22 April 2011 ~ 9 Comments

Fela in Lagos, reflections and ruminations

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I don’t know what to make of the Finnish elections last weekend, where the nationalist True Finns party won 39 seats of a 200-seat parliament.

The Nigerian elections, which have led to violent clashes in Northern Nigeria where hundreds of people have now died, sadden me even more so.

To make sense of things, I tried to find similarities between the Finnish and Nigerian elections, which took place simultaneously, but I could not find a single link flowing through my Finn-Nigerian blood other than the timing.

Ultimately, the things I love about Nigeria and Finland are not affected by the elections. One’s soul has no political or ideological affiliation.

Being Finnish and Nigerian, I’ve always wanted to find links between the two apart from myself. One such association that always amused me is the story of Nigerian musical legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, forgetting one of his twenty-seven wives at the airport in Helsinki, Finland’s capital.

On Thursday at the Fela in Lagos show, the role of the wives was ever-present. Ah, the Queens!

When asked what attracted him to his wives, or his Queens as he referred to them as, Fela once said:

“Sex! I thought they were sexy and fuckable. That’s what attracts me to a woman first … It grew into something else after though. Something special…Did I sleep with all of them on the night of the marriage? No. Man, I said I married twenty-seven, not seven!”

After his longest stunt in prison Fela returned to his home, the Kalakuta Republic, to find that some of his wives had new boyfriends and some had even born children for other men.

Patriarchal and chauvinistic as he had been, Fela now refrained from any accusations of infidelity. He understood his wives, he said. Shortly after he divorced the Queens but those who wanted to were welcome to remain in his Kalakuta home. The reason he gave for the divorce was:

“People marry because they are jealous. People marry because they are possessive. People marry because they are selfish. All this comes to the very ugly fact that people want to own and control other people’s bodies. I think the mind of human beings should develop to the point where that jealous feeling should be completely eradicated.” – Fela Anikulapo-Kuti

When Fela died in 1997, he was a tormented man. Although he suffered from AIDS, the disease, which he himself never in fact acknowledged, was not the entire cause of his pain. Instead his agony arose from a life dedicated to empowering Africans through activist work and getting little in return. Despite the sacrifices he made for his countrymen – the turning down of huge amounts of ‘dirty’ money from record labels; the weekly donations of his accumulated wealth to his community; the establishment of the Shrine; the multiple and soul-destroying imprisonments; the telling the truth at all costs – in spite of all he suffered for his people, Fela felt his attempts to create any significant change were unsuccessful, the masses were too brainwashed by ‘colonial mentality’. As stories of heroes such as Fela often end, it was not until he died that his sacrifices became fully appreciated.

Sahr Ngaujah plays Fela in the critically acclaimed musical which now has also arrived in Fela’s hometown, Lagos. The false Nigerian accent takes away from the magic of Fela, but what the portrayal truly lacks is actually the poignant and intense passion for political justice that drove Fela to pursue his musical career. Fela’s music is not primarily about dance, or fashion, but about pain. If you listen carefully, almost every song is characterized by a deeply entrenched agony over Africa’s maltreatment, and of African’s blindness to this maltreatment.

Don’t get me wrong; I think Ngaujah was great, the musical is vibrant and its aim is to make the audience feel good which it does. As such, it represents one side of Fela’s life eloquently, the beautiful Queens, their energetic African dancing, the magnificent Afrobeat energy of the music. Sahr Ngaujah does a very decent service to Fela in that light. On the other end, however, the side of Fela’s life that he suffered sorrow, tears and blood for – the political and spiritual activism– that side of his, Ngaujah was unable to capture.

The question is, could anyone?

Tickets for Fela in Lagos are available here.

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