Fela, Preacher and Priest

Fela's tomb at Kalakuta (Photo by Africa-Related ©)
By Majemite Jaboro

On October 15 2011, the Chief Priest Fela Anukulapo Kuti would have been 73 years old, if he had been alive. However, Last August I visited the Kalakuta Republic, the famous white two-storey building on Gbemisola Street (Ikeja), which was home to Fela and his family (and family by association), and was shocked by the state and appearance of the building.

The building looked like it was haunted, but it still bore signs of a glorious past. There was, of course, the pyramidal tomb where the Afrobeat creator lays buried after his death in 1997, fortunately well maintained. Gone was the poster of Fela’s album cover for Teacher Do Not Teach Me Nonsense, which used to be a permanent feature of the front wall of the building (beside the first floor balcony). It bothers me why this building should not already be a Museum of African, Political and Spiritual Thought, attracting tourists from all over the globe.

While staring at the building once again, my mind raced back to the time when I used to be part of the daily goings-on within the premises. On Saturday mornings, after séances with the Kalakuta Medium, Fela would give me money to buy schnapps, kola nut, palm wine, palm oil and salt. Later in the day, I would head to the Shrine (Pepple Street), a brisk 30 minute walk through the middle class Gbemisola Street, clean the vicinity as well as the sacred objects. On the right side of the white painted altar was an oil portrait of Fela’s mother Funmilayo, a wrapped bust of a Bini king and a clay pot containing water from the Atlantic Ocean.

The Shrine décor
In the centre of the altar are the porcelain plates that would contain the mixture of palm oil and salt, including the honey we would bring from Kalakuta when coming with Fela for the evening’s performances. On a high pedestal were four small calabashes: one big calabash for palm wine and the other for schnapps; on the left side sits another clay pot containing fresh water and an oil portrait of Kwame Nkrumah, which was painted by Lemmy Ghariokwu. I loved this portrait for the fact that it shows Nkrumah standing in a fire and giving the ‘Black Power’ salute, and he holds a book with the words ‘Nkrumah Lives’ printed on it.

Also on the left side of the altar is an Asante stool (painted white), and which Fela said contained the souls of our African ancestors. On the multi-coloured wall, the names of African gods and goddesses were written with cowries. There were two clay pots on the two sides of the altar which we use for bonfires. The shrine was also decorated with coloured bulbs which were left on 24 hours a day, except when there was power failure.

By 10 p.m. I would have finished my work on the shrine and the shrine was ready for ‘Comprehensive Show’, as Fela called his Saturday nightly shows. I would have rolled cotton wool and put them in the clay pots which would contain kerosene and palm oil (for the bonfire). Before leaving for Kalakuta l would meet Anigboro, Charles Taylor and Yao. (The first two guys were bodyguards for the shrine, while Yao was the shrine supervisor on Saturday, responsible for preparing Fela’s giant reefer called the ‘Comprehensive Jumbo’.)

Usually, we were back in Kalakuta by 11 p.m. After a short rest and a bath we were ready for the show. On Saturdays Fela would tell us the four dancers who would dance when he playedhis final number. Since it was a ‘Comprehensive Show’, both the Egypt 80 musicians and the Afrika 70 dancers would wear their costumes, led by Najite and Sewaa. At about 1.30 a.m. we would be in Fela’s room cracking jokes and watching TV. By 2.30 a.m. we would be in the shrine.

Divine Intervention
After Fela had finished singing one number, there would be a short break for divination. The senior dancers would change into their skimpy outfits; Fela would remove his shirt and paint his face with native chalk, which was also part of the make-up kit of the Egypt 80 singers and dancers.

The shrine would be open for everybody to see but nobody except the girls were allowed to step too close while the rites were performed. The divination rituals began when honey was poured into one of the porcelain bowls. At a given signal we would light the bonfire and the smoke would go directly to the stage, giving the whole place a mystical aura. When the rites got underway, the only sounds one heard were the earthly sounds of the gongs, conga drums, wooden clef and the shekere. Fela would come out of the room, escorted by the two musicians playing the clefs and the shekere.

Fela (as Chief Priest) would be in the centre facing the shrine. I would stand by his right while Dede Mabiaku and Femi Osunla would be by his left, all of us barefoot and without our shirts. We all gestured to the shrine with the ‘Black Power’ salute. We then bowed down, our foreheads touching the floor. Then we crouched. Fela started the divination by breaking the two kola nuts. He would throw it like dice and interpret the message.

On first Saturdays of the month, Fela sacrificed a white cock to the shrine. It became the tradition that the white cock was bought by the mother of his son Seun that same Saturday. Fela would kill the cock by placing his foot on the neck and pulling its legs. Those on the right would be splattered with chicken blood. Fela would drink the blood and drop some on the bust of Nkrumah.

After that he offers palm wine and schnapps, by pouring the liquids into the four small calabashes representing the four Egyptian gods. He would leave what was left of the schnapps and palm wine, which Femi Osunla would pour into two big calabashes that served as communion cups for those present. We would bow down again, stand up and give the ‘Black Power’ salute.

‘Music Against Second Slavery’
Fela would be escorted back to the ‘organisation room’ to put on his shoes after shaking a Manila hemp whisk (inside the clay pot that contains water from the Atlantic). He climbed the stage; marched to the front to receive the two big calabashes. After crisscrossing the two calabashes, Fela would pour a little on the stage. The rest, including a kola nut, would be given to everybody in the VIP corner. A sip and a nip was enough; almost always, I would be standing near the shrine to prevent fans from getting too close to the action.

His giant reefer in hand and a few puffs later, Fela would then go into his 15-minute weekly sermon on African history, politics and spiritualism. Afterwards, the Egypt 80 would begin the opening notes for the shrine anthem, ‘Music Against Second Slavery’. During the last number, the junior dancers Fela selected to dance to the last number would dance and after that it was time to go home. One of the singers (Folake) would hold Fela’s shirt, while Fela walked back into the shrine, left foot first. I would hold the giant reefer, the end of it smeared with lipstick, and take a few puffs.

Inside the shrine, Fela used his left forefinger to scoop some honey, palm oil and the other items on the ground, and then he puts both hands on the Asante stool. It seemed to me that he was tapping powers from the stool.

If it was the first Saturday of the month, Dede Mabiaku would hold the giant reefer while I would hold a newspaper to cover the dead cock. On our way back Fela would deposit the wrapped chicken at the orita meta (the Crossroads), junction is behind Jabita Hotel; once this was done, nobody was allowed to look back. That marked the end of the day’s outing, usually around 6.a.m.

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