Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Tribute to Von Freeman

I wrote this "note to self" after a conversation with tenor sax master Von Freeman at Andy’s, 11 E. Hubbard St., Chicago, on Sunday morning, August 12, 2007, from 1:30 – 2:30 AM. It is an apt tribute to the recently departed soul and one of my favorite pieces.

Setup: Von played a Selmer Mark VII tenor (complete with rubber bands) with an Otto Link 9 mouthpiece and Vandoren V16 #4 reeds, in a flight case. No stand; he put his horn under the piano during breaks.

Von played 3 Saturday night sets at Andy’s with his quintet, the (white) piano-bass-drums rhythm section including 25 year old Philly pianist Ben Paterson along with vocalist Bettye Reynolds. Very short breaks – these guys like to play. I had an interesting conversation with Ben during the break when he accidentally picked up and drank my drink – ended up buying me a Macallans and stayed and talked for a while. Ben is making it as a jazz pianist in Chicago and has an organ trio playing at Andy’s on Monday. Says he has avoided making a living playing weddings so far, lucky him. He said that playing with Von is great, Von really listens to him, and Von will be playing something totally modern and outside one minute and then a lick straight from 1942 the next. 

Von was playing Lester Leaps In when I arrived about 10:15. The highlight of the second set was Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid (which I was playing earlier in the day at PM Woodwinds in Evanston when I was trying out horns earlier in the day – I call my version Jumpin’ with Uncle Sid). I really felt like Von was channelling Pres. I had been reading about Pres in a book called But Beautiful in a bookstore that morning. The third set started with a long (~15 minute) rap followed by Robbin’s Nest. He concluded with April in Paris. Von likes playing long acapella obbligati. He had a good rapport going with Ben and was guiding Ben verbally as he comped and soloed. His playing was absolutely effortless. His edgy, acid tone is instantly recognizable. 

After the 3rd set ended I had a long and fascinating conversation with Von (“Vonski” as he likes to be called; he called me “Ronski”). Von is nearing 85 years of age, and as Ben said as we left the place at 2:30, he is maybe one of a dozen people remaining on the planet who have shared the experience of Pres, Bird, Dexter, etc. Roy Haynes is another. Von is white haired and walks a bit slowly, but his wits are totally about him. 

Von was extremely kind and engaging, not the least bit standoffish and arrogant. I mentioned that my Dad had just passed and Von started talking about how he was at the end of his time. He talked about his life and how when he was younger he was involved with gangs, drank heavily, etc., but luckily changed his ways and survived. He said at one time he felt a lot of self pity about not “making it” and I told him he has made it and is considered one of the living masters, how he is recognized all around the world, and how one writer even called him the greatest living tenor player (even better than Rollins!). He was flattered by this and didn’t seem to know. He is very Chicago-centered. He said that luckily he has had good health whereas Sonny has had some health problems. 

I mentioned that I felt he was channeling Lester and he said he had met Lester Young, and Lester was a very kind man. He said that Lester told a story, that playing that style was very difficult as most horn players followed Hawk and just played a lot of notes. He pointed to the keys of his horn and said the saxophone is built to play a lot of notes. Lester got beyond that. Von mentioned that Stan Getz, probably the best known direct Pres disciple, used to come and hear him play. 

I mentioned that I had the chance to hear and meet Dexter Gordon in the Village about 25 years ago and that Dexter was a real gentleman and I would remember him fondly forever, in the same way I would remember my conversation with Von. Von loved Dexter. He reminisced about a recording session he once did with Dexter on Joe Siegel’s label, with Jodie Christian, Red Rodney and Roy Haynes. Siegel told everyone to keep their solos short so Von as the first soloist did 4 choruses on a blues and then sat down. After the piano player, Dexter cut loose and played for about half an hour. Dexter told Von not to listen to the producer, just to play what he felt. Von said he listened to his four choruses later and couldn’t believe how well he played, said it didn’t sound like himself. It was someone else (God) playing. 

When he mentioned Bird he said that it wasn’t Bird playing the horn. Said that Bird had a really bad drug problem, and all the women loved Bird. 

Von said that music is not mathematics (i.e., you can’t play just by memorizing intervals and patterns), that it is something spiritual and from the soul. I said that was a function of the high level he played at – maybe much less skilled musicians have to play by the numbers. He agreed and laughed. He referred to his 3rd set rap about not letting the devil get between you and the sound. He said that he doesn’t practice any more – he doesn’t need to, his embouchure is like a rock after all these years and he used to play an 11 mouthpiece – but he used to practice 25 hours a day when younger. Music to him is way beyond conscious thought. Ben seconded this in a separate conversation. 

At the end of our conversation, as I was saying farewell, Von grabbed my hands, rubbed them, and held my hands in his for a long time. He said he was passing the gift on to me.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Vonski Is Gone

I found out last night from Sax On The Web that my very favorite saxophonist, Chicago's Von Freeman, passed away last week at the age of 88. I'm not feeling too happy today as it seems like all my remaining saxophone heroes are leaving us. Last year ended with Sam Rivers' death, the previous year Fred Anderson, now Vonski.

I loved Vonski's acid sound, which has been described as "out of tune" or "playing the wrong notes", but the only thing that proves is that some people's ears are out of tune. Vonski never played a bad note in his life. 

Some of the reasons I loved to hear him play: He loved playing. Toward the end of his life he could barely walk but he played with boundless energy. He was a living link to Charlie Parker and can be found on a recording of Bird from the Pershing Ballroom in the late 1940's. He only played tenor, no stylish dalliance with whiny soprano or wimpy flute to try and sell records. Not a single disco-soul album in the 70's. He played blues, bop, and standards, very few "original compositions" that can't hold a candle to Night in Tunisia in order to cash in on publishing rights. He never recorded an album with strings, never composed a suite for symphony orchestra. Just fiery, original, genuine, from the heart blowing that spanned bebop to outside with everything in between. He recorded tenor battles with his son Chico (a great saxophonist in his own right), Willis Jackson, and fellow Chicagoan Ed Petersen; all these guys can blow like crazy but when Vonski came on...SHUT UP! 

Here is a well-written obit in the Chicago Tribune. And here is a great streaming broadcast of Vonski and Ed Petersen on NPR

I'll post my own tribute tomorrow, a note to self written back in 2007 after a long conversation with Vonski.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Fela's Legend Lives On - Seun Kuti and Egypt 80

Seun Kuti at the New Africa Shrine - Fela's Musical Legacy
Yesterday was the last Saturday of August, time for Fela Kuti's youngest son Seun to bring Egypt 80 to the New Africa Shrine for his monthly midnight gig. 29-year old Seun and the band just returned from touring Europe and Japan a few weeks ago and this was their first Lagos gig in three months. The 500 Naira gate fee at the Shrine is one-tenth or less of what international fans pay to see Seun on tour.
Another Direct Link to Fela - Showboy Leading Egypt 80

I came in as Showboy was putting the band through a meticulous sound check; as a saxophonist he balances the horns particularly well so each instrument's part can be picked out cleanly from the audience. The warm-up set started just after 11:00pm with Showboy leading the group through about half a dozen numbers lasting 90 minutes. Seun came out at 12:30am and started wailing on alto sax; like brother Femi he has mastered circular breathing. I stayed until 3:00am and Seun was still going strong when I left, having removed his shirt right before I split which makes him look uncannily like his father. 

Seun gives lots of solo room to his musicians and there is plenty of improvisation by the horns. Egypt 80's current standout soloist is the baritone saxophonist, following in the tradition of Fela's band's being anchored by a strong baritonist. Showboy held down that chair until his accident three years ago. Click to hear Mister Big Thief performed live on Saturday night. 

Seun continues his father's political activism. The topic of the night was the new 5,000 Naira note announced recently by Nigeria's central bank. The largest note is currently 1,000 Naira; most Nigerians I talked to think the new large-denomination note is a bad idea and expect inflation to follow rapidly. Why is a 5,000 Naira note even needed when 90% of Nigerians live below the poverty line and the minimum wage is 18,000 Naira (just over $100) per month? Corruption is rife, commonly thought to be more widespread now than when Fela was alive, and the corrupt typically keep large stashes of cash packed away in Ghana Must Gos. The new notes will make it more convenient to store and transport large amounts of cash. 

The new 5,000 Naira note will feature a picture of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela's mother and Seun's grandmother, a noted women's rights activist. Seun said that nobody consulted the family about this. Ironically, Funmilayo died as the result of being thrown of a second-story window at Kalakuta by Government forces in 1977. The family never received compensation nor even an apology. Seun told the audience that he prefers justice for his grandmother and they can keep the money.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Learning to Play Afrobeat First Hand

Getting the chance to learn to play afrobeat first hand in Lagos. Had two successive days of learning side-by-side with excellent players. 

First, finally got Showboy to come by and teach me some of Fela Kuti's music. Showboy is a legend from the years he spent anchoring Fela's horn section on baritone sax, and he is an encyclopedic repository of original afrobeat which he learned directly from its inventor and master. The music is all up in his head rather than written down on charts, scores and fake sheets. You can't buy a book of Fela sheet music anywhere to my knowledge. Showboy is currently music director of Egypt 80 which backs Fela's youngest son Seun Kuti. 

Showboy was injured badly in a hit and run accident in Lagos about three years ago and can't hold a sax because of damage to his left hand. He sure can sing, though, and he taught me Dog Eat Dog and Trouble Sleeps by scatting the themes and horn backing parts while I picked out the notes on my tenor. After about 90 minutes I had both down well enough to take a break before my brain exploded. I wasn't that familiar with Trouble Sleeps so we listened to it on iTunes a few times to catch the theme. Showboy taught it to me in Eb but the recording seems to be in Db so I had to transpose to match the record. It is all in the timing and phrasing and it is a challenge to play without a rhythm section - Showboy helped me by counting out the beats and conducting my entrances. 

Then last night, Femi Kuti's tenor player Dotsax came by and we jammed freely for an intense nonstop hour. He just got his horn out and started playing and of course I didn't have my Zoom on and missed recording our jam, given the choice between playing along or messing around with the recording equipment. He's a quiet guy and didn't say a word so I had to chase him entirely by ear, which worked out pretty well in the end. Spoke through our horns. Before he left he wrote down some patterns for me to practice, but of course he wrote them in DO-RE-MI format which I now have to convert to C-D-E or 1-2-3 before I can play them since I never learned the European notation system. Something clicked and patterns suddenly made sense as Dotsax has a Coltrane kind of sound. Our styles contrast as I tend to play more melodies and backing riffs than he does but he plays a whole lot more notes than I do. And plays them very well, I might add.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Femi Kuti's PhD from Kalakuta

PhD from Kalakuta
Femi Kuti Playing Alto 
Went to the New Africa Shrine last night to hear Femi Kuti and his band play their regular Sunday night gig. It was more crowded than usual since Ramadan just ended. It is Sallah in Nigeria; Monday has been declared a public holiday and nobody had to get up early for work for a change. Femi was full of energy and he and the band played for nearly five hours without a break. The floor was packed by the end of the set.

And a Bit of Trumpet
Femi took the opportunity in the last hour to recount some of his life story first-hand. He and the Kuti family are celebrities in Nigeria and there is way more written about their personalities and personal lives in the local press than there is about their music. Femi is often maligned as uneducated and even illiterate and it is well known that he and Fela didn't exactly see eye to eye. But although Femi did not finish secondary school and many of his school mates went on to university to become doctors and lawyers, he is far from illiterate. Femi told the crowd last night that he "has a PhD from Kalakuta" and went on to say how his father in fact made him read plenty of challenging and thought provoking books. Femi has done well for himself regardless of his foreshortened formal education and the fact that the Shrine has survived for so long as a people's venue is testament to his success. And the fact that he is talking openly about his relationship with Fela shows that he has mellowed some after the big 5-0, as some of us old souls predicted.

Now You See It
Now You Don't
Musically, I found it rather strange that Femi plays his alto with the mike jammed way down into the bell. I've never seen anyone play that way before except as an occasional effect. Maybe it is a function of the band's volume - it gets pretty loud in the Shrine - and his preference for the mix, a way to get the sax heard above the thunder. Look at the adjacent photos and you'll see what I am talking about.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Survival of Egypt 80 After Fela's Death

Completing the interview with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi that started on August 9:

Showboy: So you see, that decision that we took [to keep playing together in Fela's memory] is what kept Egypt 80 going until today. It wasn't easy. That is what happened, that is what brought up we writing our own songs, and so on. That is where it started from, because I think we were at this festival in Switzerland...that festival happens every 25 years, you know, so it take place every 25 years. So we went to one of the festival, so after the show, we were playing two shows every day for 15 days, so that was where the idea of we would start writing our own songs came up from, that if we really want to make money we need to start writing our own songs. That was where we started. So when we came back from that tour we brought in some equipment that really helped in bringing the band. 

Ron: So what year was that? 

Showboy: I think in 2000. 2000, 2001. After Fela passed, Seun was about 13, 14 years old. I was the deputy band leader. Egypt 80, we choose to continue with the band because we believed we could make it. At the beginning, the first three, four years, man it was hell. Can you imagine, a very big band, world renowned band, we played from 11:00 'til 5:00 AM in the morning, we start at 11:30-12:00 in the night and we stop playing by 5:00, 5:30, 6:00 in the morning, and after the show when we are going home, we are given 50 Naira. Sometimes we are given 10 Naira, 15 Naira. [Today's exchange rate is about 150 Naira to the Dollar, 200 Naira to the Euro, or 250 Naira to the Pound]

Why? Just why? Because the Shrine image was destroyed by the narcotics department, by the NPID that took over the Shrine. They were living at the Shrine extorting money from people, robbing people every day at the Shrine. Visitors who came from Europe, they take cab to the Shrine, and when they get there they discover that the Shrine is open. The NPID officials at the gate, they tied, they wrap papers like marijuana, they put them in the tray and sat down. Some of them were wearing short knickers, they were all there seated at the gate. When you park the car they tell you to go in. The moment you enter the gate and walk in, someone blocks you with a rifle, they ask you to walk in. You walk in, they take everything in your pocket and they horsewhip you from here to the gate to run out of the Shrine. When you get to the gate you see people seated at the gate and you think the Shrine is on. They on the light in the night to attract people, you know, before you go in and you know something is happening, you know. So they scared people away from the Shrine. 

So after the burial when we started playing, we were playing for five, seven people, from 11:00 'til 5:00 AM, from 11:00 PM 'til 5:00 AM. If you see ten people inside the Shrine, you'll see about seven people bought ticket. How much is the ticket? 150 Naira? And the money must be shared by about 49 people. So how much did everyone get as take home? And sometime we need to buy fuel. So you will admit that we are doing the job for the love of the job, not for money any more, because there was no money, we were on our own, doing things on our own. Living by what we make at the gate. And by the time you finish playing in the morning, they told you they sell five, seven ticket, what do you want to do? 

So those years, the experience can never be forgotten, can never escape our memory, there are things that we can never forget, they were so bad, yeah so bad. 

Ron: Did you ever record just as Egypt 80? 

Showboy: No. The first album we record after Fela's death was with Seun. 

Ron: That was a long time after. 

Showboy: Yeah. We just have the two albums in the market now. That is why, in Seun's first album I have a track, the band leader has some tracks. In the second album I also have a track that I wrote.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Fela Kuti's Last Song, Never Recorded

Continuing the interview with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi from August 9, 2012:

Ron: Last time you were here you told me about Fela's last song, never released. 

Showboy: The last song that we were working on, none of us up until today knows the name, because that was when Fela told them that they should not call him Fela, they should call him "Part of the Case". And you know, that sound, that last track that he was writing we played the instrumental but none of us got to listen to even one line of the song, so nobody knew what he was going to put in as a song, but the music was like afrobeat, jazz, and highlife, it was 3-in-1 mixed up. It started in afrobeat, it went jazzy, the third part was highlife, then it came back to afrobeat. So the day we conclude, we completed the whole instrumentation, from the beginning of the instrumental to the end, Fela was dancing very happy on stage, like man he has got what he was looking for. 

So after that rehearsal that day, Fela said, "Man this song is so hot. Let us rest." We played the full instrumental from the beginning to the end, he danced, danced, danced, danced, danced then he said "Great!" He stopped. He said, "Let us go and rest." And that is the rest he is resting 'til tomorrow. Nobody knew what was there, nobody knew what was coming on, on the song any more. Nobody knew the name of the song, the title, nobody know it, because he never uttered a word. All that we knew was we played the instrumental from beginning to the end, he gave everybody their part, we did the body, we did the tail end, we did the intro, we did the solo backing, and what we were waiting for. And it was very, very unusual of Fela when he is writing a new song, when we are practicing a new song, he often brings in singers to start some part with us from the beginning, before we get to the middle of the song. But on this track he did not put anything, not even a single word, from neither him nor the singers. 

The day we just complete the full instrumental, the music, Fela said, "Let us rest", and that is the rest that Fela is resting 'til tomorrow. 

Ron: Were you recording here in Lagos? 

Showboy: We have not recorded it. We were rehearsing at the Shrine. We didn't record it. I believe if he had completed it and added the lyrics Fela don't just record. Before you see Fela go to the studio with any song, the band has played it for over a year. 

Ron: So it is just gone in the air? 

Showboy: Yeah. 

Ron: Nobody did a sound check? 

Showboy: No. It can only be played by the Egypt 80, and no one else. And when I say Egypt 80, I mean we that played with Fela until death. We are the only people who can bring up that music. 

Ron: You mean it's here (points to head), you don't have a chart? 

Showboy: Yeah, yeah, yeah, he gave everybody their parts, he gave everybody their part. 

Ron: When you say he gave everybody their part... 

Showboy: He wrote everyone's part (scats the theme, then the sax section part, then the trumpet part). That was so bad, man. 

Ron: So why don't you recreate it with Egypt 80? 

Showboy: If we want to bring it up we can bring it up, as an instrumental, we could play it instrumental. That music was baaaaddd. We should. He deserves it. It was part of my vows. The day we buried Fela, I made a vow, I am going to keep this thing going, at least I will keep that as my own contribution to the on-movement, to the moving forward of the band, because if we did not take the step we decide to take, the decision, there would be no Egypt 80 today.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Showboy Remembers Fela Kuti

Continuing the interview with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi from August 9, 2012:

Showboy: It remind of when, as I was saying, I was the last person who saw Fela among the musicians. I was the last person who spoke to him in the whole Egypt 80 before he died. Why is it like that? Because I walked into his bus after our last concert in Warri and I had this argument with Desmond Osawari, he was the organizer of the show, he was the promoter of the last show Fela did in Warri. And he was telling me on stage, he was telling me "Man, this man is dead." I said "Why are you talking like that?" He said "This is not the Fela I saw two weeks ago at the Shrine", that "these people have done something to him." And truly, Fela did not last four weeks from that day until he passed away. 

Ron: I gotta show you something. On Monday I wrote this. 

(Opens Crazy Bent Brass Tube to the August 6 posting entitled "What Would Fela Think? Nigeria 30 Years Later", written just three days prior to this interview. Showboy had not seen it yet. Showboy proceeds to read it aloud) 

Showboy: It's true. Ho! Just part of what I was just saying... Yeah, I was just talking because I was part of it. I have been around him and I know what he has been singing about, talking about in the last three four decades, man. It all comes true. He told us Government of Crooks. He told us Country of Pain. We are still in pain! My people are still in pain! Getting worse and worse. Can you imagine? 

When he told us about water, they were telling us that in 1990 we would have water. Truly, in 1990 they started digging roads all over the country, that they were going to pass water everywhere. Up until today as we are talking there is no water. Water, problem. Food, problem. House, wahalla [Hausa for trouble]. Imagine. 

Ron: Now the State government is making his house a museum, supporting Felabration... 

Showboy: Imagine, no, you see, these people who are coming into this, now, it is because they have been following him and you know, they want the world to know that it is not everybody in Nigeria, the Nigerian Government, who are stupid, that at least there are some sensible ones. Because if today the Lagos State government comes out, they are sponsoring, it is because it is right, it is what this guy deserved, that this man deserved to be taken care of, his house should be a museum. Ever since Fela died, who comes out to talk for the people? Nobody, because everybody is afraid. They don't know what is going to happen. 

Because, you know, if Fela was thinking about making his own money, really a millionaire, Fela would sing and play commercial music, and before you know...Fela don't even accept Government contracts to play for the Government. Mmmm, he won't. Because I remember something happened, I think in '86, between '86 and'87, there was this concert that was arranged at the National Stadium. A guy came to Fela, one of Fela's friends and told Fela that they are organizing an African Children's Concert at the stadium, blah blah blah, blah blah blah. Fela told him, "Ah, that is very interesting, if there is a concert for the African children I would like to be part of this." He now dropped an advance payment of 250,000 Naira. So he left. 

48 hours, I think 48 hours to the show, another Fela's friend came and told Fela "We heard you are performing at the stadium for the African Children's Concert, but the ticket is one thousand five, two thousand." Fela now asked them that, "What did you say?" He now sent someone to call the promoter. So when he called him, he now asked him that "How many African children can afford 1,500 Naira to come watch me, Fela? Instead of you to do the ticket 50 Naira, 100 Naira, you are now charging 1,500 Naira per ticket. In that case, you must pay me one million before I partake in that show, or else forget it, the 250,000 you brought, I thank you, you are my friend, I appreciate it, it is money for my weed but not for the concert. Why should African children pay 1,500 to watch me, for what?" And that is why he never took part, he never played in that concert. 

And because every concert we played for the children or for students, was completely different from a concert we played in a stadium or a dance hall. Those were shows sponsored by promoters, but shows that involved students, that's when you get the cheapest rate from Fela.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Fela Kuti's 1984 Arrest, as Told by Showboy

I had the opportunity to speak again at length with Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi, Fela Kuti's former baritone saxophonist and current music director of Egypt 80, in Lagos on Thursday evening. We continued the series of interviews we started back in June, recounting the untold history of Fela and his band.

Showboy: You know why I say it is a conspiracy? When Fela turn back to Nigeria, Fela was on a European tour and was supposed to go to America from Europe. He now called a meeting with the group, said "Man we have seven days, shall we spend the seven days in Europe and go to America from Europe?" And as the group has spent about three months in Europe, some of the band's members did not leave enough money with their family, so they really wanted to come back and take care of business here before they continued, before they proceed to America. 

So when they came back, on their way back, Fela was arrested, and the money they are claiming they found on Fela was not Fela's money; Fela does not wear a coat, I don't think you've ever seen Fela in a coat. The coat belonged to somebody who was around Fela, the magician, Professor Hindu. He was the one that was wearing the coat. So when they got to the airport, because of Fela, they started this general search of everybody at the airport. When they started searching, then Hindu walked to Fela and said "Fela, I have some money in my coat, I brought it back from Europe-O." Then Fela collected the coat and held it that maybe he would be exempted from the searching. But when they checked the coat they discovered money, they discovered £8,600 or something. And that was what Fela was arrested for. 

Ron: What year was that? 

Showboy: I think in '84, 1984. So when they now arrested Fela, the police officer who was in charge of the arrest, he now called the Presidency and told them "Ah, I have arrested that radical". They now told him "If you do not have any case, if you do not have anything incriminating against him, you better release him under 24 hours." What they were expecting to find was marijuana, but as they did not find anything incriminating, they now held on to the money, that the money was not declared when he was coming in. 

And don't be surprised, the same people who said that Fela did not declare this money, they later provide a paper which signifies that the money was declared. So there was complication. The judge didn't know what to do. The day he was supposed to give judgement, in between the case, he has to receive another phone call that came from above. I believe his life was threatened, and the life of his family, that you have to jail that guy, man. And he has no option than to put Fela in jail. 

When he now jail Fela, this same judge now arranged to see Fela in hospital in Benin. That was where he went and declared to Fela that "Man, you were not guilty, I was under pressure, I was instructed to put you behind bars. And as a judge, if I don't tell you the truth, I will never forgive myself. I came for your forgiveness, forgive me. You did not commit any offense. You were jailed because I had the order to put you behind bars from above." 

And you see, when all these things were happening, there was already change of government. The people who jailed Fela were no longer in power. There was a new president in the person of Babangida. And when Babangida heard that the judge had gone to beg Fela in the hospital, he hadn't any option but to order the release of Fela immediately, after spending about 18 months in prison. 

And you see, there was natural hatred. He wasn't just put to jail. How many of these politicians that have squandered our money, that have wasted the better part of our life in this country, have been jailed in Lagos and are taken around Nigeria's prisons from one state to another the way they did to Fela? They were transferring him, because being a man of the people, in every prison they take him, there are dozens of people who are coming to see Fela. Outside the Government, inside the Government, people were coming to see Fela. The problem is that if you come and visit him in Lagos today, the first day, the second day, the third day they will tell you he is no longer here, he's been transferred. And before they know people have got information about his whereabouts, where they have transferred him to and they start going there; before they know it they have transferred him again. So they were taking him from one prison to another. 

And that is why I said it was a serious conspiracy at the highest level on the Government's part. You know, this was the mouthpiece of the poor masses of this country. This was the only man that tells it the way it looks like to the Government, that why are my people deserve this, why are you giving them this? What has Fela sung about in this country that is not OK, that has been put into place until today? How many years? 15 years 'til today since Fela's death. My people are still suffering about accommodation, we have accommodation problem, we have light problem, we have job problem, a lot of people are getting hungry, hungrier and hungrier every f-ing day...

Monday, 6 August 2012

What Would Fela Think? Nigeria 30 Years Later

It is 2012, more than 30 years on since Fela Kuti released such landmark titles as ITT, Original Suffer Head, and Power Show, weaving political content into killer rhythms that just could not be ignored - neither by music fans nor by the authorities. In 1982, Fela was at the height of his international fame and toured the world as a star. But in his home country of Nigeria, Fela's activism was highly controversial in its day and led to his being constantly harassed, savagely beaten, repeatedly imprisoned and worse. Why? Fela used music as the weapon of the future to attack repression, corruption, squalor, and poverty in the Lion of Africa, one of the world's leading oil producing nations where, by his estimation, every black man should be a millionaire (or so the billboard says at the New Africa Shrine). 

30 years on and the military dictatorships of the 1980s are history, replaced by elected civilian rulers. Oil has continued to flow, bringing an estimated $500 billion into Nigeria's coffers since independence. The centrally-planned economy of the past is gone, replaced by privatization and private ownership. Nigeria is now classified as a middle income economy by the World Bank. GDP growth has been robust for decade. 

Last week I attended a workshop in Abuja and learned some startling statistics underlying the current state of development. The poverty rate in Nigeria has actually DOUBLED in the last 30 years. 42% of Nigerian children suffer from malnutrition. 80% of women and girls in the 8 northern states are illiterate. There are 100 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty. That is today, 30 years on, in this "middle income" country, not 1982 under the kleptocratic military dictatorship. Not to mention that 60 to 65% of Nigerian households still cook with firewood, leading to the world's fastest deforestation rate, even though the country is listed is the world's tenth largest oil producer. 30 years on from Tony Allen's NEPA and No Accommodation for Lagos, power outages are still chronic, housing is perpetually short, there is no sewage, no potable water, poor health care, collapsing public education...and the UK's Guardian newspaper estimated in late July that £196 billion (over $300 billion) in oil wealth has flooded out of Nigeria into offshore bank accounts since the 1970s, which is more than 60% of cumulative oil revenues. 

Fela departed this world 15 years ago. You better ask yourself, what would Fela think about today's Nigeria?