By Chris Onuoha
“We are married to Fela, we are not prostitutes. Anybody wey no get sense, call us Ashawo, Fela go deal with am…” chorused all the 27 ladies that made up Fela’s Kalakuta Queens.
After heated argument, shouting and throwing of tantrums by the ladies with Fela within the Kalakuta, they said to him, “we are not happy. It is only you that people recognise in this place. Everybody call us prostitutes and runaway ladies. Some say you kidnapped us. We don’t even have honour in the eyes of people.” And Fela replied: “Who dey tell una dat one, abi dem no get sense?” The ladies retorted: “Don’t you see how police de treat you? Everybody for street de call us ashawo. We followed you from Ojuelegba to Mushin and down to Ikeja. Even sef, we no fit go back home again o…”
All the tragedies and image dent experienced by the ladies were what made them strong, having laboured with Fela for all the years, stood by him, suffered for him and with him, been rejected by family members, yet stuck to their guns saying, ‘it’s only you we know.’ And in several situations, they were treated like nobodies. Having gotten a full dose of bitter pills from following one man they all adored, respected and believed in, they decided to seek their rights to be called responsible women. Fela in his utmost wisdom consented. He reasoned that the women made him. In his closet, he muttered: “They are the pillar of my struggle, success and inspiration. They have laboured with me through thick and thin and I cannot abandon them at this crucial time.” He agreed to legalise their union by wedding all the 27 women that clustered around him in one day.
That is the storyline of the theatrical masterpiece of Fela’s life with his Kalakuta Republic Queens produced by Bolanle Austen Peters’ Production, BAP, in collaboration with MTN Foundation. The musical which was first previewed by media personnel on Friday, March 29, to run in the month of April at the ultra-modern Terrakulture Arena, in Victoria Island, was a spectacular juxtapose to Fela on Broadway done some time ago that garnered huge applause.
Fela’s Kalakuta Queens in a theatrical act is a maverick display of memories of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. It is a stage play in a musical format showcasing the beauty inside Abami-Eda’s shrine – the intrigues, fun, controversies and the truth about Kalakuta queens beyond what the public perceive them to be. From the outside, the queens are seen as ordinary fun-loving runaways entranced by Fela’s music but from the inside, they are extraordinary Amazons and engine room of Fela’s success. The whole surrounding mysteries about the queens are in their commitment, resilience and passion to defend what they believe in. They were all made up of dancers that performed alongside the initial Africa 70s to Egypt 80 band of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Obviously, the spirit that binds them together to walk and work in unison is so overwhelming that you may ask what magic Fela used to keep them all together.
Fela was arrested and charged to court in a kidnap case for harbouring ladies in his domain. He was arraigned, with witnesses made up of families testifying how their daughters were lured into his arms by just eye contact, listening to his music and the rest is history. All the witnesses were at a loss understanding what must have led their daughters into Fela’s arms. “We waka everywhere looking for Lara, we no see am. We go mortuary, she no dey, only to see am for this thing hand,” pointing at Fela in the court. The defendant’s counsel asked: “Was she taken away by juju?” She answered: No! “Was she taken away by force?” No! Then, the counsel said: ‘Fela has no case here. Fela is not a kidnapper, not a criminal, not even what you think he is. He is just protecting your daughters from the oppressed society.’ Obviously, the entire intrigues behind adoption of the girls cannot still be fathomed.
At a point in a gossip corner, the girls described one after the other how they found themselves in his shrine. Some said Fela fights for the people; he is a good man, while some said, His music turns our head, and even a foreigner came dying for Fela. Some of the queens also described him as an enigma, alluring and irresistible. According to one, He is a defender and protector of human race.
There was incomparable love and honest affection by the entire women. He schooled them in his enigmatic ideology and how the government has failed the common man, giving them assurance of hope, life and faith in a hero they should believe in. Right outside their world, there are cheats, liars, injustice, class discrimination, insensitivity from the government and uncaring attitude towards mankind. But inside the Kalakuta Republic, there is relative peace, an assurance of hope and orderliness. The drama describes how he raises hopes and gives life a full meaning in his domain. With the provision of basic infrastructure, cutting off the irregular government shortcomings, he eventually turned his domain to a kingdom, hence, the origin of Kalakuta Republic. That was welcomed wholeheartedly by the ladies who raised their voices and shouted ‘Fela the black President.’
Fela and the Kalakuta Queens is a well-crafted play that depicts every aspect of Fela’s struggle with the authority, his household and even the soft side of him. The play underscores the unassuming influence the queens had over Fela’s life and what women represent in the society.
CEO and founder, BAP Production, Bolanle Austen-Peters said: “I am happy that this production is a success. This is the second outing of Fela and the Kalakuta Queens. It’s been wonderful and the reception has been great too. I am excited that people’s response gives validation to our works including the support and encouragement I get. We are telling our own stories and that’s what I like doing, harping on interesting and quality stories like this.
Fela’s lifetime manager, Rikki Stein, in a chat with Vanguard’s Arts & Reviews after the premier said: “The interpretation is quite fascinating. I acknowledge the energy and passion put into this but there is something I had a bit of trouble with which is interpretation of the queens as pussy cats instead of the real tigers that lived with Fela then. But all the same, it is a very enjoyable performance and a decent effort. I am happy that gradually, Fela’s story is still spreading round the world after he’s been long gone.
Rikki, however, said the message should have talked more about the real issues back then rather than more of entertainment. “For me, Fela’s music was a wonderful chariot he created in which he drives his message and it is relevant not just only here in Nigeria but worldwide and I think people are slowly appreciating who he was, what he stood for.
Executive Secretary, MTN Foundation, Nonny Ugboma said sponsoring Fela and the Kalakuta Queens show is crucial to promoting the culture and diversity of Nigeria. Producing theatrical shows such as Fela and Kalakuta Queens is not a walk in the park. The production must seek the right mix of talents and the more talented and experienced they are, the more expensive they are.