‘Fela would have expected better from disciples in following his radical ideals’
‘LAITAN ADENIJI, also known musically as ‘ADENIJI HEAVYWIN,’ has the envious task of playing Fela in Bolanle Austin-Peters Productions’ (BAP) new musical theatre, Fela and the Kalakuta Queens, which starts from this Saturday, December 23, 2017 through January 7, 2018 at Terra Kulture Theatre Arena, Lagos. In this interview with Assistant Arts Editor, ANOTE AJELUOROU, the jazz musician bares it all from his early years in Ibadan to this new stage performance exploit.
You were quite an item back in the late 1990s and early 2000, if I remember correctly, and then suddenly nobody heard from you. What happened?
Well, I had a lot of interest in my music in the U.S. at the time. So, I had a few shows lined up in New York at that point in time. Then I was doing quite well. When I went for those shows, I realised that I could work with the agents there. I was getting booked ever so frequently. There was a lot of going back and forth. So, that was how I started training; I went back to school to study sound engineering. I kept recording and kept the music going.
Can you describe your kind of music back in those days?
My music, I would say, is jazz; it’s traditional African music, folklore. It is funky, groovy; it’s like a pout pouri kind of thing. So, it depends on what track you are listening to; it could have a different meaning to you. It could be jazz; it could be soul; it could be gospel. So it depends on how you look at it.
So, how did you get into music in the first place?
It was years, years ago. Going into music was not just about listening to music, but actually performing it. I started percussion when I was in primary school in Ibadan. From there, I graduated to being a composer, and then, of course, my grandfather played the guitar at the time and the violin. He had a guitar and so I was interested in that. When my parents moved to Lagos, I lived with my grandfather and continued to go to school. So, that gave me the opportunity to learn the guitar from papa. He taught me a few stuff and from there I took off. Then, of course, I set out to meet a few guys that had this instrument or that instrument. So, I would experiment; there were so many instruments that I could play. From there, I went to Lagos, and played at the University of Lagos. I also had a band at Ahmadu Bello University, where I majored in industrial design. We had a band in school and, of course, we played at different concerts and coming back from my youth service in Calabar, I joined a couple of highlife bands, enjoying palm wine and everything.
On coming back to Lagos, I joined the church band. I was able to work with other learning musicians; that was where I formally picked up jazz music. I started from there, helping the church in terms of music training. I picked up from there and developed my own style. Then I formed my own band within the church band. We would normally go out and experiment. We went to different bars and restaurants in this Lagos oh! Those times were fun. This is more of me saying that I have hope in the kind of music I’m creating and as you listen, judgment will follow, but judgment is not for everybody. It’s for certain type of people, who like to listen to certain types of music.
So, when did the ‘Adeniji Heavywind’ come into play?
‘Heavywind’ started when I finally got a residency at DJ Hotel to be performing there on a monthly basis. So there, we had our monthly shows and, of course, there was a very good crowd of people that would come. We had a lot of friends coming there. I think it was coined by one of my friends, ‘Heavywind’ while I was playing. Then I was playing a lot of jazz because we just started and were still experimenting. We also did a lot of folktales as well. So, of course, that was where ‘Heavywind’ came from. Everywhere I went, it was ‘Heavywind,’ ‘Heavywind!’
How was the reception of ‘Heavywind’ back in the 1990s?
It was grand. I got to play for a lot of people and a lot of companies for end of the year parties, events, and even concerts that were happening then. A lot of classy folks got me playing for them; even Olusegun Obasanjo, too. Heavywind was doing great at the time.
Let’s talk about your recording experience at that time as well. What was it like?
For my recording experience, I always wanted everything done analogue, as a musician. So, I’m able to arrange every piece from base to guitar. I have recorded about 60-something songs now; all produced and arranged by me, because that’s the gift that God has given me, to be able to arrange songs. So back then, I would arrange, with my interest more in the horns, because I loved the sounds of the horns, especially with Fela’s influence in my music. I really loved to overlay horns on the other instruments.
We remember how Fela was dominant with his Afrobeat at that point in time, and you were also doing jazz. How were you able to carve your own niche away from Fela? How did it work for you?
Well, that took a lot of studying from my end. Growing up, I had my own influences just as every other artiste, too, has. I think some of the influence was exposure to so many types of music growing up, which already established some kinds of sounds in my head already. So, there is no basis of comparison in any way, shape or form when it comes to my music or Fela’s music. It will be total injustice to baba himself. I don’t know where to start from, but the man defied the theory of music in so many ways. The white man wrote it this way, Fela actually rewrote it that way! For a gallant student like me, who studied music, those are things that you realise. In New York, we developed a few bands late in the 90s; we used to play a lot of Afrobeat. So now, we have a lot of Afrobeat musicians in New York. I was part of that pioneering movement that introduced Afrobeat music to New York. The band that came with Fela! on Broadway, the first time they came to Nigeria, we happened to have played together back in New York. So, New York is Afrobeat-loving city, just like Lagos is. So my own music has its own style and is still developing. The latest songs that I have, you can make up your mind what you’re listening to!
Why did you decide to come back? You were having a great life in New York, weren’t you?
Well, I had to come back, because I didn’t want to grow old and grey in another man’s country; I had that in mind even before leaving. So, I worked towards coming back home and re-establishing gradually. But, of course, it’s not going to be easy for anybody, but I took the decision to actually rebuild that home.
Well, that was a great decision because many left and never remembered to return…
There is no place like home, like we always say!…
Now, at what point of that rebuilding would you say you have attained? Are you ready to link the 1990s before you left and now?
You see, the society determines the lots for an artiste like myself. Anybody that plays the same genre that I play, as you and I know the arts, is not exactly cash-friendly. So, people don’t necessarily make a lot compared to other countries, where art is given prominence. So that, of course, will affect an artiste like me, but I’m just going to keep going and believe in myself to stay consistent. It will not be easy at all, but there is nothing impossible with God. It is not easy recording; it is not easy finding places to record; it is not easy finding people to invite you to performances, but you must believe in yourself and maximise any gift that you have.
So, the point I am now is where I maximise my potential. We have successfully brought out a couple of documentaries. We have successfully recorded a few songs for some artistes and a couple of my songs. I have a song out this year celebrating my 50th year titled ‘Jambala.’ It is in online stores; it came out May this year. We are seeing a gradual build up. We had a couple of performances at Freedom Park earlier this year and we were also part of Runway Jazz. We did Felabration a few months back as well.
At this point, I’m focused on my project with Bolanle Austin-Peters (Executive Producer and Director of Fela and the Kalakuta Queens), which is the December performance of Fela and the Kalakuta Queens, which is really the talk of the town right now. So, that is where I’m right at this point. It is a good place to be and I thank God. I feel a lot better and kind of vindicated in a way at the same time.
First of all, how did you land the Fela role in Fela and the Kalakuta Queens? You are not a stage actor that we know, but a jazz musician. How did it happen?
I had a bit of that in me growing up because, like I said, I listened to Fela as a young kid. So obviously, you might pick one or two of his mannerisms, because you listened to him a lot. I listened to Fela a lot in my teenage years; it is something that I grew up with. Growing up with his music, growing up with his personality and, in a way, understanding his style and everything and totally liking it meant that Afrobeat is something that was part of my upbringing. We used to go to his shrine after school and in our school uniform. We loved him, and I mean, who wouldn’t love Fela? So, me now playing this part, I feel honoured!
What was the process that led to your landing the role and being invited to play it?
The process was a phone call. I had a meeting with Bolanle and she said this is what she was looking for. At the same time, I met a couple of coaches. I was interested in the script, too. So, I think I put in a little bit of energy in what I was doing. Bolanle, seeing that here is somebody that she thought she could mold to fit what she was looking for, gave me the necessary attention in terms of direction; she has been a lot of help.
We had a meeting and before I got back to my office, the script was in my e-box. Just reading from the script, automatically, I fell in love with the role because I could see Baba himself in the whole thing. I had to read from the script and act some parts of it. That was where the molding began. So, I was being introduced to some of the basic elements of acting by Mr. Bassey Okon, who explained the character and the movements. And I was grabbing these things and incorporating them and then I would do my own little study and watch videos of Fela on my own. Talking to Fela’s daughter, Yeni, has been very helpful and talking to people close to him, like some of his wives. All that combination is what I’m simply going to deliver!
Fela was such a huge, personality, and still does 20 years after he passed away. It should be a challenge playing him on stage live and portraying his music and personal life. Are you prepared?
Look, the Fela that I will be doing is a very small bit of that great man; it is, to me, too insignificant. The Fela that I know… It would be totally disrespectful for anyone to make comparison or acting him to say he is close to being who Fela actually was! The person should get a slap on the face around people like me and be told to behave himself.
But you have the challenge of making his character come alive in about two hours?
Yes. I can make that happen. I don’t have a problem with that happening. It will be a great show and you’re going to have a blast, man!
What does it mean being exposed to Fela’s harem – all 27 wives? How does it feel being at the centre of Fela’s unraveling?
It feels very powerful; it is a powerful feeling; it is also very humbling to have these women around you. Ol’ boy, no be small thing o! That is some powerful feeling right there, my bro; I aint gonna lie to you; it’s a powerful feeling. From my little experience working with these women, it further re-establishes what I always say about women being life-nurturing. With these women, you could see enough coordination, professionalism, and good ethics within the working space in this project. It’s a good thing, no doubt; it is a good feeling.
For Fela to have managed this large number of women, plus the men who were part of the household and the music, that was something awesome, wasn’t it?
He was the only one, who could have done that. That was why he is called Abami Eda! There are things that, humanly, it is impossible, but this man would tell you, ‘No, I can do it! I can say whatever I want the way I want it, and this is me; If you don’t like me, well, too bad!’ That was Fela! ‘I’m sorry, I have no apology for anything I say or anyhow I say it because I am a free man; I was born free!’ All that is such a powerful feeling.
And then there is the political side of Fela, which 20 years after he passed, is still unraveling in Nigeria. What kind of debt does Nigeria owe the man?
Do you mean Nigerian people or the Nigerian government? If it is you and me as the people, we love our Fela; we have always loved him and a lot of us honour him and we remember him.
What of in terms of his politics? Have Nigerians been faithful followers of his ideals?
It is unfortunate because that is what Fela continued to preach, that nobody wants to die; everybody wants to build houses – My mamma dey for house; my papa dey there. So, police go slap your face, you no go talk. Army man go whip your nyash, you no go talk. This guy was right in front, leading the way, but where were we? He didn’t see us because we didn’t want to be whipped by any of these… I don’t know what to call them. So, we preferred to play safe and this man was bold enough to step out, saying, ‘I don’t care what you do to me.’ Fela would have expected better from the people. So yes, I would say we failed Fela and failed ourselves!
And, what is the cost of that failure?
It is what we are going through today. It is what we have been going through in the past few years. Look around us; look at small countries, and look at countries that don’t have a dime. Look at how decent and different they do things. So, baba has spoken everything already and, look at us today. We’re suffering it today. Even a half bag of rice, they are ready to vote; small money thrown at them, they are ready to die. What kind of human beings are we, for crying out loud?!
I think it is the mentality of most of us, which needs to change – from the poor to the richest among us. Let us treat one another the way we want to be treated. It’s unfortunate, but Fela died from the disappointment of his people who are not able to stand up to those who inflict suffering on them. Fela’s legacy and the fact that nothing is being done is why we are still where we are today. If you check, all the man was saying in the 1970s, you will see that we still haven’t moved from where we used to be!
You can’t be marrying Fela’s 27 wives, playing his music live and reenacting Kalakuta Republic and not smoke weed. Are we going to see that on stage?
The best you can see, because this is acting, would be, maybe electronic cigarette designed to look like it. One with, perhaps, clean vapor, just to create the effect of smoke coming from Fela’s hands. No drugs; nothing like that. That’s the best you are going to see. It is going to be educational. Children, I would love for them to watch this, and because of this, we have tone down a lot of words so they can also gain one or two things from the performance. It talks about child abuse, talks about education being important; it talks about Fela’s story and his struggle. They are already aware of the terrible state of the government and the poverty in particular. So, it is an awareness project for everybody. So, no drugs; we want it to be clean.
You said you saw Fela! on Broadway in Lagos. I’m hoping BAP will take this show to New York, too, although I know that may not be your decision to make…
Well gain, that would be good because it’s healthy, and again, these are two different plays that are talking about two different strata of one great man. There are so many stories that can be pulled out of Fela and these are just two out of so many!