti family soap operas than with Femi's music.

Femi's music is of greater interest to me, so I attended Femi's rehearsal on June 7 at the New Africa Shrine in Lagos. I went with Showboy and we were recognized in the audience by the announcer as two Very Important Personalities - Showboy and the white brother who plays tenor sax! What an ego trip. Following that, Showboy was called up on stage and sang with Femi's band for the first time ever, an historic event of sorts. I'll post the recordings soon. Femi showed off his skills at circular breathing on alto.
It was an informal rehearsal and Femi had some of his kids up on stage with him. I took a bunch of photos, more of which can be viewed on Flickr by clicking here. Femi will be going on tour after his birthday and won't be back at the Shrine until the third week of July.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

How Fela's Kalakuta Republic Got Its Name - Part 2

As told by Egypt 80 baritone saxophonist Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi - continued from yesterday's post.

Showboy: Finally they arrested everybody, but Fela was mercilessly beaten, broken head, he had about 17 stitches on his head - gun butt - they broke his hand, they broke his leg, dislocate his arm. I and Fela were the last people they put in the lorry, we were together in the lorry, he was covered in his own blood, in his [under]pants, no trousers. That was how they took us to Lagos, Alagbon Close, by Passport Office. 

So, on our way, when they took us, they took us to Barracks Police Station, they didn't accept us, they now took us straight to Lion Building, at Lion Building there was not enough space to keep all of us so they now took us to Alagbon . When we got to Alagbon they asked, before we got to Alagbon Fela's mother has made some important calls and some moves, that you cannot lock my son in his pool of blood, you have to take him to hospital, or if he dies it is on you. So they quickly made arrangements, they took Fela to Falomo Police Hospital. 

We were locked up at Alagbon, so they kept us at Alagbon. We were there, we were at the counter, then there was this police officer, a senior police officer who was driving out, he said "Who are those people?" Then the policeman says "They are Fela's people, those Indian hemp smokers blah blah blah." He said "Why are you keeping them there? They are too much. put them in Kalakuta cell." That was how we discovered there was a cell called Kalakuta cell at Alagbon Close. 

So after 2 weeks, 2-1/2 weeks at Alagbon we were released on bail, Fela's lawyer managed to secure our bail. Fela was already bailed and taken home by his mother on Monday. So when we got home and told him our experiences they now said they should change the name of the organization, to the house, from Fela's house to the Kalakuta Republic. So that was how the house was named Kalakuta, and Kalakuta Republic became another government problem because when they burned the house they claimed that Fela had declared his own republic in Nigeria, Kalakuta Republic. 

Ron: Has anyone ever written that story? 

Showboy: A lot of people don't know it, just some few that maybe I might have told or that has heard it, but it is not everybody that knows it because it is a story of about 38 years, '74. 1974, and we are in 2012. 

(Power Show comes on the PA system and Showboy sings along). All this, I recorded them with Fela. Power Show. {click to listen} 

I and Fela were the last people they put in the lorry...  
(Power Show playing in background) You know Fela is very selective when it comes to playing solo in music. He wrote the music and he wants an expression of the mind, not trying to play what someone else has played. When you do that you are not creative. The band it is not everybody who plays solos because some people have been on that stage for years they never came out to play solo, yes. Because they wouldn't even dare it because Fela, what Fela expect from everybody who goes there to improvise: 1, to be good; 2, to understand the music, not just play any shit. You have to create something for that music that you will not play in another track, so every track has its feel. When you are playing that, you are good, Ron; if you don't do that you know there is no way you will play with Fela and you will not be creative because you are hearing something new every time. And it was, you know it was to a state, is that the competition, who is good who is bad, yeah, because you have some people that go to the house to tell Fela, "Fela, why don't you allow me to play solo on this track." Then he will tell them "OK, I will try you." When he now comes to the Shrine after starting the music he will tell us to "Wait, let him improvise." The moment he start he look at him "What is he playing? Push him away from here." From then he will come to the stage and push you out of there. But, you know, if you come there, if you are doing good with the music, you will see him move his body, dancing, then he will not concentrate any more on you because he knows you are there. But when you are not there, AWWWW.

(Showboy sings along with Power Show) {end of interview}

Monday, 11 June 2012

How Fela's Kalakuta Republic Got Its Name

The story of how Fela Kuti's Kalakuta Republic got its name was recounted to me by Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi in our second interview at the New Africa Shrine in Lagos on June 7, 2012.

Ron: So what are we going to talk about today? 

Showboy: Part of my Kalakuta experience. We all talk about Kalakuta but not all of us know how we came about Kalakuta. Because that name was the name that we got from the police cell, from detention. I remember it well, it was in early '74. 1974. You know, we were at Fela's house, at 14A Agege Motor Road...so one day, there was this guy who was passing by. They had been searching for his kid sister for some weeks, they never knew where she was; they were looking for her all over Lagos until this guy, he was passing by Fela's house and he saw his junior sister walk out of Fela's house. The girl was very afraid of him, he was like an oppressor to her, so whenever she sees him she lose control of herself because you know, the fear in her. This guy called her and said "Where have you been all these days?" He started beating her. And in our own house we have a law that says you do not beat women, whatever she does, come and report her, she may be punished more than what you expect but don't touch her. So this guy, supposed to be a strange boy, was beating one of the inhabitants of the house and the boys at the gate and some of the gate men they rushed there, they beat the hell out of him, they beat the shit out of him. He ran away. They rescued the girl and the girl went back to the house. 

So 24 hours later this woman came with the boy claiming, asking, she wants to see Fela, she is the mother of that girl in Fela's house, that she has been searching for her daughter for the past three months, nobody knew the daughter was living in Fela's house. So when she came they told her Fela was sleeping, that she should come back. When she came back this woman told Fela "I am searching for my daughter Folake." And in the house we have two Folake. We have Folake Oladenge and one Folake Oladego. 

So Fela said, "OK, your daughter in my house? Call all the girls." So Fela said, "You are looking for your daughter in my house, call all the girls in the house." They called everybody. "Madam, where is your daughter?" She looked round and said "That is my daughter." So Fela asked the girl, "Is that your mother?" She said "Yes but I don't want to go with her. They are maltreating me, that's why I left the house." Fela said "You heard her, I didn't put an advert sign outside that I am in need of women in my house or anybody in my house. My house welcomes anybody who comes to my house, nobody is invited but anybody who comes is welcomed, he or she is welcome." The woman said she is the wife of a police commissioner and the girl blah blah...Fela said "You heard what the girl said. Yes, you are her mother but she doesn't want to go with you. Do you want me to chain her and hand you the rope so you can drag her home by force or what? I can't do that." That was how the woman left. 

The next day, the next morning, at about 6:00 AM, we saw about 45 policemen. They surrounded the house but they didn't touch anybody. People were going in and coming out. They didn't say anything. Nobody knew their intention or what they had in mind or what plan is next, you know. So people were going, doing their normal business, going in and out as usual. So at about 1:45 (PM) we heard the sirens blaring from far away WAH WAH WAH WAH WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOA WOOOOO

When they got closer to our house we got to know that there were lorry fulls of riot policemen led by the father of one of the girls, the police commissioner. They came to the gate: "Mr. Kuti open your door." Fela said, "I need to see a search warrant." They say "You will open the door or we will force it." They couldn't force the gate open and the house was, you know, we had barbed wire that surrounded the house and all the barbed wire was nailed on some 4 x 2 inch wood so they didn't know how to break in. They now sent some of the policemen to go and buy cutlasses. They started chopping the sticks so they could break into the compound. Fela was standing looking at them. By the time they succeeded at cutting one side, they started jumping into the compound, started making arrests. They threw more than 250 canisters of tear gas, to the extent within this length from where he is sitting (across the table) to here you wouldn't see anything other than white, to tell you how many canisters of tear gas they already shot into the compound.

(to be continued)

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Fela's Musicians - Interview with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi, Part 7

Showboy at the New Africa Shrine with Femi Kuti's band (and some of Femi's kids)

Showboy: I repair saxophones. I repaired Fela's saxophones. If anything happens to your horn, I can fix it. (interrupted by phone call

Ron: This young guy plays the bari now. 

Showboy: He took over from me when I had the accident [Showboy was nearly killed in Lagos by a hit and run driver in 2009, and the injuries have suspended his saxophone playing career for now]. He was a tenor saxophone player.

My baritone is Series II Selmer. I have a friend in Atlanta, he just sent me an Armstrong tenor saxophone from Atlanta. I've got it at home, Seun brought it from America. When I go to New York, I have this guy, Rod Baltimore you know him? New York instrument repairer, 47th by 9th Avenue in Manhattan, New York, Rod Baltimore, it's one of the biggest instrument repair shops. 

My Series II, Henri Selmer did only 15, out of the 15 Fela got 2, I was asked to sell my Series II for the (name unclear) Theater in New York , they wanted it bad because there was no more. When you go down, the lower you go, the bigger the sound. 

Ron: (showing photos of my daughter Jackie playing sax at a gig

Showboy: She's playing alto here. Wow. It's like this girl, what's her name, she is a tenor saxophone player, she used to play for Burning Spear...Jennifer Hill, Jenny, we played together, we played Reggae Sunsplash together. She was a tenor saxophone player. Freakin' people out man. She got the strength from you. She saw you do it. That's why she can do it better. 

Ron: So when is your next gig? 

Showboy: The last Saturday of the month. Once a month. The Shrine. Once a month. 

Ron: When are you touring next? 

Showboy: Well, the band, they are touring, they are going on the 28th. I cannot move yet, I am still under care, under medical care. I have to stay home, take care of my body until my hand, until I can play my instrument, I am an instrumentalist, without my instrument I am nothing. 

Ron: What other music venues around Lagos still play Afrobeat? I really don't care too much for the newer styles of music. 

Showboy: There is this brass band, they play Afrobeat, and sometimes I sing with them. They are performing tonight in Lagos, in the city of Lagos. They just sent me a message, I got it. Eko Brass Band. There are places you can play your saxophone. In Lagos you can play the saxophone, the beach side, you can have a good time. 

Ron: When I don't touch my horn I feel like a baby. 

Showboy: That's it, this feeling, this relationship between yourself and your saxophone, I always say, my saxophone is my first wife. Without my saxophone I'm nowhere. Sometimes, my saxophone change my orientation, my thinking, my mood. 

Ron: I thought it was just me. I tell people I have a relationship with my saxophone and they think I'm crazy.  

Showboy: No, no, they don't know, they cannot understand, they cannot. Let e tell you something the saxophone if you touch it every time you discover new things every time. If you don't touch it, if you stay away from it, if you don't touch it you get disappointed. Because the moment you come back to it, it won't be as you left it. You have to work hard to achieve that standard. 

Ron: Crazy bent brass tube. It's a genius invention. 

Showboy: You're damn right. 

There was a day when we were talking with Fela, he now asked me "Did you listen to Art Pepper?" That was the question he asked me. He said "Showboy, go and listen to Art Pepper." I did. He said I sound and I play like Art Pepper, on baritone. A BAAD motherfucker. [end of interview]

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Fela's Musicians - Interview with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi, Part 6

Showboy...almost 40 years around Fela
Ron: The tragedy of Fela's death is that nobody ever got beyond that music. 

Showboy: He created that pattern. No one, no one has yet, because, him in Nigeria, he was like the father of Nigerian musicians, most of the musicians in Nigeria were feeding from what he does. If Fela release an album today, all other musicians will release two, three albums from picking one phrases from Fela's music and use it, maybe the percussion aspect of the music, maybe the whole line, maybe the guitar, they will use it, and before you know, they've got their own. 

Ron: How did you get so good on the sax that when Fela heard you, he said "That's it!"?

Showboy: Well, I've always been a member of the Africa 70, always been with him as an acrobat, I've always been around him when he was writing those music. So I'm part of it, part of the creation, part of the development, so I grow up in this shape, almost 40 years around Fela, since I was a kid, so this is what I know how to do best, Afrobeat, that's all. 

Ron: That's enough.

Showboy: Yeah (laughs

Ron: I came to see Femi the other night, you don't see music like this where I come from, four hours straight through.

Showboy: In our time, when Fela was alive, I start playing about 11:00 in the night, Fela come about 12:30 -1:00, and we play 'til 6:00 AM non-stop. 

Ron: And everyone stays too, the crowd.

Some of the crowd stays 'til 7:00 AM. We are used to playing for 4 - 5 - 6 hours. We can play straight for 5 hours non-stop. 

Ron: You go to New York now, you're going to pay 50 bucks and hear a 45-minute set.

Showboy: We had that problem at the Apollo, listen, listen, we are having two shows at the Apollo, so the first show was supposed to end at 8 o'clock. Fela started the last track, and the last track is about 25 minutes, and if we have to play everything with all the solos, 3 solos or 4 solos, because you have the trumpet solo, you have the baritone solo, you have the tenor solo, and you have the guitar solo, if all the solos have to go on it is more than 35 minutes, you understand? So the promoter now came and tell Fela you cannot play for more than 10 minutes, and Fela said "I cannot cut my music because of you, I will play my music til the end." And he never stopped 'til we got to the end. So by the time we finished playing we exceed about 5 or 7 minutes. We paid for it. 

Ron: When you soloed with Fela, did he just let you solo what you feel, or did you have a certain time?

Showboy: You see, we the solo players on Fela's stage, we are known, even the audience they know us, at this time we are expecting Ronnie, at this time we are expecting Showboy. The know that at the Shrine there are particular people who are doing the groove. Like me, I sing, I play, I lead the band until Fela comes. So I do most of the songs, most of the records, because Fela has this, what do you call it, it's like his, he has never played any recorded song, you cannot ask him to play any record he has released, so he is always playing something new. That is why he will not accept you coming on Monday playing sha-ba-de-ba-de-ba, coming on Tuesday playing sha-ba-de-ba-de-ba, he will say , "What's wrong with you? Leave that place, man." 

Ron: What I'm asking is say one night you feel like playing 3 minutes, the next night you feel like playing 10 minutes, he let you?

Showboy: Yes, yes, look, you see, this is it, when you are on the path, music is about your expression, if what you are giving is good, everybody wants to listen to good music, good solos, because there are times you come in with anger, that is why your mood tells your expression. 

Ron: I play good when I'm angry.

Showboy: (laughs) You see, so sometimes you are happy, you come there, you play, you freak out, and sometimes you have one problem your mind is busy fighting, you just get there...BAH.  BAH.  BAP. What's happening to him? And before you know, you are out of there. What's wrong with this man? But when you are on course, when your mood is OK, when you are happy and you are doing good he will let you finish your solo, he will let you satisfy yourself, play everything, because one, when you start your solos, you have people who gonna back you up. So when they back you up and they stop, that's all. After they stop, you have to play for maybe 8 bar, maybe 16 bar, maybe 24 bar, then you cut off. That's it.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Fela's Musicians - Interview with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi, Part 5

Showboy: When we were recording in New York, we went to the studio, the (name unclear) Sound Studio, we laid everything that was to be laid, as in part of everyone. When we finished Fela asked to stay in the studio to do the mixing, to do the solo work, and the voices, and so on. So we were asked to be taken to our hotel. So they took us to Harlem, I was living at 27 Adam Clayton Powell Avenue in Harlem, so, I was in my room when I had a call that, "Showboy, you are needed at the studio, Fela said they should bring you". I said, what is happening? Did I play my part wrong or what? It was very, very cold, almost minus degree, you know what I mean, when you are hearing (whistles) in your ears in the night. So I was picked up in Harlem back to Manhattan, so when I got to the studio Fela said "Showboy, where is your saxophone?". I said "I brought it." He said "Go get it, I want to try you on a solo work." We were doing Pansa Pansa {click to listen} so, Fela, you know, and the horn lines, we have ten horns, we have four trumpets, that's two trumpet, two fluegel, two alto, two tenor, two baritone.
Showboy with Femi's band on June 7
The first time ever, 15 years after Fela's death

I went to the rest room, I put my fingers in the hot water to get myself warm, I asked for a cappuccino with brandy to get myself warm; I had two shots of cappuccino with brandy, then I mount my saxophone. I went to a room, did some major practice, then Fela said "OK let's start, let's hear what you have." I took the headpiece, I put it on my head. I sat down. I now listened, I listened to what we had already laid. Ahhh. I started meditating, thinking about what to add, what am I gonna do, where am I gonna start from? You see, so I listened for about two minutes, three minutes, I took the mike, I said "Fela, we should take it back, I've listened, let me try something." They started again. When I came in, Fela said, "Stop. Showboy, you are there. This is what I am expecting. Can I record you?" I said no, I want to try something else. The engineer took it back again. I started again, the music started, I listened. When I came in the second time, Fela said "Showboy, don't waste my time, you've got what I want, let's record." That was on the first album we did three full solos - me on baritone, I started it, Fela on piano, then YS on tenor saxophone. Man, by the time we laid everything, tell you what, I never believed I played it. 

Ron: You know, on all the albums Fela released in the West at the time, there were no names of musicians. But it was not just Fela who was great, the band was great. 

Showboy: We were behind him. You are right, you are right. 

Ron: Were you around when Lester Bowie played trumpet? 

Showboy: Yeah. Lester Bowie, I know him. Roy Ayers, I know him. He is a good trumpet player. He could play everything. He was BAD in No Agreement

Ron: So how long did he spend with Fela?

Showboy:  He was Fela's friend.

Just like, there was this year we were on tour in New York, we did not come with our pianist, we had to borrow Roy Ayers' pianist to feature with us in New York. He had never played that music, he had never played that steady rhythm, playing maybe two, three notes, same thing in the next 45 minutes, in the next 30 minutes. 

Ron: Because in America there is so much emphasis on harmony, on moving chords. 

Showboy: But you know, some of Fela's tracks, they go for 29 minutes, one track. Some go as much as 35 minutes. 

Ron: But here's what happened in my country - like James Brown said about the mid-60s, you don't need to do all that chords and stuff, it is all about the rhythm, every instrument is rhythm. Then Miles came and said forget about what key you are in, because you are in every key. So it became like, universal. 

Showboy: That's it. You know, it started like a revolution, you know. It is like what you are hearing today, they are completely different. 

Ron: But they never got beyond it. 

Showboy: They can't.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Fela's Musicians - Interview with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi, Part 4

This is the fourth instalment in a continuing series of an interview with Fela's former baritone player Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi at the New Africa Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria on June 1, 2012.
Showboy and the baddest horn section in the business

Showboy: I write, I compose, when I write my songs, like the last track I played before I brought Seun in, I wrote it. African Soldier

You see, my saxophone has a lot to contribute to my health, my saxophone keeps me fit, because every day, every morning, I must play, every morning. I'm on stage, I'm not on stage, at home, I get up this is what I do. I get up every morning around 5:00 AM, I take my shower, brush my mouth, pick up my saxophone. You know, so, why you need it? Because the man you are working with does not like redundant, dull people. You cannot come today and play sha-ba-da-ba-da-ba, tomorrow you come, you play sha-ba-da-ba-da-ba, he will say, "What's wrong with him?" You are not improving. He wants to hear something new at every moment. Every time you go there, every time you go you must be creative. Because music is about creativity. And your mood...you need to refresh your mind every time. 

Ron: You can't play the same thing.

Showboy: Ahhh...if you does that, just forget about playing your solo, just keep on playing your part, the part given to you. Just concentrate on that because Fela will not allow you to go right in front there and play any solo no more. He is not impressed. 

You see, working with Fela I got to understand some things about music. You know you could play, I, Showboy, Rilwan Fagbemi Adedimeji, I have five ways of playing into music. I'm telling you, five ways, namely: 

The first one, you can play to the music for the audience sake. 

The second one, you can play to the music to the producer's taste. This is what your producer wants, they want to tell you what to do. If they allow you to use your mind, play what comes from your mind, it is completely different from they dictating to you , that shit you just played I don't like it. 

The third one, you can play to the music for the music's sake, as a musician. 

Four, you can play to the music to yourself, OK,I don't give a fuck, if you don't like it, that's your problem. What I'm playing, I'm playing to myself. 

The fifth one is playing to the writers, the man who wrote the music, what he wanted, to the writer's description. Yah, this is what I wrote, your solos I don't want too much highs.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Fela's Musicians - Interview with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi, Part 3

Showboy: Yes. You know, the music, the awareness, the message, the information is clear, because Fela's music brought enlightenment to a lot of Nigerians, it made them know their right and wrong. He was like, you know, the mouthpiece of the people, talking for the people, so it was like the shadow of the government seeing all the bad things they are doing and telling them, man this is not right.
Ron: Look outside today.

Showboy, direct link to Fela Kuti
Showboy: Check it out. Most of what, most of things that Fela wrote about is what is happening tomorrow...You see, so, Nigeria was so lucky to have someone like him who was like the spiritual father of Nigerians, the spiritual father of Nigerians trying to tell them, make them understand the right and the wrong within the society. 

Ron: In the West, some of us knew already, but small. 

Showboy: Yes, yes, small amount of people, not everyone, not even 30% 

Ron: Not even 3% 

Showboy: That's what I mean. So you know, now, this system has been there for long, and it has never changed. 

Ron: The brainpower it takes to improvise, you could be a brain surgeon. The number of hours of practicing, rehearsing... 

Showboy: Rehearsing, studying your instrument, getting to know your instrument like me, my baritone, how did I get to my standard, get to where I was going on my saxophone, I was doing 8 hours practice every day. Look, if you see me on the road, I'm playing. If you see me in the car, I'm playing. If you see me on stage, I'm playing. 

Ron: That's John Coltrane 

Showboy: That's what I was doing. I was playing everywhere. 

Ron: They say he'd fall asleep... 

Showboy: With his saxophone. I remember. At (name unclear) when they're on session, they would be crying Coltrane! Coltrane! Coltrane! Before you know it, the inspiration starts coming. Music is about sound, it is about the mind, it comes from here (points to his head). Improvisation is the state of your mind. Because if you want to, like me, if I want to play my solo, my mood tells my solo. 

Ron: You got to be on stage with Fela every day, it is like training as an athlete, you are always up here (hand over head

Showboy: Always there because I have to play solos for the dancers, I have to play solos for Fela to dance, and you know moving with the rhythm, now trying to infuse your own mood, your own mind. It wasn't easy. Let me tell you something, sometimes when you come out there to play that solo, the way you start your solo and you see Fela sit like this (sits back in chair), you are not doing good. But when you come in and you start your solo and you see Fela do like this (sits up at attention), you are on the path. 

Ron: The Nigerian crowd doesn't seem to respond. Like if you play at the Apollo, people jump and scream, here every one is like (sits still

Showboy: It's their mood, and the way they express themselves, it is entirely different. 

Ron: When I saw you play Saturday, I thought, I could come here every day, but the crowd was like (sits still). They don't know what they have!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Fela's Musicians - Interview with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi, Part 2

Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi
Showboy: I'll tell you what I was doing. You know when before I became an instrumentalist, Ronnie, I was an acrobat. I was a stage dancer.

So, as I was saying, one day, I asked myself that why don't I play something like a musical instrument? Because I was around when Fela started playing the saxophone; he taught himself a lot of things about the saxophone. Because Fela was a trumpet player, you understand. He picked up the saxophone, I think in '74. You understand? He pick up the saxophone around '73-'74. 

Ron: He studied music, right? 

Showboy: Yes, yes, at the Trinity College of Music in London. He came back, he was writing his music, he had broken it, made it easy for everybody, because one, you need to be able to read, you need to be able to understand the reading, and you have to have this (points to his head), you've got to be fast thinking because when Fela is writing he never waits for no one, the moment he wants this, out of four, two are getting it two are not getting it, he will ask the two who are not getting it to just shut the fuck up and listen to the two who have got it and learn from what they are doing. So by the time he finishes that rehearsal the next time you come...rehearsal is about perfection, about you know trying to complete what you are doing. 

Ron: That is what rehearsal is all about, there is no musician in the word who nails it the first time every time. 

Showboy: No, no, you have to go through it. And you see, I wish you saw one of the rehearsals of Fela himself. You know why? When Fela is on stage rehearsing man that stage is ON FIRE! The concentration of everybody because you know he is like a conductor, like a choirmaster. When we are rehearsing he's facing us, he is backing the audience, and people are free, people are free to come and watch the rehearsals. Then he starts. When he is writing the new music, he starts this way: he invites the rhythm to the house. The guitar with the conga. To keep the guitarist on tempo, the conga is taking the job of the metronome, to maintain the rhythm, to give the guitarist the idea and the speed of the music he is about to write. 

Now, when he starts, he practice with the guitarists, at home. When the guitarists are OK, he now brings them to the Shrine and now calls for general practice. That's when he starts infusing the whole line. 

Ron: (discussing the triumvirate of James Brown, Miles Davis, and Fela

Showboy rehearses Egypt 80 at the New Africa Shrine
Showboy: You got it right because I remember when we had this benefit for James Brown release at the Apollo Theater, we did two concerts in one night and the two concerts were sold out. I was on front page of the New York Times on June 24, 1990. They described my saxophone like a bull elephant, the way I sound. Yeah, I was bad, I was a bad, hot baritone saxophonist. 

So, now, after that show, you know in 1986 we had a Humanity Festival in Paris, we played with Miles Davis, he was there live, before his death. The last show was the Apollo Theater concert, it never happened, an African band direct from Africa stormin' New York. 

Ron: So how did you do? 

Showboy: Oh shit, it was BAAAD. I played at the (name unclear) on 53rd, at the Madison Square Garden, I played at the Apollo Theater... 

Ron: This [the New Africa Shrine] is the Carnegie Hall of Africa.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Fela's Musicians - Interview with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi, Part 1

Showboy warming up Egypt 80
There is quite a bit of information available about Fela Kuti but very little has been documented about his musicians. It was not just Fela who was great; his entire band was great, and Fela's classic afrobeat sound was constructed from the instrumental contributions of many. But the covers of all those Fela albums released in the West didn't list the names of his band mates in the credits, and the players are largely unknown to their fans.

When I met some of the members of Egypt 80 at Seun Kuti's gig on May 26 and realized that about half of them were in the band prior to Fela's death, I understood that there is still a chance to document the untold history of Fela's band. I started with an interview with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi at the Shrine in Lagos on June 1. This is the first in a series. 

Ron: I think I started when I was like 9 or 10 years old. 

Showboy: With which instrument? 

Ron: I started on clarinet. 

Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi today
Showboy: What are you doing? That was my first instrument, the Bb clarinet. 

Ron: I had a plastic clarinet. 

Showboy: I played...my first instrument was the clarinet. I left the clarinet and started playing tenor. Then, I was playing tenor, tenor saxophone on stage. So there was this day, there was problem on the stage, because some members of the band that left due to Fela's incarceration came back when Fela came out of prison. So, there were more tenor saxophone players and more alto saxophone players so I just went for...I did not learn it from nowhere...on stage I picked the baritone and I started playing straight, the baritone. 

Ron. Did you play alto before? 

Showboy: Yeah, I played alto, I played tenor. My favourite was then tenor, but on that day I started playing baritone, and that is baritone I play up 'til today. 

When Fela comes on stage and he looks at his back, when I am not on the stand, you will hear him say, "A technical fault." He will be looking, the moment he sees me coming on stage, he starts the music. Because he never jokes with me. He respected me as a good instrumentalist, as someone who knows his instrument. Very, very important. 

Ron: His sound is anchored with the bari. 

Showboy: Yeah, yeah, yeah, because I am always there. I played solo until he died, I was the lead baritone soloist. 

Ron: So you played on a lot of the famous records? 

Showboy: Yes, yeah man, we recorded at the (name unclear) Studio in New York, 47th by 7th Avenue. (laughs) I recorded with Fela in Paris, I recorded in London, I recorded in New York, besides the ones in Nigeria. So, my experience, you know playing with Fela has a lot of things, you have a lot of things to gain as a musician, because we aren't just playing with Fela, we are learning while playing, because Fela will teach you how to be a musician, Fela will teach you how to play music the right way. Fela will wake your mind up in some aspects of music that your mind and your eyes were closed on, that you were not seeing because, let me take... 

As a soloist Fela built me to be one of the best baritone saxophone players, I made that name, go on the internet, go and check I had my ratings, write my name go on the internet and check baritone saxophone players in Africa blah, blah, blah, you will get the result. There was a day I was playing somewhere, somebody came and told me "I saw your name", I didn't believe it, "you were written as among the world's best baritone saxophone players". How come? It is due to Fela's guide. 

You know, where I knew I was doing right, I also have someone who always tells me, Showboy, don't stop, you are doing good. Keep on playing the way you are doing. And that person was the musical director of the Nigerian Navy, Wally Buckner. In fact Showboy in front of you today talking about musical instrument thanks to Wally Buckner. You know what I am saying? Thanks to Wally Buckner. 

(to be continued...)

Friday, 1 June 2012

Guitarist Pete Cosey is Gone

Chicago guitarist Pete Cosey passed away earlier this week at age 68. Another original and under-recognized voice stilled.

Pete was a member of the AACM in the 1960's and played with Miles Davis' wild pre-retirement electric funk band in the mid-70's (Agharta, Pangaea, Get Up With It). I was fortunate enough to see him play with Miles a couple of times at the Jazz Workshop in Boston when I was a college student and was blown away. Pete sounded like nobody else, one of those musicians who was able to achieve a truly personal and unique sound. I've remembered and admired his playing ever since; although I am not a big guitar fan, his music was always worth seeking out. Pete apparently never recorded an album under his own name, although he came directly from Muddy Waters, the AACM, and Miles.

I found his obit on the blog Music Hertz, and there is an obit in the Chicago Reader that includes links to two interviews. RIP, Pete Cosey, thanks for the joy in your music.