Benson Idonije: Dis Fela Sef!: The Legend(s) Untold- A Memoir. Lagos; FESTAC BOOKS, 2016, 282 pp.
On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Benson Idonije, who is arguably Nigeria’s most informed analyst of jazz music and an enthusiastic promoter of popular culture and music has released for public review and consideration an absolutely well-informed biography of Fela, the Afro-beat music maestro. The book is a useful contribution in my opinion. But the first thing I noticed- signposted by the copy sent to me, is how indeed, this particular publication appears to be a victim of the emergent crises of publishing in Africa in dispossessed economies. The copy sent to me is copyrighted 2014; on the cover it is described as a preview edition, scheduled for “official release: first quarter 2015”, the review copy doesn’t even have an ISBN number, there is no index and the bibliography is wrongly presented.
After more than 29 years of assessing manuscripts and editing/reviewing books, I assume that I can conveniently imagine what the author, printers and local publishers of this book must have gone through, the same challenges other book writers publishing in sub-Saharan Africa face at the moment: looking for money, getting good editors, looking for publishers, and hoping that there will be readers. But we must be glad, and Benson Idonije deserves to be congratulated, on his tenacity, in bringing out against all possible odds, a memoir as he correctly describes it, on Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, legend, maestro, counterculture hero, mystic, musician, philosopher, iconoclast, rebel, patriot and one of Africa’s most significant contributions to the world of art and music in the 20th century.
It is 2016, 19 years after Fela’s death, and here is a tribute of legends to the legend, a brilliant memoir, from a man who served as Fela’s first manager, beginning with the Jazz Quintet/Koola Lobitos in 1963/4, and who served him dutifully as a friend, colleague, fan and brother, and who has remained faithful to the legend(s) told and untold. With this book, Idonije fills many gaps, as participant-observer, as a ringside viewer and as a witness to the history of the making of a genius.
Many books have already been written about Fela from many perspectives. But the beauty of true genius is that it remains unfathomable, like an endless vortex, and in terms of identity, stands on its own terms. With his art, music, persona and impact, Fela has ascended to the level of such eponymous geniuses, recognized only on a first name basis: Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, etc: global treasures who do not need a second affirmation of identity. So, it is with such figures, that every other contribution extends the narrative of excellence, impactful tradition, and historicity.
And so it is with Benson Idonije’s memoir on Fela. There have been similar books of close encounters and relationships with Fela in his lifetime, by John Collins, Uwa Erhabor, Michael Veal, Carlos Moore, and Majemite Jaboro, and other publications, which through the authors’ encounter with Fela’s music and persona provide rigorous scholastic analysis. Idonije provides an informed analysis of Fela’s music in the context of the traditions of jazz, funk, soul music, highlife, rock, indigenous African music, blues, but the strongest parts of his memoir deal not with pretensions at intellectual deconstruction of form, melody, and rhythm, or lyrics, but with a ringside report of Fela as a total musician, and artiste.
This is where the strength and the originality of this book lies. Benson Idonije is a music critic, but he is probably incapable of deploying the jargons and the distracting terms of academic inquiry, and he does not struggle too hard in that direction. But he tells a story that humanizes Fela, focusing on his birth, his roots as a musician, including family influences, his formation, evolution, maturation and the transcendentalism of his genius. He does this as a man who was there. He does this as a brother, friend, critic, sounding board, and partner. He tells the story the way nobody else can, he has the helicopter view, the ringside view and the bedroom view: the book tells stories for example of how Idonije’s one room habitat served as Fela’s “slaughter slab” for besotted female fans, and his witness to Fela’s emergence as a sex and marijuana symbol, made possible by the notorious women who came into his life, who also helped to grow his art.
Fela’s genius borders on illuminant insanity. Idonije reveals, much better than any previous biographer, the making of Fela, and the near-magical progression of this genius: his DNA as ineluctable determinism, his beginnings as pianist and rebel in his secondary school days, his objection to convention, command and control even as a staff of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, his growth and odyssey, the influence of his mother and brothers and the rest of the family, real and acquired, his borderless nationalism and his politics of protest which resulted in many runs-in with the establishment, 199 arrests by the police, incarceration, humiliation, harassment of his Kalakuta shrine and Republic, and his life of sex and marijuana, then his death and impact after death. Some of these themes from his birth in 1938 till his death in August 1997, have been dealt with at great length in other accounts. Idonije takes the narrative further, revealing and extending the narrative about a man who became a legend before his very eyes, and with whom he shared secrets and private experiences, made possible only by trust and mutual respect, an island of friendship and intimacy unknown to outsiders. This then, is not a book of research; it is an original testimony, presented in absolute good faith.
Some of those other things Idonije brings afresh to the table are refreshing insider details about Fela’s essence, his relationship with music producers, his band, recording companies, the very nature of his life as a committed artist and professional, his rigorous originality, self-assuredness, assertiveness, pride, courage and perpetual preparedness to raise art above commerce. He tells the story of Fela’s musically odyssey, and the story is not just about Fela, but the evolution of the band, from Koola Lobitos to Egypt ‘80, and after, and how ideology, exposure and influences created the enigma, the genius and the music that became Fela. Idonije deconstructs the genius, not as a mystically delivered entity, but as an essence that grew through training, hardwork, perspiration, originality, influences, musical, ideological and political, and whose being-ness and truthfulness provided a template for the lifetime and post-humous evolution of a style, example and tradition. He proves in the end how the originality of genius survives all sorts of threats: physical, socio-political and contrived.
In painting this picture, Idonije delicately manages sentimental assessment and although he is a sympathetic biographer, he shuns hagiography. It is obvious that he is not impressed by Fela’s latter-day embrace of marijuana, which he avoided in his earlier years, or the mysticism and love of spirits that drove him into illusions and paranoia, but on this subject, Idonije treads very carefully, refusing to pass judgments that could damage the legend. He is after all, a protective biographer, so protective he also treats Fela’s misogyny lightly even if he ends up reinforcing the received belief that for Fela, a woman is at best a sex object, and sex a source of spiritual reinforcement. He further says a lot about other members of the band, the gifted members of the ensemble and the non-musician members of YAP, MOP, area boys support groups, media executives and lawyers whose contributions and individual talents made Fela possible. Fela thus, emerging not as an individual artist stricto senso, but as a movement, as philosophy, as an idea, as institution, as the sum of total artistry, as leader of an orchestra, indeed as phenomenon.
Idonije’s participant-observer and first-hand analyst status also provides him the opportunity to write a story that goes beyond Fela to cover the highlife scenes of Nigeria and Ghana in the 60s and 70s, and the collaboration and rivalry among the various emerging stars, their influences and styles and the character of the musical audiences and trends in Ghana and Nigeria which had corresponding impact on the taste and tone of the social and cultural landscape. From Fela to the present, there has been so much that has changed in that landscape, many of the commercially successful artistes of the time have vanished into oblivion and irrelevance, but Fela lives because of the originality of his art and musicianship. Miles Davis, one of the many influences on Fela has been reported as saying “Fela is the future of music”.
Idonije’s account establishes just exactly how true this is: his continuing impact and the endlessness of his relevance. But as the book shows, there can only be one Fela: an artist with conscience, who was an objective product of his encounters and experiences, a true professional who found his own voice and mission, an avatar whose talent became a political and social weapon for protecting, defending and leading the poor and the disadvantaged against the evils of corruption and irresponsible leadership.
Idonije despite the humility he declares in his preface aspires, quite obviously, to produce a definitive, comprehensive book as he struggles to cover all the grounds, but he is smart enough to acknowledge that his account certainly cannot be the “last word”. He observes poignantly that whereas the international community has always admired and honoured Fela, the attitude to his art by the central Nigerian government, from the military to the civilian administrations, has been one of disregard, with perhaps the exception of the Lagos state government, which sponsored the creation of a Fela museum. Fela’s post-humous presence on Broadway and the growth of Felaism as creed and tradition is a victorious talk-back, an act of defiance, from the grave by a true artist whose example defined the true nature of the art of commitment, contextually and sub-textually.
Idonije and Fela referred to each other as “Oyejo”: a bastardization of the Yoruba phrase “Oya e joo” inevitably mangled, during a performance visit to Nigeria by Dizzy Gillespie, trying to connect with his back up team of illiterate Yoruba drummers. Fela was not an original fan of Gillespie, due to his aversion to the mixing of jazz with showmanship, but intellectual interaction with Idonije encouraged Fela to appreciate Gillespie’s original skills, and the product was an eventual number titled “Oyejo”, a part-tribute as it were. The picture Idonije paints through narratives such as this, is that of Fela as an open-minded, broadminded artiste who drew influences and inspiration from just about any possible source: duty boys, managers, producers, bedroom partners and so on but who at all times knew what he wanted, and called his own shots. Benson Idonije writes a part of his own biography in telling his friend’s story but unlike some other biographers before him, he does not over-project himself and he does not upstage the legend.
This is a book that should benefit from further projection and the attention of the reading public. Unlike Gillespie in that particular linguistically challenged account, Fela, alive and in death, needs not say “Oya e joo.” His art has located him concretely in the mainstream along with the giants including Dizzy Gillespie himself and others. This book, indeed, is a truly worthy contribution: In Fela’s voice, “everybody say yeah, yeah.”
Dr. Reuben Abati was spokesman and special adviser, media and publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 – 2015). He tweets from @abati1990.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.