The close-up interview Fela never had. By ‘Lolu Lusi

I was pleasantly surprised to discover you had other names than simply FELA.

How could you have been surprised? Sebi you be Yoruba person and you get pikin? In Yorubaland, on the day a child is named, everyone brings out their names: your parents,/grandparents, uncles, aunties, neighbours, everyone. So, you have a long list of names. But, of course, your parents, particularly your father, know within them the name you will be called. Where the parents are deeply cultural, you even get an oriki, a praise name -Alao, Aja-di, Akanke, Aduke, Ajoke and so on – which reflects their hopes and aspirations for your future.
You know as the Yoruba put it: ilè là nwò ká tó soomo lórúko – na home we dey look before we name pikin.

Mek I answer your question: I was named OLUFELA OLUSEGUN OLUDOTUN. I don’t know which of my parents brought any of the names or what the circumstances were when I was born on 15 October, 1938; but as you know, my father, whom I called Principal even at home (he was principal of the secondary school I attended, Abeokuta Grammar School) was Oludotun; he probably wanted me to be known as Oludotun, Jr. hahaha.
Talking about it now, I think, instead of naming my eldest brother, Olikoye, after my great-grandfather, “Likoye, I should have been the one so named, because I was the man’s alter-ego: he was a musician, a rebel and an ögbólögbó heathen. He was ‘Likoye Kuti. It was his son, who renamed himself Josaiah Jesse, who also added Ransome to Kuti. You know, of course, that I yanked Ransome from my own name, and replaced it with Anikúlápó -I fit quench but I go still dey tey-tey.

I was even more shocked at your nicknames.

At Abeokuta Grammar School, I loved reading novels like shit. Don’t ask me why now. I loved the heroes in some of those books: Sherlock Holmes. Simon Templar, The Saint. I saw myself in those fellas and therefore adopted their names. Wetin be your own nickname?

I can’t remember….

Yeve dey smell.

What were your other passions in secondary school besides music?

I played table tennis; so well, that I became a member of the school’s table tennis team. My younger brother, Beko, was also a member. Do you know Robert Clarke, who’s now a Queen’s Counsel, sorry, Senior Advocate of Nigeria?
Let me tell you a funny story about that man. 
He had transferred to Abeo Gramms fromone school in Midwest Region, er, Bendel State, but he was janjala in size. One day I was playing table tennis, and, when he came close, I ordered him to climb a guava tree nearby to pluck some for me. Because of his small size I had assumed he was a junior boy, not knowing that he was my senior by about two years. When I realised, I take second bass; we became friends, tight friends sef.

Not long after I was admitted into Abeokuta Grammar School, in 1953, I started a revolutionary club, named Planless Society. Our mission was to rebel against rules we considered too strict or restrictive or nonsensical. E don tey wey I don start to rebel against yanmayanma.

You’ve been quoted as saying: “My parents taught me music but they discouraged me from making it a profession”

Na true I talk. My father’s plan was to send me to England to study medicine or something he believed was more “prestigious.”

If he hadn’t died..

So, you found yourself in Trinity College, even as you simply wanted to be part of Victor Olaiya’s Cool Cats Band.

That’s the best way to put it: I found myself there in August 1958. Before then, if you must know, after finishing secondary school, I worked as a third class clerk at the Ministry of Commerce in Lagos.

I could sing, I could play the piano very well, with help from my cousin, Fola Meadows; I played the organ at St John’s Church, Igbehin Abeokuta, all when I was a secondary school boy. But to be admitted to Trinity College, you had to pass some theoretical exams of the Associate Board of the Royal Schools of Music. I no get the time nor patience for that, my brother. But, satisfying himself that I had passion for music and sympathetic that I had travelled a long distance to get to the school, the Trinity College principal took me in.

What didn’t they teach you at Trinity College?

I know say you wan mek I talk about Sandra (Sandra Danielle is the same as Sandra Smith and Sandra Akanke Iszadore – ed). Yes, when I went to America in 1969, that lady opened my brains, my eyes, to see the true Africa. She made me realise that I had been fooling around, you know. She gave me the education I should have had.
I can’t ever forget Sandra. She sef no fit forget 
me. I can’t also forget Hidle Brown (H.B) Barnum (arranger for notable musicians such as Lou Rawls, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and Gladys Knighted) who gave me invaluable production tips on how to arrange the elements of my music to make it less busy and commercially appealing without losing artistic creativity.

Let’s talk about your beloved mum, Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti..

E be like say you no wan comot for here today. Ah, that na great woman. Never mind that, like Principal, she didn’t spare the rod. I no know who worse pass. But she had my back. In the real sense, she was my first promoter. She was the one who took my earliest musical recordings as Kola Lobitos to Broadcasting House, in Ikoyi, where she met the one who would later become my great friend, Oyejo, (Benson Idonije; they both called each other by that moniker, a bastardisation of Oya, ejo -ed), for them to air. It was she, who in 1964, told me, in the presence of Benson, who had then become my manager, to change from playing jazz to highlife for ‘cultural relevance and commercial viability. I get plenty tori about my mama.she was everything to me…but I don tire to talk now….

Allow me to ask this last question: how do you want to be remembered?

No be me send myself. I be messenger of the god….I don sing everything. And peòple go still dey talk about all de tin wey I talk long, long after I don comot. Na me talk am. Write am down.


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