The last days of Fela Kuti

Robin Denselow

This was supposed to be the month in which Nigeria hit back and the Kuti family reconquered Europe. First came Femi Kuti, fired up after years of practice in his dad’s much-raided and much-celebrated Lagos club, The Shrine. He put on a startlingly good show in London, though the promoter was a little upset that the Nigerian community failed to show up in strength. They were holding back for the real thing. Femi’s father, Fela, was due to re-appear in London for the first time in five years, followed by a full European tour.

It never happened.

When Femi got back to Lagos at the end of July, he went to his father’s extraordinary commune of a home, and found that the best- known musician in Africa was only semi- conscious. The Nigerian rumour mill began working overtime. Fela was seriously ill. Fela had crossed swords with the military government (yet again). Fela was suffering from typhoid. Fela had Aids. And Fela himself refused to help. No one could be sure what was wrong with him because he wouldn’t allow a doctor to examine him “for religious reasons”. For much of that week, Fela Kuti refused to eat. An aide commented: “It’s not looking at all good, but then Fela is Fela. You never know.”

Even before the final crisis, 58-year-old Fela was stirring things up. For a start, there was the little matter of his recording contract. A team from Motown came out to negotiate a new deal and access to his vast and brilliant back catalogue, rumoured to be worth around R15-million. Fela refused to sign, saying he had been “told by the spirits” that the time was not right. The frustrated Motown team then went down to the Shrine, where they saw Femi performing, and signed him instead. Fela later decided that the spirits had changed their minds, but by then Motown had changed theirs too.

Then there had been problems at the Shrine, the club that Fela once described as “the abode of the gods of Africa. It has its own powers. You cannot enter if you have a bad mind.” On the night I visited, there was a capacity crowd jammed between the corrugated-iron walls, wooden cages in which Fela’s dancers were gyrating, and stalls where spliffs were on sale. When the emaciated figure of Fela Kuti himself appeared, he added to the haze as he lit an enormous joint (the first of many), before launching into a set that provided a reminder of why he has been so important to African music.

I was lucky to find the Shrine open. Despite protection from the spirits, it was closed for almost six months this year after a raid by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency.

Much of Fela Kuti’s life was like this – a catalogue of chaos and suffering, mixed with brave attacks on the succession of military governments that have ravaged Nigeria.

When I last visited his home in Ikeja, he was dressed (as so often) merely in his underpants, and was surrounded by an array of scantily-clad women. There was no electricity and the curtains were drawn. Before we talked, he asked, “Which girl is on duty?” and then told me that he no longer gave interviews. He had agreed to see me because we had met before and it was apparently pre-ordained that I would turn up. “Our world is a world of spirits. It is no coincidence that you are here to talk to me today. It has been written like that for a long time.”

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