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.”
IT was Hugh Masekela’s time with Fela Kuti that this album came to be. The latter wasn’t part of Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, but was the one who introduced Masekela to Ghanaian ensemble Hedzoleh Soundz.
Spending a number of years in America and parts of Europe, Masekela missed home but couldn’t come back to South Africa because he’d be arrested by the apartheid government for his politically-charged music and his work as an activist. But before coming down south in Botswana where he was just a border away from Mzansi, he spent some time in West and Central Africa. Like Miriam Makeba, he was warmly received in a number of African states one of those being Nigeria, where he spent a lot of time with King Fela whose career and nights at the iconic Afrika Shrine were at its peak.
Along the stupendous strands of marijuana the two shared at Kalakuta Republic, Masekela and Fela shared anecdotes, experiences and music-which resulted in Masekela working with the indigenous band from Accra. “I found a certain vitality in Afrobeat. Playing with Hedzoleh Soundz was like being on a big fat cloud. You couldn’t fall of,” said Masekela.
The eight track album was released in 1973 and it was largely written by the Hedzoleh Soundz, bar Languta. This album stands as one of my favourite works of all time. It is unequivocally traditional thanks to the organic African drums, merged with the melodies of the Akan and Ewe people. Yet very jazzy with a punch of funk. It was universal music, too sick to be categorized by a mere genre.
The track Rekpete will have you feeling like you’re in the Congo doing a Kwassa Kwassa. On Adade, Masekela’s trumpet is like a jet-ski, gliding at open sea which is the combination of indigenous instruments, harmonies and melodies. I don’t know why African filmmakers haven’t used Patience in any of our African stories. It’s a song that would accommodate some of the best scenes.
Nye Tamo Ame reminds me of migrate workers, African soccer players or young men at initiation school. It’s the harmony and spirited voices of men singing together. It’s inspiringly beautiful.
It’s said in isiZulu that Uk’hamba Uk’bona and Masekela’s travels to the West of the continent opened his eye to gems in Ghana, which has opened our eyes to Africa’s vast richness.
Sjava became the first South African musician to win the BET Viewer’s Choice Award last night at the international awards ceremony hosted at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles California, US.
In 2016 South African DJ and producer Black Coffee won the Best International Act, which last night was won by Nigeria’s Davido. A number of South African artists have been nominated in the Viewer’s Choice Award category in the past, but failed to get enough fan votes.
The difference between the two categories is that Sjava’s award was voted for by fans using a designated hashtag for each artist on BET.com, Tiwitter and Instagram. With his #IPICSJAVA18 hashtag, the artist from KZN trumped, among others, UK singing sensation Iamddb, France’s Prince Waly and Sik-K from South Korea.
Felicitations have been pouring in for Sjava from fans all over. Maps Maponyane tweeted “Siyak’bongela Sjava.” While Cassper Nyovest who lost to Davido, tweeted “Congratulations to King Sjava for the win. SA Hip Hop doing big shit.”
Unlike Best International Act category which was handed out to Davido during the main event, Sjava was presented with his gong in a ceremony held just before the main one.
Draped in isiZulu attire; Sjava wore Umqele on his head, Amambatha covering his shoulders and ibheshu, icansi in hand and to top it off he walked in bare foot. The look was authentic and flamboyant enough for him to be on the main stage with the rest of the acts. He did the country and the rest of Africa proud in taking the award and in the manner in which he did.