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We were there

By Debbie Olujobi

A front row seat,watching the best of life unfold in a time when life seemed so easy is a gift. Maybe its nostalgia that is romanticising the past and making it seem that the good old days were much better than the present. I was at a dinner a few days ago and some youngsters came to do a dance interpretation of Fela’s “Suffering and Smiling”.

It was entertaining and while it was much appreciated by us all; they did not come close to the real thing. I looked at my better half and we exchanged smiles; it was the acceptance and appreciation that we had seen the real thing; we were there. There is a great feeling of appreciation and even smugness that comes with first hand experiences of truly life changing or mind moulding experiences and believe me the Fela years were that and more.

*Late Fela

Now to those whose sensibilities I am about to offend, I should explain that I am a child of the seventies born after the civil war, caught up in the ideology of revolution, freedom and change. The incessant incursions of soldiers in politics meant there was always a struggle; those willing to take power at the point of a gun, made oppression and repression a staple and Fela was a champion of freedom. I was a great fan of his music but his life style choices made his ideology a bit difficult to swallow.

I was brought up to believe that smoking hemp was a sure way of becoming mad and that those who smoked were unhinged. I don’t get involved in legislating people’s preferences and taste but Fela’s passion for weed may have contributed to his ideology not becoming mainstream. Truth be told, he made a lot of sense and his concerns about the lack of development, nepotism, blatant corruption have been validated, those things contributed to the derelict state of our nation today.

My first taste of Fela’s genius came with the masterpiece titled “Palaver”.  His songs were almost conversational, and it gave his listeners the opportunity to listen and participate; almost like a question and answer sing along. The man was a genius who had the backing of a superbly orchestrated and a humongous band. His songs were also very long, at least 10–15 minutes in length, and many reaching the 20 or even 45 minutes when performed live.

Typically there is an instrumental “introduction” jam part of the song, perhaps 10-15 minutes long, before Fela starts singing the “main” part. He was an acquired taste; not for the impulsive or faint hearted. His songs were mostly sung in Nigerian pidgin, although he also performed a few songs in the Yoruba language. He was an incredible saxophonist, trumpeter and played the keyboards, drums and electric guitar. He incorporated traditional instruments like Shekere and drums to create world class music.

I take personal pride when I hear his music played, after all he was a Nigerian icon. His music in my view is timeless. My musical taste has evolved and these days my spirits are lifted more by spirit filled music that connect me to my maker than the ideology of a rebel fighting the Goliaths of his days. I do find that I take offence at the younger generation’s portrayal of his music and his person.

I particularly find offensive karaoke copy cat versions of his songs that depict him as some illiterate drunk or drug addict. I didn’t know the man personally but I knew his children and there was never a time he was incoherent or disoriented in public; he was a master showman, who spoke excellent English. He read music at the prestigious Trinity School of Music in England. His songs were in Pidgin english just so he could communicate with the common man he identified with.

I remember attending a concert of his in the university in the late 80’s and being amazed at the huge size of the joint rolled in his hands. My friends and I had never even seen a joint before and we watched him intently for the 3 hours on the stage. To our shock , he took 2 puffs the entire time and the rest was left burning; we concluded he was more mouth than action.

I wouldn’t presume to say I knew anything authoritatively about the man as I didn’t necessarily agree with his life style choices or even followed his entire music portfolio; some were too risqué for me. I know that he did regret marrying the many wives he acquired as he found the dynamics of a harem stressful but I wish he had been a bit more mainstream.

He spoke the truth but lacked the right moral credential to get the support to have brought change about. His life was colourful and outlandish; he was completely anti establishment. He lived large and remained large even in death. His burial was attended by over a million people, I remember being stuck in traffic for hours because the roads were jammed with mourners.

I haven’t thought of Abami Eda(the extraordinary weird one) in a while; he remains a part of my youth culture and listening to the presentation reminded me of a time long gone; confined to history and that even though we, the youths of days gone by have become the establishment; we were there; front row and centre…..


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