Fela Through Ghanaian Eyes

Review Music


Fela: Kalakuta Notes (Second Edition)
by John Collins
Wesleyan University Press (2015), 326 pages



Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, arguably Africa’s greatest musician, has a place in the pantheon of African thought leaders of the 20th century, along with the likes of Frantz Fanon, Marcus Garvey and Nelson Mandela. Eighteen years after his death, his life continues to be a focus of intellectual discussion, his music remains an edifying staple, and every few years a new book about his life surfaces.


Who better to write about Fela Anikulapo-Kuti but John Collins, one of the leading figures of West African music scholarship? Collins, a naturalized Ghanaian of Irish descent, moved to Ghana in the early 1950s, at a time when E.T. Mensah and his highlife band, The Tempos, were crisscrossing geographical borders all over West Africa, heralding Independence with highlife music, an artistic articulation of the zeitgeist.


At that time, Fela, teenage son of a clergyman father and political activist mother, born into the elite Ransome-Kuti family, often described as Nigeria’s equivalent of the Kennedys, was in his father’s church choir, accompanying his father’s sermons on the organ. Music ran in the family. The clergyman father was also a trumpeter, known to conceal his horn in the folds of his agbada, producing it to surprise and delight at social functions. His grandfather, a Christian missionary, recorded the first set of Yoruba hymns in London in the 1920s. 


If Fela’s musical inheritance was largely patrilineal, his fiery political-mindedness must have come from his mother, Mrs Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a staunch member of the foremost Nigerian nationalist party, the NCNC, organizer of the Egba Women against colonial taxation, mother of four children and a widow from 1955.


Collins’ Kalakuta Notes engages Fela’s early life intimately. The writing is effortless and does not call attention to itself. The book is a mix of interviews, diary notes and journalistic essays that seek to recall Fela’s persona. It is important to note that the majority of the interviewed persons are either Ghanaians or have strong ties to Ghana. Ghana was important to Fela’s musical career for he first became popular in Ghana on account of how sophisticated and accommodating the Ghanaian audience was to his variant of highlife music, which leaned heavily toward jazz. 


Fela’s story is told through the mouths of friends, rivals and accomplices, but ultimately, Fela is seen best through the eyes of Collins who met and interacted with Fela several times in his fifty-eight years of existence. The most extensive of those interactions was in 1977, during the shoot of Fela’s Black President film, in which Collins was cast as Inspector Reynolds, a colonial figure. Although a small role, Collins’ stay in Nigeria extended beyond the estimated number of days for filming to a full month. Collins kept a diary about the daily proceedings in the 60-member Kalakuta commune, covering the period of that stay. “Melodramatic, neurotic, cathartic, very involved and immediate, direct, little forethought or meditation, mixture of bluff and bullshit” is Collins’ description of the “Kalakuta Republic” at Mushin, in a building that was Fela’s mother’s house, where Fela presided as dictator, assigning daily tasks and meting out punishments that ran from beatings to imprisonment. 


John Collins puts paid to the conflict about how the name Kalakuta came about. In some narratives, it is linked to the black holes of Calcutta but according to Kalakuta Notes, the name was derived from the Swahili word for rascal, a word Fela picked up during his stay in police detention in 1974 when he was arrested for weed possession despite having swiftly swallowed the evidence. His stool would become material evidence for his impending trial. Fela’s charisma did not fail him in police detention and he was made the “Black President” of his cell. He exchanged his stool bucket with other inmates so that his “expensive shit” became contaminated evidence and he expected to be cleared of charges.


After 1974, Fela’s run-ins with the law were numerous, many times for avoidable reasons. A clear illustration is the case in 1977 when Fela hid his new driver who had broken the law. In response to placatory requests by army officials to produce the erring driver, Collins tell us that Fela taunted them with his horn and scantily clad dancers, serenading them with his “Zombie” tune. What happened next was an unlawful invasion of his space with an intention to raze it to the ground. Everything was collateral damage in the onslaught, both human and material, including his septuagenarian mother who was thrown down from the top floor of the building. Months later, the fellow for whom Fela put everything on the line expressed his gratitude by stealing from Fela.


Another fellow who enjoyed Fela’s patronage is the under-discussed sycophant Kwaku Addaie, also known as Professor Hindu, a Ghanaian magician who offered Fela spiritual guidance. Collins’ book devotes useful attention to Professor Hindu, and we learn that it was at Hindu’s instigation that Fela embarked on a course that would lead to his being charged with currency smuggling. Hindu’s magical powers failed to make the 2,600 pounds worth of bank notes invisible at the critical moment. Another instance of Fela’s gullibility (not discussed in this book) was the testing of a juju bulletproof vest. Fortunately, his brothers urged him to try the vest on a goat first. The goat died instantly from gunshot injuries. 


Collins’ diary also describes Fela’s older sister, Dolupo, who is not often mentioned. A retired nurse, “quite drunk and noisy,” Fela did not seem to mind her very much. “He was playing his saxophone against her booming voice in some sort of anti-dialogue.” She was later to nurse him on his deathbed. Fela was surrounded by strong women—his mother, sister and wife—but also favored weak and volatile women given to loud tantrums and Fela worship. His hugely successful Lady is said to have been inspired by his brief encounter with a Ghanaian hotel receptionist who insisted on being referred to as just that.


Collins notes that in spite of Fela’s gullibility, his frequent scrapes with the authorities and his attention-seeking behavior, Fela was a generous soul who took his music seriously with frequent practice on his horns and his obsession with perfection at rehearsals. His contribution to African music is so influential and his music continues to be celebrated in the annual Felabration event, which has featured about 160 local bands since inception.


The chapter called “Afterthoughts and Update” is dedicated to the posthumous growth of Fela’s Afrobeat music and the weight of his influence on all spheres of African music. This section of the book attempts to list every possible band and musician that has been influenced by Fela’s music, without dwelling on the nature and consequences of such influence. This desultory chapter also contains an alarming amount of misspelled names and words.


The triumph of Kalakuta Notes is obvious in its second life as a brand-new, updated edition. For providing an intimate depiction of Fela’s persona, the book is assured a place in the canon of scholarship on Africa’s most controversial musician.