Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports on a recent seeming insignificant event at Freedom Park which has the potential to resolve a long-standing conflict and enrich the Afrobeat environment in Nigeria
Dede and the Underground System
When word went out that Afrobeat musician and Thespian, Dede Mabiaku would perform at the Freedom Park, Lagos on the bill of its Big Band Friday, not a few saw it as a mighty step towards reconciling the musician with his estranged friends, Yeni and Femi, the children of Afrobeat god, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who Dede openly adores.
There’s been no love lost between the erstwhile friends since Fela passed about 20 years ago. Dede has kept his distance from the Fela estate, only maintaining a cordial relationship with Seun, Fela’s youngest son. However, his recent show at Freedom Park suggests that there is an unfolding banner of peace being unveiled by an influential figure who is respected by all concerned. This towering personality is none other than Mr. Theo Lawson, Yeni’s consort who is also chairman of the annual activities of tribute in honour of Fela’s memory known as Felabration. Lawson, an architect is credited with transforming Fela’s former residence into a museum. He also converted the former colonial prison on Broad Street, Lagos to an increasingly popular hub for cultural activities now known as Freedom Park.
Getting Dede to perform at Freedom Park, where Femi had celebrated his birthday and performed as well two weeks apart was quite some feat on the path of Lawson and it shows the newfound maturity all the parties have adopted to manage the degenerating relationship. The feuding friends are all over 55 years, and may have had more time to reflect on the prevailing circumstances with a view to making some restitutions.
To have Yeni’s presence at Dede’s show may very well be a good sign that a compromise, of sorts, moderated by Lawson has begun. At Felabration 2016, Daddy Showkey had triggered a response from Femi which many interpreted to mean that he still haboured ill-feelings for Dede. Reacting to Showkey’s plea that he would like to see Dede perform at Felabration, Femi said that organisers of Felabration do not pay anyone to perform at the event. “We just mention Fela’s name and people come to offer themselves.” Dede had earlier said that he had not been invited to perform at Felabration.
However, Yeni denied any disaffection towards Dede. She said, “Nobody is fighting him (Dede). If I was fighting him, I will not be here. Last year, he as at the Fela Symposium., he greeted Femi and Femi responded. We don’t have a problem with him.”
Dede’s Big Band Friday performance has elicited hopes that a settlement with Yeni and Femi is possible. Dede gave a hint that he was open to the reunion when he acknowledged Yeni’s presence. “I hear that the Iyalaje, the Iya Gbangba of the Kuti clan is here. I have not seen her. Many years ago we were very close. We used to dance together at the Shrine. When Fela was in Ikoyi Prison we would take food to him together.” He further addressed Yeni directly, “Tonight, you are here to see my band and I perform for the first time.” He also asked after Dotun, Prof. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti’s son and Yeni’s cousin. But he was not at the show.
It was one of the few recognition of audience members. The other salutation from the stage went out to Monsieur Paschal, a Frenchman who is well-known in the Nigerian culture circle and appreciated for his support for Nigerian arts. He was 66 years that night.
Understandably, Dede was challenged that the venue was populated by Afrobeat fans, many of who know themselves as friends and acquaintances. Paying more respect would have meant going into a long list of personalities who all deserved a mention. He had earlier celebrated Fela as the greatest African, speaking of him in present tense and reminding everyone that Fela had said he would never die. With that understanding, one would have thought it appropriate that his first song would be his self-penned, ‘Fela Lives’, but he made it his second offering. Instead he launched out with Fela’s ‘Water No Get Enemy’, explaining the nostalgia behind his choice. He said it was the first Fela song that he performed at the Afrikan Shrine. Dede has stamped his peculiarity on that song by always preceding the original lyrics with a few minutes of minute of scat singing, his unique vocal improvisation that never fails to draw the audience in and hold them till the end of the song.
Perhaps, due to Dede’s bias for the horns, the wind instruments sounded like they were more prominent in the arrangement. As he played on the saxophone and also took lead vocal, projecting another horns player on sessions of solo exhibition showed his clear preference, but hey, even God has His Sovereign choice!
Allowing time selection for the animosity between the contending friends to decrease and fizzle out naturally is what Lawson wishes for. He said, “They are adults and I believe they can be reconciled, but it has to be in their own time. However, those who are going to tell this person what the other said in order to draw scathing responses are not helping matters. Everyone around them wishes that they can put all these behind them. The media is guilty of fuelling this misunderstanding.”
The management of Freedom Park has succeeded in bridging formal and informal moods at its events. Guests were welcomed to the food court area and had the option of dining and drinking while listening to super mixes, mainly of Fela’s music by DJ Raymond Bola Browne who owns an online radio, Brownehill Radio on the premises of Freedom Park. As soon as the main show was ready to kick-off with the opening act, the Freedom Five, an in-house band of Freedom Park, Browne gently persuaded guests to change base to main stage arena where Dede was going to perform. More people moved closer to the big stage when the show entered into high gear and Dede took the microphone before he allowed an interlude which showcased a promising young lady, Oyemi.
High Chief Gift Eke, better known as Muma Gee, political activist and journalist, Yinka Odumakin, showbiz promoter, Wale Oluwaleimu and Chinenye Obiukwu of Brownehille Radio who sat together with this reporter on the front-row, like many members of the audience were enthusiastic participants as Dede stopped between songs to throw a jibe or two on national or global issues; whether current or past. He also asked what song the audience wanted to enjoy. Muma said watching Dede perform took her into a different plane, even as her eyes were fixed on action on the stage. For instance, Dede took the audience back to the Monica Lewinsky episode involving former American President Bill Clinton. His narrative of that occurrence was both caustic and funny, but he was only preparing his audience to listen to his understanding of the multitude of talk-shop in Nigeria and around the world. He concluded that these conferences, seminars, workshops and debates have not come up with a solution to the myriads of problems. To him, the outcome “na pentuka e be”, meaning, the result of those talk-shops were useless. The title of the song, ‘Talku Talku Too Much’ (TTTM), conveyed the hopelessness of the situation. The rhythm of the giant conga drum on this tune struck a semblance to the beat on Fela’s Big Blind Country (BBC). So; it was not surprising when Dede went on to perform BBC, albeit by popular demand. It was beginning to look like the confusion will go away when the show ended as Dede sat on the same table with Yeni and their friends to exchange banters. The atmosphere was quite warm and free of tension. Throughout the duration of the show, Yeni had kept a straight face, applauding the artiste on stage at intervals. With the show over, she pushed away the lackluster mien and displayed excellent warmth and courtesies. The challenge now before Lawson is to take the next logical step by creating a common ground for Femi and Dede. The Dede show at Freedom Park was a promising outing for the artiste who had gone to town to invite his friends to see him on stage. Perhaps, the management of Freedom Park could look at the possibility of a dedicated monthly show for Dede. The audience looked like they wanted more. And Dede could use the opportunity to grow a committed fan base; play more of his self-penned songs and gain the confidence to do what everyone has been asking of him-release a full body of works-an occurrence that will definitely enrich the Afrobeat environment in Nigeria. Imagine the energy if Femi and Dede were to share the same stage.