FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI is a legit icon. An abrasive visionary, very much deliberate with his truth. His music is sonically enchanting, with the political astuteness to match his swagger. Rightfully celebrated in Africa, and throughout the world, his legacy will stand for a very long time.
But the Kalakuta Queens, or the 27 women that Fela married as they are shabbily known, are not acknowledged for the role they played in the life of Fela Kuti.
In today’s language you could say Fela was woke, but it was a woman that woke him up. Before meeting his American girlfriend Sandra Izsadore, Fela usually laughed at proud black Americans’ insistence on drawing inspiration from the African continent. “She was telling me about Africa, she says ‘don’t I know that Africans taught the Europeans everything they know today’ I say you talking shit. She said ‘there are books’ I say show me a book, she gave me Malcom X to read,” said Fela in an interview talking about how Izsadore put him on knowledge that would give his music meaning.
That is only just one aspect of the impact women have had on Fela. Critically acclaimed Nigerian musical play, Fela and The Kalakuta Queens goes deeper into the life-long bonds Fela had with these women who are unknown to the world, who left their homes to build a life with the off-kilter artist.
“History has not been fair to the Kalakuta Queens because they were his pillar and backbone during his struggle. They stood for him against all odds and they were never remembered. It becomes important to tell their story because a story about Fela is incomplete with his women. History will never forget the Queens with the musical we have which shows the role they play in the struggles with Fela,” says the play’s director, Bolanle Austen-Peters.
Fela and The Kalakuta Queens has been at the South African State Theatre just over a week now, until this coming Sunday. It premiered in Lagos two years ago and has been a global hit since. It is choreographed by Paolo Sisiano and Justin Ezirim, with renowned composer, Kehinde Oretimehin on the production. The character of Fela is projected by both OLaitan “Heavywind” Adeniji and Patrick Diabuah who lead the thirty-six members cast, backed by a fifteen-piece band in the ensemble.
Auten-Peters is an award winning writer and entrepreneur who has established different businesses, including Terra Kulture, a combination of museum, an art gallery and a restaurant all rolled into one in Nigeria, and the Bolanle Austen-Peters Productions (BAP).
Stories of phenomenal black women who found themselves sharing life with great men, are limited to their roles as wives, with society shunning their individuality and unique contribution.
“Well, overtime I have seen different plays written and stories told about Fela. However, there has been little or no emphasis about his women. I have come to realize that it is time for us to tell our own stories so I decided to tell Fela’s story from a different angle. I took a critical look at the life of Fela and I saw that there is a gap that needs to be filled, an uncharted territory that needs to be covered and an amazing story to tell.”
The musical hasn’t only been appreciated by fans of Fela, but also the real life Kalakuta Queens. “Most of the Queens are alive, in fact some of them came on stage to give testimonials when we first staged the musical. They have been very helpful in the course of this production and I must say without them we would not have been able to put this together accurately,” says Austen-Peters. “They gave us real accounts of what transpired in the house and details of how they lived together with Fela.”
“People leave the arena crying because many never understood the things the Queens went through with Fela. The Musical is not only educative but also very informative as the audience gets to be informed about the ordeal between Fela, the Police and his women.”
THANDAZANI NDLOVU is big, quiet and quite meticulous-like an elephant. A herd of elephants has tight matriarchal bonds, led by the oldest and largest of the female elephants-similar to Thandazani’s upbringing.
The Zimbabwean born artist understands and knows the significance of a home led by a strong woman, so much so that he’s dedicating his first solo exhibition to women, titled Depicting Woman. This of course was inspired by the head of the Ndlovu herd. “My mother, who took over and raised us as a single parent after my father passed away,” Thandazani tells me.
For nearly 10 years it seemed like his passion for the arts was gonna be buried in a nine-to-five he had at a factory. “To provide for my family I designed shoes. The visual arts was my first love and I felt torn not being able to give 100% and dividing my time between both places. I took a chance on my passion and it worked out for the better.”
“I’m inspired by the role my mother played in my life and the role women have in the township and around the world,” says the self-taught artist from Nkulumane Township, in Bulawayo.
Depicting Woman opens today at A-Lounge in Nelspruit Mpumalanga, where it’ll run for a month. “Women are powerful, they are strong and can do anything! Looking at how they raise children manage homes.” Thandazani will have 20 pieces on display for Depicting Woman.
He learnt about dedication and focus during his time in the shoemaking industry, which he still uses today in his art. There’s a sense of abstractness to his work, but with a sharp focus of depicting the emotions of his subject.
Although this might be his first solo exhibition, Thandazani got on the scene after creating a series in which he portrayed fading African cultures-which led to several commissioned work, one of which sits in the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. “I will do an exhibition in Gauteng, but [with] a different theme.”
“WHAT I fear is that the liberators emerge as elitists, who drive around in Mercedes Benzes and use resources of this country to live in palaces and to gather riches,” said the late Chris Hani.
That quote rushed at me, as I read through the Woza Albert! press release, about the classic play by Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa showing at the State Theatre.
Woza Albert! explores how the second coming of Christ (Morena) would affect the lives of poor black people, and how white apartheid authorities would react. Although the play was created over 40 years ago, it still reverberates hard-hitting truth as it did during apartheid.
The play presents a compelling view of a multitude of black and white characters as they explore themes of race and class and expose the power structures of white supremacy. It concludes with a call for Christ (Morena) to raise the dead heroes and leaders who fought against apartheid.
The likes of Hani, Bantu Biko and Mangaliso Sobukwe would be perplexed by the fact that black people remain impoverished, still grapple with white supremacy and the rise of black elitists. “Even in the current democratic climate, the question that was asked by Ngema and Mtwa during the days of apartheid is still relevant. There is a lot going on in our maturing democracy which arguably makes those who died with a revolutionary sword to turn in their rested graves,” said State Theatre CEO, Dr Sibongiseni Mkhize in the press release.
“Constant contestation over the meaning and direction of the new South Africa’s socio-economic and political dispensation, the debilitating effects of corruption and relentless economic inequalities, are some of the things that perhaps await the second coming of Morena!”
Woza Albert! made its return to South African theatres late last year, commencing at Durban’s Playhouse Company then headed to the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. With its original cast and crew- Director John Christopher, lighting Designer Mannie Manim and stage manager Dickson Malele- Woza Albert! has and will be at the State Theatre throughout the month of March.
It is said that it’s not about how thick the book is, but about the knowledge you get in those thick books. With less than 70 pages to it, Surviving Loss is as thin as they come. It is a collection of poems written by Busisiwe Mahlangu about her abuse-ridden childhood.
The physical copy of Surviving Loss is a reflection of Mahlangu. Petite and pretty on the outside, but weighing so much because of the accumulated experiences in the inside. “It was written solely around surviving depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of the issues there are around poverty, abuse, rape and violence, and it’s written in a style of searching for healing,” she says.
Chilling on brown leather couches at Black, a restaurant at Pretoria’s State Theatre, I have a two-on-one with Mahlangu and Palesa Olifant. The latter is the director of the play, Surviving Loss-an adaptation of Mahlangu’s book, which opens at the Pretoria theatre today.
The book and the play are more than just close to Mahlangu’s heart, they are her. The abuse she writes about in the book is something she experienced growing up at the hands of her father. When I ask about her dad’s thoughts on the book, with a straight face the poet from Mamelodi says “My father is dead. He passed away end of Grade 10, in 2012. No, it was not good. In all the mental issues, my father always shows up during therapy, during relationships. It was a very violent relationship. Most of the abuse I talk about, is the abuse from my father.”
“I don’t like talking about the specifics of the abuse, but it was physical and emotional,” she tells me. She grew up with both parents, two older siblings and a younger one. “With abuse and violence that happens in the house, everyone gets abused and gets violated in a way. Even my mom went through the abuse, and she was aware that we’re feeling the pain and are being abused. But to an extent, it’s kinda difficult when you’re going through the same thing, it’s not like someone from the outside walking in and saying ‘oh, this is so hard’ and then saves us. It’s different when someone is living in the abuse.”
It was only when she got to Wits that she sought therapy from school, after a friend advised her to seek help from professionals. She only spent years at Wits, then got excluded because of outstanding fees. That’s when her poetry became more of a catharsis, even though she had been writing since high school, the 23-year-old had no inclinations of becoming a poet.
The poems on Surviving Loss date back to 2015. “When I left high school my poetry became more personal, writing more about things that I experience, see and feel. In 2016 is when I started performing, I took poetry more serious.”
“I was studying electrical engineering at Wits. I entered slams because they said you can win R500 and I was a broke student. So I thought, since I do write I might take advantage of the platform”
After her exclusion, she entered the Tshwane Speak Out Loud competition where she made it the finals, and walked away with a big cheque. “R30 000 could’ve paid for my debts at Wits and allowed me to continue with my studying. But poetry was setting my soul on fire, it made me feel lively,” she says without a drop of oomph missing. She decided to put the money into studying Creative Writing at UNISA.
“Then last year, Vangile Gantsho asked for my manuscript of poetry, and when I sent it to her she said ‘we’re publishing you’ and at the time I didn’t know they were opening a publishing company.” The book is published by Impepho Press.
Reception of the book has been amazing, Mahlangu has done readings across the country. “I didn’t think I’d get to experience so many things. I grew up in Gauteng and whenever I left the province, was whether for a wedding or funeral or some big event in Mpumalanga. But within a year into poetry, I was travelling to Cape Town and other provinces and seeing more of South Africa. I was wowed, and I keep getting surprised with the journey poetry has taken me.”
She had been praying to be part of State Theatre’s Incubator program, and then last year she received a call to come to the theatre’s offices. “When I got there, they told me about the incubator but first, they wanted to have an idea of what I will do. I knew I wanted to adapt the book for stage.”
“I knew I want it to be called after the book because every title I came up with, it didn’t feel like it was strong enough. The title of the book was very strong and every other title that came to us at the time, felt like it was underplaying it.”
The play’s director, Olifant says images shot at her as soon as she began reading Surviving Loss. “Her writing is very raw, and I think that’s the thing I enjoyed most about reading the book, because of how raw and relatable it is, it’s sharp. You can’t ignore it. Those images stick out. Coming into the space, I wasn’t trying to make work that’s polished and pure, I wanted to stay true to her voice. It’s so fragmented and that’s how memories are,” says the director.
Olifant continues “She’s talking about so much, that we actually had to make it smaller; we had to find specific points to focus on, so relationships with her father and men, her admiration and the tensions between her, her mother and female members of her family-how all those inform her healing. Then we found music and dance that could speak to what that journey looks like. Basically, adaptation of the book into a production has been about finding her voice through the music, through the movement and through the poetry as well.”
Mahlangu performs her poetry for the play, with Susan Nkatha doing the choreography and a musician, Darlianoh who wrote original music for the piece. “I was very direct. I wanted a black woman director. A young black woman director to direct the piece. I didn’t want someone who’s older and established, besides the fact that I couldn’t afford them [bursting into laughter], but I wanted a young black woman director, and on stage I wanted young black women as well.”
“…the piece is very intimate and I don’t think a man would be able to access some level of intimacy that was needed for the piece because of the different experiences, also some of the poems speak directly to men.”
“I’d be okay with a man coming and giving an opinion, but not the man adapting the whole production. I needed someone who could relate to what I was talking about. As women we share most of our suffering with each other, even if you haven’t experienced it, you kinda understand.”
The play is on for two nights at State Theatre, at 20:00
SAMTHING Soweto kept his word, by sharing his side of the story about no longer being part of acapella group The Soil and how that affected him and his family. “…It was tough. I chilled by myself ekhaya, endlini and I watched it all happen from my TV screen. My Mom will testify, we switched off the TV whenever The Soil came on.”
With deliciously warm lighting on him and the band at the Joburg Theatre’s Lesedi stage, Samkelo was an arm’s length away from his eager audience, creating an intimate setting. At times it felt like being at the Orbit, without the dining.
Like the future of Eskom, Sam’s set on the night at was divided into three sections. He first performed with his band at the centre of the stage, then moved to the corner of the platform where he dedicated his time to talk about The Soil and belted some songs in acapella and for the last section he went back to his chair on the middle of the stage to re-join the band, performing his upbeat tracks backed up by CD jays.
Rocking a Maxhosa cardigan,Sam began his narrative where it all began, at Tetelo Secondary School’s assembly where he heard the choir sing Ndikhokhele Bawo. “So, that’s how I met The Soil. The song was led by uBuhle and I was like ‘yoh, I need to sing with these people.’ Because I had this idea, that we should be this group that sings songs, songs that we can afford to sing. And I say afford, because everything out there was programmed or played with instruments and we couldn’t afford that, so I was like let’s use our voices.”
Samthing sang Ndikhokhele Bawo on Friday night with the audience joining him and for about five minutes, the theatre turned into a church service with most of the room on its feet singing the solemn song.
But two years prior to meeting with The Soil members, Samkelo Mdolomba had been arrested. “…What’s funny is that we were robbing people at a cemetery, e Avalon. It was a scary thing.” He got a suspended sentence, which meant not going to prison.
The reason he thought acapella would work, was because during his detention in Krugersdorp, he and his inmates sang often. “I found out that you could add creativity to acapella. That’s how I learnt that you can take a Kwaito song and sing it using Gumba Fire (prison style of singing) and something else comes out.”
An air of nostalgia swept through the room when he sang The Soil’s Joy, exactly how they sang it as a group-impersonating his former group members. “I think we did that for about six years, unsinged and undiscovered but everyone knew us.”
It’s during this period that the group met Native Rhythms boss, Sipho Sithole who was very keen on signing The Soil to his label. “To be honest that’s where the trouble started,” Sam told his audience.
So while The Soil was on the verge of reaping the rewards of their six year toil, Sam was simultaneously teaching himself how to produce which resulted in his solo project This N That Without Tempo and he was also making music with another clique, The Fridge. “So he (Sithole) set up a meeting and sat us down. He said these songs sound the same. He was talking about the Samthing Soweto stuff, but I think he was mistaking it for The Fridge. He said the Fridge sounds similar to The Soil…and we didn’t agree. Then of course I left, and no one had the guts to say exactly why I left, on both parties.”
Silence on the matter gave rise to rife speculation on why he was no longer part of the group. Stories ranging from him being somewhat of a rebel, to being unpaid for his work and even being dubbed a trouble kid with a drug problem. “For your information, I wasn’t doing drugs at the time-I was actually a vegetarian, I didn’t even drink cold drink. I did stuff before in my younger years. The herb and even harder stuff like madrax, but never when I was with The Soil or doing music, it was way before.”
“I need you guys to know, I never fought with the guys, it was never like that. It was really odd to me also, I’m hoping one day I’ll have a show and I’ll have them here and they can say exactly what happened from their side. We had the meeting kwa Bab’Sipho Sithole, and then tomorrow we’re not talking, I didn’t understand why.”
Sam was comfortable to talk about this now, because he and The Soil members recently started talking. “I was talking to Ntsika and he said sorry. He said ‘now I understand what you were trying to do all those years ago.”
Speaking to Tha Bravado after the show Sam’s younger brother, Musawenkosi Mdolomba said “Seeing him now, after everything [he’s gone through] I’m still in shock that he is where he is because usually, when things go badly for most people, it’s hard to recover and be as big as he is now.”
Sam’s two hours on stage were emotive and quite personal. The structure of the show was indicative of his musical astuteness and his versatility as an artist.
It’s fitting that he addressed the elephant in the room, before releasing his debut album in a few months, so no one brings up his past with The Soil again.