Remembering Fela, an interview with Carlos Moore

[caption id="attachment_279" align="alignnone" width="558" caption="Carlos Moore and Lindsey Barrett, Abuja, October 2010"][/caption]

This interview (between myself and Carlos Moore) appeared in the Guardian (Nigeria) a couple of weeks ago. I can't find it online anywhere, so I've republished it below. It seems a fitting way to wish Carlos well as he leaves Nigeria today. Might I recommend you listen to this as you read it.

"Fela Anikulapo Kuti was James Brown, Huey Newton, Rick James, Bob Marley, Duke Ellington and ODB all rolled up in one black African fist.”  Mos Def’s summary of Fela almost captures it, save to say that temporally speaking, Fela is still here.  His legacy grows more powerful by the day.  The Broadway musical funded by Jay-Z has brought a crossover audience to Broadway in unprecedented numbers.  Bands like Antibalas keep the Afrobeat flag waving in the breeze, while both Femi and Seun lead the genre in new directions.  Meanwhile, the long-rumoured biopic is finally underway, with a script written by Biyi Bandele and Chewetel Ejiofor cast as the lead.  By the time the film is out, Fela should be on a par with Bob Marley in terms of global recognition.

It’s fitting that the authorised biography of Africa’s musical genius, Fela: This Bitch of a Life, is finally being republished after 28 years. The reader is invited to the living room of Felaʼs iconoclastic mind, discovering from the inside the key turning points in his life – his childhood in Abeokuta and the forceful influence of his parents, especially his mother; student life in England; his coming to black consciousness in America (and his encounters with Funk and some of the key players in African-American musical and political culture); his return to Nigeria and setting up the Shrine and Kalakuta Republic and his increasingly painful struggles with the authorities in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s. Reading about Fela brings to life post-Independence African history in all its turbulence and drama. The book also includes interviews with some of Felaʼs wives, allowing the reader to get an intimate perspective on Fela as a husband and as a lover.

To celebrate the publication, the author and close friend of Fela’s, Dr Carlos Moore, will be touring Nigeria this October.  Born in Cuba in 1942, Dr Moore is an ethnologist and political scientist. He has two doctorates from the University of Paris.   His life-long interest in African, Latin American and Caribbean politics and culture resulted in various posts at universities worldwide and many academic studies on race and ethnicity. From 1970 to 1983, Moore worked as political analyst for Agence France-Presse and the Weekly Jeune Afrique. He was was a research assistant to the Senegalese scholar and scientist, Cheikh Anta Diop (from 1975 to 1980). In 1987, he convened the “First International Conference on Negritude,” at Florida International University (FIU), in Miami, in homage of Aimé Cesaire. Dr Moore resides permanently in Brazil with his family and divides his time between lectures in the US and his life-long research on race relations in Latin America.  With just a few weeks left to his visit, I caught up with Dr Moore by email, and took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

What is your fondest memory of Fela?

CM: Fela and I interacted for a decade, therefore it is hard to decide which of the moments we shared was the most significant to me. I have many beautiful memories of our relationship. But I will tell you which of those moments touched me particularly. It came when we were doing the interviews for the book that was to become This Bitch of a Life. I remember the moment vividly when he broke down and cried when he told me the story of his mother’s death and how he missed her. Fela was not a person to show emotions. Like most of us, he felt it was unmanly to cry. So when he did, I felt the closest to him. He had allowed himself the liberty to be simply human; not a macho trapped in gender role-playing. I appreciate men who allow themselves to cry. So, I found that to be the most authentic moment we shared.

What is your favourite Fela song and why?

CM: Even to this day, the Fela song that moves me most is “When Trouble Sleep, Yanga Wake Am.” I find it to be one of his most tender compositions. It speaks of his love for the common men and women of society. It is nostalgic and beautiful! It really appeals to my soul. Ranking alongside it, as my favourite, is “Army Arrangement.” These are two completely different songs, in fact opposites. But, taken together, they define the polarities within which Fela constructed his adult life once he became politically and socially conscious: i.e. a deep love for the ordinary people, and a profound disdain for the ruling classes.

If you could ask Fela one more question, what would it be?
CM: I would ask him a question I did not ask him during our last interactions, which were tense. I told him in no uncertain terms that I disagreed completely with the direction his philosophy was taking under the influence of Professor Hindu. He got angry with me and felt I was underestimating “African science.” So, my question would be: “How could you, Fela, have been so gullible to believe in a quack magician like Professor Hindu? How could you have thrown logic to the winds to such a tragic extent?” As a result of the Hindu episode, Fela and I had a big fallout. We had had many fall-outs before that, but that was the biggest.

What do you think Fela would make of Nigeria @ 50?

CM: The same social, political and cultural ills that Fela denounced and fought against thirty years ago are still with us. So, I believe he would have looked at the past fifty years of independence as five decades in which the ruling elites of Nigeria destroyed the opportunity they had to turn this country into a liveable, progressive and democratic country. Fela would have seen the past fifty years as years of great waste of the creative genius and developmental energy of the various peoples who make up Nigeria.

What do you think about Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Fela in the upcoming biopic?

CM: I do not know him as an actor or as a person. I´ve only heard his name. So I cannot voice any opinion regarding his capacity to portray someone as complex as Fela. If he was chosen for that role, then there must be good reasons for that choice. So, I wish him well.

Femi or Seun?

CM: I believe that Femi has attempted to carve out another route for Afro-beat, different from the one Fela opened. That´s valid. Femi is a very creative person. He is not trying to duplicate Fela. He plays his own music and let people judge it for what it is worth. Seun? I am not that familiar with Seun´s music because he started much later than Femi. I believe that he too is looking for his own way. Thus far, he seems to be interested in respecting the musical strictures laid down by Fela. That’s his right. But that may be a phase. Who knows? Seun is young and can move in any given direction still. He could end up opening still another alternative avenue for Afro-beat, just as Fela did with the music that came before him. Isn’t that what artists are about?

You were born in Cuba but have lived most of your life outside the country.  Could you ever imagine living there again?

CM: No, I am not necessarily interested in living in Cuba again. Having lived all over the world for four decades has made me a multi-cultural animal that can hardly fit again in the monochromatic mental structures of what is called Cuban culture. For one, I have outgrown the prejudices and beliefs to which most Cubans still adhere. For instance, I am everything but a chauvinistic nationalist and I detest xenophobia. But Cubans are both to an incredible extent.  The regime’s slogan says that it practices “internationalism”, but it actually promotes an extreme form of chauvinism whereby Cubans are led to believe that they are superior to other peoples, especially those of the rest of the black Caribbean. Then, I do not see how I could ever accommodate the primitive and crass racism that is rampant in Cuba. Lastly, there are other issues that are not specific to Cuba, but to which I am resolutely opposed - sexism, homophobia, ideological intolerance, etc. These have become so pronounced in Cuba that they are like a national religion. I could visit Cuba now and then, but not stay to live for good. I believe I would asphyxiate culturally and morally. However, my wife, Ayeola, does want us to live there permanently. So, even in terms of my marriage, Cuba is a disrupting factor (laugh).

You live in Bahia, Brazil.  Tell us about how the people of Bahia relate to Nigeria.

CM: The major religion among African-Brazilians of Bahia is Candomblé, which is of Nago origin. Therefore, black Brazilians (who constitute about 55% of the population) relate strongly to Nigeria on religious grounds. But then there is the culinary culture of Bahia, which, once again, is of Yoruba origin. Most of the traditional dishes of Bahia are of Nigerian origin. Lastly, there is the song and dance, and the taste for vivid colours, which are also derived from the aesthetic preferences that are dominant in Nigeria. So, Nigeria is very present in the day-to-day lives of the Bahian people and African-Brazilians at large.

What are you looking forward to on your forthcoming trip to Nigeria?

CM I will be looking to renew my acquaintance with many dear old friends; those people who guided my first steps in Africa and offered me the warmth of their friendship. People like Ola Balogun, Lindsay Barrett, MD Yusufu, Jab Adu … I am also looking to show my wife - who will be on her first visit there - the place where I experienced some of the most exhilarating, most joyful and most fulfilling moments of my entire life. The period that I lived in Nigeria with my family, in the early 70s, will forever remain in my consciousness as an emotional landmark. It was the first time I had set foot on the land from which my ancestors were forcibly taken away as slaves as recently as two centuries ago. I will never forget that first time when I arrived in Lagos and walked around the markets, strolled through the crowded streets, and mingled with the ordinary people. I saw the poverty, the destitution, the despair. And at the same time, I knew that my soul had been touched and that something deep in my consciousness had shifted for good. But the Nigeria that touched me deeply was certainly not the Nigeria of the ruling elites. It was the Nigeria of the common people. That is why I understood Fela immediately and bonded with him, because he was aligned with these people.

If you could sum up Fela’s legacy in a few sentences, what would you say?

CM: A Rebel with a cause that was worthy. A contradictory man who most of the time managed to rise to heights of social awareness that are uncommon. Certainly, he was a very courageous and honest person. Fela left us  a legacy of uncompromising opposition to corruption, dictatorship and class snobbery. In one word: he left behind a legacy of dedication to the e uplift of the common woman and man. He shall forever be remembered for that, despite his many inconsistencies.  The truth is that I miss Fela a lot. In many ways, he was our conscience.


  • what was the cause of fela’s death

    Posted by nkechi on March 31, 2011
  • […] Remembering Fela is an interview with the author and close friend of Fela’s, Dr Carlos Moore. Born in Cuba in 1942, Dr Moore is an ethnologist and political scientist. […]

    Posted by Global Voices in English » Nigeria: Remembering Fela on October 21, 2010

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