Everybody say Ye-Ye!

On February 2, 2013 by admin

Michael E. Veal

A humid weekend night in the early 1990s. The scene: outside the Afrika Shrine nightclub in Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria, home base of the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and his thirty-piece orchestra, Egypt 80. Even though the ubiquitous, machine gun toting soldiers of the Nigerian army have a well-deserved reputation for making the lives of ordinary civilians miserable, they are decidedly peripheral to tonight’s scenario. The Shrine is understood to be Fela’s autonomous zone, where his own anarchic, hedonistic law prevails.

The atmosphere is festive as the audience enters, a mixture of students, activists, rebels, criminals, music lovers, and even politicians, policemen, and soldiers arriving incognito. They make their way through the sea of traders hawking their goods by candle light snacks,drinks, cigarettes, and marijuana as the sound of the Egypt 80 spills from inside the open-air club. After purchasing a ticket and being frisked for weapons at the doorway, audience members enter the interior of the Shrine, a semi-enclosed counter-cultural carnival of funky, political music, pot smoking, mysticism, and provocative dancing. Four fishnet-draped go-go cages, each containing a loosely clad female dancer grinding languorously, rise out of the smoky haze. A neon light in the shape of the African continent casts its red glow over the stage. In addition to more food, drink, and marijuana vendors, the rear of the club houses an actual shrine a large altar containing religious objects and photos of Fela’s Pan-Africanist political heroes, including Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, and Sekou Toure, and his late mother, Mrs. Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti.

The Egypt 80 band has been playing since midnight, wanning up the crowd with classics from Fela’s older recorded repertoire, such as ”Trouble Sleep” (1972), “Why Blackman Dey Suffer” (1972), “Lady” (1972), “Water No Get Enemy” (1975), “Opposite People” (1975),

“Sorrow, Tears and Blood” (1977), “Dog Eat Dog” (1977), “Beasts of No Nation” (1986), and bandleader/baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun’s “Serere (Do Right).” The band is awaiting Fela’s arrival, so these songs are sung by various band members, including

Animashaun (known around the Shrine as “Baba Ani”), second baritone saxophonist Rilwan Fagbemi (known as “Showboy”), Fela’s ten year- old son Seun, and artist/musician Dede Mabiaku, whom Fela often referred to as his “adopted son.” Fela, the “Chief Priest of Shrine,” finally arrives with his retinue around 2 A.M., to tumultuous applause. Dressed tonight in a tight purple jumpsuit stitched with traditional Yoruba symbols and shapes, he makes his way through the crowd to the stage and salutes his audience with the clenched-fist black power salute. He steps up to the mike and pauses, surveying the crowd with mischievous eyes while taking intermittent puffs from a flashlight-sized joint in his hand. Finally he speaks:

Everybody say ye-ye!

The crowd roars in response, and Fela segues directly into the profane, no-holds-barred criticism of the country’s leaders he has offered his audiences for the past two decades:

Bro’s and sisters, if you want to know how corrupt this country is, that word “corruption” has lost its meaning here! Fela arches his eyebrows, thrusts his chest and stomach out, and marches around the stage in imitation of the arrogant and obese ogas (literally “bosses”), men of importance who parade their wealth around Lagos in the midst of suffering:

“Yeah, I’m corrupt, man!”

The crowd bursts into laughter, and Fela continues his monologue:

In fact, corruption has even become a title in this country! In Germany, they have President Kohl. In America, they have President Bush. In England they have Prime Minister Major. Here in Nigeria, we have Corrupted Babangida!

At the mention of their president, the audience shouts in deafening unison “Ole!” (Yoruba for “thief”).

Fela switches into pidgin English and recounts an incident in which the president was snubbed by French president François Mitterand during a recent state visit:

When Corrupted Babangida go for France, Mitterand no wan meet am. He go dey send a cultural minister. He go say Nigeria be nation of thieves. The man was disgraced. When he came back, the fucking army was kicking ass all over Nigeria! Na how many students dem kill fo’ dat one?

The crowd roars in laughter and approval, the Shrine now rocking like a revivalist church:

You see, bro’s and sisters, I know dem. They are nothing but spirit beings. They are the same motherfuckers who sold Africans into slavery hundreds of years ago. In fact, the same spirit who controls Babangida controls Bush and Thatcher too. Everyone is here to play their same role again, and I want you all to know that tonight; Babangida, Obasanjo, Abiola, they have all been here before. That’s why I call this time the era of ”second slavery.”

They don’t have to come here and take us by force our leaders sell us up front. Everybody say ye-ye!

The audience shouts “ye-ye!” punctuated with cries of “yab dem!” (abuse them).

Bro’s and sisters, I’m gonna play for you now, a thing we call M.A.S.S.”Music Against Second Slavery.”

Fela spins around and sternly surveys the orchestra members, who stare at him intently. Slowly, he begins to clap out the song’s tempo to the band, wiggling his slender body to the rhythm. Though short in stature, he wields enormous authority onstage. A guitarist begins a serpentine single-note line, accompanied by a percussionist thumping out a thunderous rhythm atop an eight-foot traditional gbedu drum laid on its side. The audience indicates its growing excitement by yelling Fela’s various nicknames in response: “Omo Iya Aje!” (son of a powerful woman [literally “witch”]), “Baba!” (father), “Abami Eda!” (strange one, or spirit being), “Chief Priest!” “Black President!” Fela raises his hands above his head and waves the percussionists and rhythm section in. Time itself seems to slowly shift along with the sticks and the shekere rattle, whose steady chirping frames an intricate tapestry of spacy rhythm.

Stepping to his electric organ at center stage, Fela begins to improvise around the rhythm with greater and greater density. At the height of his solo, he waves in the ten-piece horn section, which enters dramatically, blaring the song’s theme. With instrumental solos, featured dancers, and audience participation games, it will be another thirty minutes before Fela even begins to sing, but the audience is in delirious, swirling motion. Another night at the Afrika Shrine has begun. Fela will perform from his arrival until dawn. This is partly in the tradition of Lagos night life, but it also results from more pragmatic considerations Lagos is one of the world’s most dangerous cities and travel is extremely ill-advised after dark. In keeping with his policy of only presenting unrecorded material in concert, Fela is playing a repertoire familiar only to regular attendants of the Shrine tonight. ”Chop and Clean Mouth Like Nothing Happened, Na New Name for Stealing” details the Nigerian economy’s plundering by successive heads of state; “Country of Pain” bemoans the hardships of life in post oil boom Nigeria; “Big Blind Country” uses the English blonde wigs worn by Nigerian judges and the hair straightening practised by some African women as metaphors for the “artificial niceness” of the country’s politicians; “Government of Crooks” details the siphoning of the country’s oil wealth by corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, and soldiers; “Music Against Second Slavery” decries the impact of Islam on contemporary Nigerian politics and power relations; “Akunakuna, Senior Brother of Perambulator” criticizes government harassment of petty street traders and other participants in the country’s informal

economy; and “Pansa Pansa” is a defiant battle cry composed in the wake of the brutal 1977 army raid on Fela’s Lagos compound, the “Kalakuta Republic.”

Like most of his music since 1979, these are all lengthy, complex compositions, often lasting forty minutes or more. On stage, Fela combines the autocratic band-leading style and dancing agility of James Brown, the mystical inclinations of Sun Ra, the polemicism of Malcolm X, and the harsh, insightful satire of Richard Pryor. Gliding gracefully around the stage in white face paint, which he says facilitates communication with the spirit world, he is not above interrupting the performance to harangue musicians, sound technicians, or audiences. However, the Egypt 80 band is in top form tonight, executing Fela’s music with energy, clarity, and whiplash precision. On up-tempo numbers like “Government of Crooks” or “Country of Pain,” Fela and the band play with an intensity that thoroughly possesses the Shrine audience. On slower, midtempo numbers like “Chop and Clean Mouth . . . ,” Fela’s highlife and funk roots are evident in the easy rhythmic flow of the percussion section; the chopping, stuttering guitars; and the blaring, syncopated horns. Above it all, Fela alternately jokes with the audience and spits out his political lyrics in angry, declamatory phrases darting between the shrill voices of the six-member female chorus and the guttural, baritone punctuations of the horn section. On “Government of Crooks,” he sings about the government’s complicity in the despoliation of southeastern Ogoniland by foreign oil companies, a state of affairs that had recently culminated in the state execution of Ogoni activist/playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa:

 

All of us know our country

Plenty-plenty oil-e dey

Plenty things dey for Africa

Petroleum is one of them

All di places that get di oil-o

|Now oil pollution for di place

All the farms done soak with oil-o

All the villages don catch disease

Money done spoil di oil area

But some people inside government

All of us know our country

There is plenty oil

Plenty resources in Africa

Petroleum is one of them

All the places where oil lies

Are spoiled with pollution

The farms are soaked by oil leaks

The villages are rife with disease

Money has ruined the oil areas

But some people in government

Dem don become billionaires

Billionaires on top of oil-o

and underhanded crookedness . . .

Have become billionaires

From oil wealth

and underhanded crookedness . . .

On ”Movement Against Second Slavery,” he takes his most insulting potshots at the country’s military government while subtly reprising his famous song “Zombie,” which precipitated a brutal military attack on his compound fifteen years earlier:

FELA: Now come look our president

CHORUS: Zombie! (repeats after every line)

FELA: Na soldier, him be president

He say he want to travel

Travel on a state visit to France

Na so him go,

He go Paris-o

And when he reach there nko

Na ordinary minister meet am

White man go dey tell-e dem:

“We don tire for soldier

Soldier cannot be president

It just be like robbery”

Like armed robber come meet you for house

The armed robber come take over your house

Chop all your food

Fuck all your wives

Take all your money

Hen! Na so soldier government be-o . . .

FELA: Now, look at our president

CHORUS: Zombie!

FELA: A soldier is president

He says he wants to travel

Travel on a state visit to France

And so he went,

He went to Paris

And when he reached his destination

He was met by an ordinary minister

The white man told him:

“We are tired of soldiers

A soldier cannot be president

It’s just like armed robbery”

Like an armed robber coming to your house

The armed robber will take over your house

Eat all your food

Fuck all your wives

Take all your money

Hmm! This is what a military government means . . .

Reflecting Fela’s feeling that his music was as much for education as it was for dancing and entertainment, the Shrine audience enjoyed the music in various ways. Tuesday night audiences tended toward reflection; while some danced singly or in pairs, most enjoyed the music from their seats, listening intently to Fela’s lyrics and freely offering responses or rebuttals to his comments. On these nights, the smell of Indian hemp mixed with the pulse of the hypnotic afrobeat in the thick tropical air, and the Shrine took on the ambience of a psychedelic town meeting held in a dance hall. Friday was mainly a dance night, with the house packed and people on their feet from the time Egypt 80 took the stage until dawn laughing, cheering, and singing along with Fela’s every line. Saturday when Fela presented his ”Comprehensive Show” complete with the Egypt 80 dancers and an enormous, ritual conical “cigar” presumably filled with marijuana and various native herbs was also mainly a dance night, with the most diverse audience of the week; listeners traveled from all over Lagos and beyond to enjoy the music. For some attendees, a visit to the Shrine, with its marijuana smoking, go-go dancers, and antigovernment lyrics, was an act of social rebellion in itself. Others came to engage, examine, or debate Fela’s political philosophy. Still other visitors were content merely to enjoy the music, irrespective of its political sentiments. Each show concluded at dawn with Fela pausing before the shrine in the rear of the building. With intense flames leaping into the air, the “Chief Priest of Shrine” paused, flanked by two young male attendants to salute his ancestors and Pan-Africanist heroes, before returning home as the rest of Lagos awakened with the dawn.

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Michael e. Veal is Professor of Music and African-American Studies,Yale University.

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