Twenty years after Fela’s death, the Kalakuta museum is set to open new aperture on the Afrobeat idol
By MUSA JIBRIL, Photos by OMONIYI AYEDUN
On August 3, 2017, it was 20 years since Fela, King of Afrobeat, took a bow and exited the stage of life. In the intervening years, Felamania continues to bloom. The déjà vu deepens, as his fans gripped by great nostalgia, yearn for his eccentricities, his bohemian lifestyle, his Yabbis.
Fela is a big jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are many. They fit snugly into one unending narrative. Fela on Broadway. Felabration. The New Afrika Shrine. His catalogue of Afrobeats recordings. The oracles, that is the voices that echo and re-echo endless verses of his deeds. The Kalakuta Museum, located at No. 7 Gbemisola Street off Allen Avenue, Lagos, is a significant part of the whole.
In the Fela narrative, Kalakuta, his alter ego, is a cat with nine lives. The original Kalakuta was the communal compound that owned by his mother at No. 14 Agege Motor Road, Idi-Oro, Mushin, the home he returned to from America in 1970. There he housed his family, band members and recording studio. Sandra Smith, his American friend, gave a glimpse of Kalakuta: “I was very fortunate to say that I had the opportunity to live at Kalakuta too. It was a party every day. I was there in ‘76, I lived there for three or four months.”
But Zombie––a song that taunts soldiers about how they obey orders blindly––drew the wrath of soldiers who visited the commune with mayhem, burnt Kalakuta and brutalised its occupants, leading to the death of Fela’s mother.
Fela reincarnated Kalakuta at No. 1, Atinuke Olabanji Street, Ikeja which was a philosophical and intellectual ‘republic, and a mecca for student leaders and activists. There, he churned out critically acclaimed works including ITT (1979), Coffin for Head of State (1980) and Unknown Soldier (1981). But it came to a sudden death in 1984 when the Buhari-Idiagbon military junta jailed Fela on a trumped up charge of currency smuggling. For his landlord, the conviction was godsent––he wasted no time in forcefully evicting Fela’s colony of family and friends from his property.
Twenty months later, when he was released from prison in 1985 by the Babangida regime, he moved to Gbemisola Street, where he had earlier acquired a property for his printing press. That signalled the dawn of the third Kalakuta Republic, where he lived until his death on August 3, 1997.
Today, Kalakuta III is a museum. Inside the ground floor, the walls have framed portraits of his early albums. Ikoyi Blindness. Kalakuta Show. Yellow Fever. Zombie. Shakara. Confusion.
A souvenir shop displays Fela emblazoned Tee-shirts, books and curios.
The first floor was his domain––Fela’s sitting room and bedrooms. Here, you’d find a cooking pot, a mortar and tall conga drums.
Visitors have the opportunity to see Fela’s bedroom, left undisturbed these past 20 years, the way it was when he left for the hospital and never returned. Shirts neatly arrayed on hangers. White refrigerator standing aloof. A saxophone idling on the floor. Two leather footrests nestle together. A fan. Some books. All neatly arranged.
The next room displays his shoes––37 pairs––and three underpants on hangers. In the adjacent room, an ancient typewriter is surrounded by newspaper clippings of reports about Fela and manifestoes of his unregistered party, Movement of the People (MOP), pasted on walls.
The second floor has five rooms where Fela bunked his friends when he was alive. The floor is undergoing refurbishment aimed at turning the five rooms into a deluxe accommodation. The corridor here wears a vast, black and white mural depicting Fela and his 27 wives. The painting so stark and sincere, it will stop you in your tracks.
The climb up and down the stairs takes you through a maze of family history, depicted by the photo narratives on the wall: Fela’s wedding day in London. Fela seated beside his mum, smoking. Closeup of boyhood Fela. A frame of his offspring: Femi, Yeni and another. A portrait of him and Sandra Smith, the American who radicalised him. A picture of him with Thomas Sankara, the assassinated Burkina Faso military leader who was his ardent fan. Piece by piece, the photos tell a personal story of Abami Eda.
The roof was where he had his rehearsals. From the top, you gaze directly at his grave in front of the museum. At the summit of the museum, you will find people lounging on plastic chairs, talking sotto voce.
From the basement to the roof, the museum is stamped with artworks of Lemi Ghariokhu, the renowned ‘Fela Artist’ who drew many of the original cover images for the Fela Kuti recordings. The graffiti at the rooftop depicts Fela’s recording titles, scribbled in various colours on a green background with a slapdash-sketch of colour a three-man Fela blowing his sax. Photos on display were from family collections, but among them are the iconic Fela concert photos by Leni Sinclair. So, Lemi and Leni provided the bulk of the visuals of the museum.
Mallam Abdul Okwechime’s anecdote of his first encounter with Fela as a Sunday Times reporter seeking an interview session was insightful.
“Fela gave me 1:00 am appointment. I got there at 11 pm and hung around the compound. At 1 am, somebody came out and said: “Who be Journalist here? Fela dey call you.”
I went inside his room and his voice summoned me into the bathroom.
The cub reporter found the Afrobeat star on his potty, with a chewing stick in his mouth. A lady held a mirror before him, another sat by the bathtub holding a towel, a third stood by his side with an unlit roll of weed at the ready. The fourth loitered, waiting. From inside the bathtub, a bowl of hot water steamed the room.
“I came in and Fela said: “Start the interview,” and I pressed my midget,” he recalled.
Fela finished poo-poo-ing, smoked some weed, brushed his teeth, bathed and towelled, all the while talking. They went into the sitting room, and there, the interview ended. Fela picked his saxophone and went to work. Okwechime himself became a Kalakutan.
I probed further: “What was Kalakuta like?”
His insider view spoke of order.
“Rule No 1: Backbiting is outlawed. If someone went to Fela with a report that, “See that Girl na in thief that thing,” the typical Fela response would be: “Wait, call the girl, talk am for im presence.”
“In Kalakuta you don’t speak any other language but Pidgin. There were Nigerians, Ghanaians, Sierra Leoneans, people from all over.”
Kalakutans, he recalled, are at liberty to abuse themselves––called yabbis––but to strike another was breaking the rule.
It was codified as “Yabbis no case, first touch na offence.”
He dismissed stories of steamy affairs as apocryphal. Kalakuta had no room for amoral affairs. “Band members didn’t live with Fela––only friends, associates and his wives. Males and female didn’t cohabit. Everybody understood the girls belonged to Fela.”
Today, Gbemisola Street is calm, laid back because Femi and Yeni reportedly declared their reluctance to continue the roaring tradition after Fela’s death. Naturally, the razzmatazz fizzled out.
Lagos State Government gave impetus to the refurbishment of the museum, opened on October 15, 2012. The Fashola administration bought the adjoining land and for the museum’s use as a car park. Five years after, Kunle Anikulapo-Kuti, who is the driving force behind the project, has his eyes on turning it into a major tourist hub.
Come this October, the month of Fela, the 5-room hotel on the second floor will be opened, even as the museum is primed to play major roles in the forthcoming Felabration.
In the never-ending story that is Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Kalakuta is the cocoon whence the yarn is spun. For those who might have forgotten that Kalakuta has become a museum, the cues are conspicuous. The signs read: No Smoking of Indian Hemp.