Dis Fela Sef… A Benson Idonije memoir
He book, Dis Fela Sef: The Legend(s) Utold (Festac Books, Lagos), is the untold story of the legendary musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. It is a memoir by his friend and manager, Benson Idonije. The author, now 82 years old, is the most credible chronicler of Fela’s sexual escapades and tempestuous career as a musician and man of the world. Idonije was with Fela from the beginning till the end of his career as musician, politician and human rights activist. Fela’s great musical creativity endeared him to Idonije while Benson’s love of music as a producer in Radio Nigeria cemented their relationship.
Thus, as Fela’s confidant, Idonije became the power behind Fela’s throne. And Fela’s respect and trust for an elder brother gave Idonije access to every facet of Fela’s life. Which is why Dis Fela Sef is so accurate, deep and authoritative. This memoir was published in 2016 by Festac Books and reprinted by Havilah Grand Pearl Limited, Lagos, Nigeria. It has 20 chapters, an epilogue, 284 pages, two pages of bibliography, 13 pages of pictures and the chronology of Fela’s life.
In his introduction, ‘Why this book?’ Idonije answers that there are still more to be known about the legend and misunderstandings to be corrected about Fela’s tumultuous lifestyle and apostasy. As an art critic in The Guardian, Nigeria, for almost 20 years and Fela’s contemporary of barely two years difference, Idonije has written about Fela more than any journalist in Nigeria. His original intention was to assemble those stories and publish them in book form. But his friends urged and assisted him to write a memoir of his friendship and as manager of the Fela Ransome Kuti Quintet from 1963 till 1970.
Indeed, as band manager, Idonije was intimately involved and grappled with every activity of Fela’s life and commune. Dis Fela Sef isn’t a biography, nor is it a musical study, especially because not all of Fela’s music is discussed. This is Idonije’s memorial of Fela that offers a new perspective, the story behind the story, with more legends to be told. Though Fela died on August 2, 1997, he is still spoken of in the present tense; he is omnipresent. His first name is deployed to acknowledge the pervasiveness of his influence till date.
Fela’s music is the inspirer of modern hip hop in West Africa. Afrobeat bands are being formed around the world drawing from his overwhelming influence. Musicians and fans lapse into his vocal rasp to make a point. Fela has been celebrated on Broadway Theatre in New York, U.S. Felabration continues to wax stronger and bigger with activities at every yearly edition even as fans and admirers celebrate him with excessive veneration. Fela’s Kalakuta commune has been recreated and turned to a museum for his immortalisation.
In treating the first 10 chapters of this volume, I shall start from the chronology of Fela’s life from 1938 to the time of his death in 1997. From his ancestry, his musical odyssey, redefining highlife music to resurrecting the Koola lobitos and culminating in the making of a new Afrobeat genre after his visit to the United States. It goes without saying that Fela’s pervasive influence is proof of his ingenuity as a musician and man of letters.
In the middle of the 19th century, one Egba gentleman named Kuti, Fela’s great grandfather, fell in love with a princess called Efupeyin. The marriage of these lovers produced a son christened Josiah in 1855. Both were heathens but Efupeyin, Fela’s great grandmother, converted to Christianity. At her baptism in 1848, Efupeyin took the name Anne. In his memoirs, Josiah, Fela’s grandfather wrote: “To her I owe my Christianity today for my father lived and died a heathen.” Kuti was a staunch weaver of cloth and musician. He is the one Fela appeared to be his alter ego and reincarnation. Fela’s grandfather was Josiah Likoye Kuti, while his father was Oludotun Ransome-Kuti.
His mother, Frances Olufunlayo Ransome-Kuti (nee Thomas) was in the forefront of women liberation in Nigeria during the colonial era. She championed female rights to vote and founded the Nigerian Women’s Union. For these achievements, she earned international fame and recognition. Olufunlayo was a great admirer of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of the Republic of Ghana and his pan African ideology. Nkrumah also recognised her for her political activism.
Idonije witnessed Fela’s mother’s influence on her son’ musical direction, when he testifies thus, “As soon as we arrived, she summoned us to the living room. “Fela Manager”, she called out. “This music you are playing is good and I know you enjoy it greatly. But you want to consider its cultural relevance and commercial viability. Fela, I want you to go back to the Highlife you started with in London. That’s where your future is”.
“Fela and I looked at each other in dismay, our expressions indicating that she did not understand what we were doing; but on reflection, the message had a lot of weight. It made a lot of sense. We both went silent for minutes. We had nothing to say. This encounter with mum marked a turning point in Fela’s musical career. Even though he was not quite convinced, there were two reasons why Fela immediately accepted to comply with Mrs. Ransome-Kuti’s advice, which in fact sounded like a divinely-inspired instruction that must be obeyed.
“Fela respected his mother’s views and saw her voice as that of reason, loaded with spiritual guidance, a voice that must be obeyed. Secondly, Fela was now an accomplished jazz musician and would not play highlife like the others. He would play it as a jazz musician – from a more musically elevated standpoint. He saw it as an avenue for creating Nigerian and African Jazz themes for improvisation.”
Mrs. Kuti was so courageous that her organisation, the Nigerian Women’s Union, chased the Alake of Egbaland out of his palace into exile in Osogbo for daring to levy tax on women. For so doing, she became a heroine of Nigerian politics. Through Mrs. Kuti Nigerian women achieved universal suffrage by being exempted from paying tax and allowed to vote and be voted for by 1959. She founded the Nigerian Women’s Union in 1949.
Of Funlayo’s children, Dolapo, the eldest, a female, chose the nursing profession. She excelled there, retiring from the Lagos Island Maternity Hospital as a matron in 1974. Next in line was Dr. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti. He was professor of Pediatrics at the Lagos University Hospital. He was appointed Minister of Health by military President Ibrahim Babangida. As minister, he transformed Nigeria’s health care delivery system for which he received acclaim and was made a director of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Fela’s younger brother, Beko, born in 1940, was also a physician and former Secretary-General of Nigerian Medical Association (NMA). He was a strong opponent of military rule. Later, he became chairman of Campaign for Democracy (CD). For his democratic views he was imprisoned during the regimes of Muhammadu Buhari, Babangida, Ernest Shonekan and Sani Abacha. He was framed with involvement in a plot to overthrow the military government and was slammed with a 15-year jail term. He was only released in 1998 after a change of government.
All of Fela’s siblings have died. But their pedigree is awesome. Not many Nigerians living or dead have documentary records of their lineage dating back to 1850 like them. Fela studied classical music at Trinity College of Music in London. He married Remilekun Taylor in 1961. He had three children: Yeni, Femi and Sola. He returned to Nigeria with his family in 1963. He gained employment as music producer at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1964 and launched his band the Koola Lobitos in 1965. He played at the yearly Havanah Dance Festival, organised by the Sigma Club, University of Ibadan, in 1965.
Fela resigned from NBC to manage the Koola Lobitos full time in 1968. Thereafter, he devoted his life to music. But in February 1976, Kalakuta Republic, his Agege Motor Road commune was burnt down by soldiers. In April of the same year, he changed his name from Ransome-Kuti to Anikulapo Kuti. He sang it loud and clear that religions not indigenous to Africa should be discarded. He established a shrine and appointed priests in order to worship God in the African way. He married 27 wives and kept them in his commune to rubbish the western culture Nigerians have adopted without questions.
In his last days, considering his type of music you would think Fela was on drugs but no. Later, bad companions led him into sex, women and marijuana. He eventually succumbed to HIV/AIDS. While Idonije was a bachelor, his apartment became Fela’s slaughter slab. He sometimes had three different women a day. Which is why Idonije’s book is a best seller. There is no greater testimony to the success of Fela than Dis Fela Sef.
Idonije studied communication engineering at Yaba College of Technology, Lagos. He joined Radio Nigeria in 1957, later becoming a presenter of famous programmes. The high pint of his career in broadcasting was his transfer to the training school, where for eight years, he became principal lecturer in programme production. After he retired in 1992, he wrote two authoritative art columns about Nigerian highlife music and world’s jazz music for The Guardian, Nigeria – ‘Evergreen’ and ‘All That Jazz.’ Now 82 years old, Pa Idonije is still writing.