Sunday, October 17, 2021

Rivalry, comradeship, loyalty define Fela’s Kalakuta Queens

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Jaafar Jaafar
Jaafar Jaafar is a graduate of Mass Communication from Bayero University, Kano. He was a reporter at Daily Trust, an assistant editor at Premium Times and now the editor-in-chief of Daily Nigerian.
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Jazz musician, ‘Laitan Adeniji Heavywind as Fela with Bunmi Olunloyo as Queen Naa Lamile (first left) and other ladies in Fela and the Kalakuta Queens

Certain elements easily come into sharp focus long before the celebratory performance of Fela and the Kalakuta Queens at Terra Kulture Arena, Lagos, comes to a heady close. Rivalry in a harem, comradeship for a common cause, and intense loyalty to a lover and father-figure; these were what marked the life of the women who flocked around Fela. They were ordinary and sophisticated women who came from different backgrounds and pledged their lives to a man whose personality was the embodiment of martyrdom. In spite of the many troubles Fela had with the law and those who were bent on subverting the uncomfortable truths he unearthed with brute force, these women courageously stayed on,

Fela and the Kalakuta Queens is the reincarnation show of the late maverick music maestro, Fela Anikulapo. Here was, (indeed, is) a redoubtable man, and perhaps spirit, who singlehandedly defied and shamed the military and civilian establishments, with his fiery personality, unrelenting yabis, music and lifestyle, along with his many women-turned-wives (27 of them) and came out on top. Performed by ‘Laitan Adeniji Heavywind, Fela could not have had a better incarnate portraying him.

And Bolanle Austin-Peters (BAP) Productions also outdid itself to create the ambience of Fela’s Afrikan Shrine. Entering into the tunnel that leads into the theatre is a realistic recreation of the iconic shrine of Fela.

After 20 shows, BAP Productions has extended the performance dates by four more shows to this weekend ‘by popular demand’ to give Lagosians, who haven’t seen the show, another opportunity before the Christmas and New Year holiday production phase ends.

In Fela and the Kalakuta Queens is a reenactment of life at the boisterous household or commune of Fela. With Fela’s daughter, Yeni, one or two of Fela’s wives and a few others who knew Fela firsthand helping out in coaching Adeniji Heavywind and the girls, what comes across is as close a realistic portraiture of Fela as can possibly be done. Fela’s is a household of laughter and pranks, of the women constantly scheming for Fela’s attention to share his bed. But it is also more than these; it is a household of hard work and Fela is the disciplinarian, who instills hard work ethics on his women and paid them for it.

But above these also, it is a household of suffering. Fela is the ultimate one-man opposition squad to the powers-that-be. Government and those who subvert the system hate Fela with a passion. In fact, it is the scene that opens the show. Fela bursts in when two of the women are bickering over soap and almost comes to blows. He sets up court, as is his fashion, and finds lawyers for both women; he declares both of them guilty and pronounces sentences on them. They are not to come near his much-prized bed, fondly called ‘Felacondo’ for a period of time. It is perhaps the mainstay of Fela’s mystique for the women; it is the worst pariah to suffer.

And so ‘Thief thief’ song ensues from this trial, with the dichotomy between the common thief and the ‘bigman’ thief being acted out. While the poor man who steals ordinary bread to stave off hunger is heckled and mobbed, the rich thief is in his air-conditioner office busy stealing the people blind and getting away with his loot; the people become the worse for his thievery that is of epic proportion.

Perhaps the climax comes at the point, where near being broken, long after ‘unknown soldiers’ burnt down his house, beat up and raped his women, his mother thrown down to her death and he is out of sorts, he still attempts to make music. But the chords and beats fail to get the desired harmony and he turns to his women and tries to rouse them up. But everything falls flat; then the women speak up for themselves, how they are called prostitutes and derided just because they follow him. For once Fela is crestfallen and runs out of ideas how to assuage the hurt society has inflicted on his backbones. Then one of his aids, ID comes up with the marriage proposition and Fela exclaims, ‘You’re a motherfucking genius!”

The show ends with the favourite song, “Water no get enemy,’ as if the man who dared mighty forces decided to make peace for once.

Fela had women from far and near. Queen Naa Lamile, a Ghanaian, was among them. Playing Lamile is lawyer-turned dancer, Bunmi Olunloyo, who offered insight into the Fela mystique and the entire production value. Olunloyo describes her character as “well educated, strong, brave, sophisticated and ready to do anything for Fela. She is generally warm and kindhearted but will strike if there is trouble. She is certainly one of the leading ladies in his life.”

According to her, the production experience has been nothing but “amazing” as she has “never done anything so hectic. This is a true-life story where we have to recreate true-life personalities. You have to deliver 150 per cent.

“I have to deliver the lines of a Ghanaian lady. The challenge was not to fall back to my Nigerian ascent; it was hard staying in the Ghanaian ascent all through. It took a lot of time. It has been mentally exhausting; hard but you have to deliver.”

Although a dancer, who doesn’t see herself as an actress, Olunloyo confessed that “it was a great opportunity to play a big role” in the Fela project. She has been in past BAP Productions like Saro and Wakaa, which also had the same set of women performers in them. And she said it has been easy for them to fit neatly into the Fela and the Kalakuta Queen project.

According to her, “It has been all about working together and not difficult; it’s been about getting into character. We all work together.”

Also, the dancer is full of praises for ‘Fela,’ Adeniji Heavywind. Although a jazz musician, who plays the saxophone like Fela he is also coming into acting for the first time. She noted she was yet to work with a more professional artist like him.

“He’s one of the most professional human beings I’ve worked with,” she enthused, adding, “He just knows how to work with women; his personality makes it easy. We just naturally gravitate towards him. He is really incredible, fantastic guy.”

She stressed the focus of the performance, noting that it really should be seen from the standpoint of Fela’s women, who were demonised as prostitutes and ostracised by family and friends for their unconventional lifestyle in consorting with an equally unconventional man.

And Olunloyo said, “I won’t lie to you, it was all crazy, but you can’t judge them. They were comfortable being with Fela. It was the only lifestyle they knew. Fela was their father, teacher and mentor. He taught them about hard work, the consequences of action; he shaped them. It was dodgy but they liked it.

“So, it was a different story from all the women. Lamile was educated, but rebellious. Fela was a powerful man who rebelled against government; he had something going. I think we should all look at the positive side of Fela. I find it all intriguing and unconventional and it worked for them.”

Olunloyo has Bailamos Dance Company based in Lekki, Lagos; she has done stage productions like Pain, Passion and Pleasure and Fight. Although she is looking to do more productions, she said she couldn’t do so without support, and noted that sponsorship is still a major headache for stage production activities in the country.

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