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Part 24 - Ghariokwu Lemi: Fela Kuti And Me

Chris May By

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"The cover art for Zombie is a bold collage of guerrilla reportage photographs, using a cut-up technique. The dynamism of this idea is a fitting vehicle for what is perhaps the most provocative of Fela's classic albums. Fela wrote 'Zombie' in 1976, having been several times harassed by military personnel. The then military government in Nigeria had, amongst other objectionable things, instructed soldiers to horsewhip erring drivers on the highway, in an on-the-spot meting out of punishment. The soldiers carried out this order with a dumb obedience suggestive of real zombies in action.

"The instant Fela composed the song, everyone, including some military personnel from the nearby Albati Barracks, fell in love with the catchy rhythm, and the martial tempo, which galvanized the dancers, who wouldn't let the song end. Fela's cheeky reprise of the army bugle call got them jumping and whooping with joy at being able to mock the oppressors they feared and despised. The song became an anthem of protest for students and workers. A weapon of sorts, which they chanted under their breath anytime they felt oppressed by military personnel.

"When the time came for me to do the cover art for this landmark song, I at first found myself unable to focus on the right idea. I was overwhelmed with different ways of graphically expressing the song. The breakthrough came just in time one Kalakuta morning, when Fela was asking how the sleeve was coming along. At that moment, Tunde Kuboye, a photographer, film maker and jazz musician, and the husband of Fela's niece, Frances, walked in. He was carrying a bunch of his recent photographs, taken at the Independence Day military parade in Tafawa Balewa Square.

"I think that sometimes the universe provides material when I need something really badly for my art. Tunde walked in at the right time with those amazing photographs. As we checked them out, I couldn't hold back my excitement as I recognized the fortuitous materials I had been craving in my spirit. I just exclaimed 'Aaaahhh, this na wetin ah go use for the cover, men-n!'

"With Tunde's permission, I selected ten military images, and a few of Fela. I was set on making a graphic collage on this cover. Back in my studio, I laid a cardboard matte on my drawing board and edited Tunde's ten shots down to four.

"I remember that at that moment I was feeling like a shaman. I was trying to see how they fit, and as I put them down, the pictures just dropped into a position reminiscent of an Ifa divination—without conscious effort on my part. Quickly, not wanting to take any chances, I fitted the pictures down with masking tape, then traced their position in pencil. Spreading the Cow Gum from its red tube, I overlapped the photos and deftly cut and pasted them down. Thereafter using a hard paintbrush and thick poster color paint, I wrote in freehand the album title, Fela's name and that of the band directly over the picture, outlining the result with a Rotring pen. Finally, I added the shadows.

"The sleeve was like a solid shadow of the song and was an instant hit at Kalakuta, in Nigeria, Africa and around the world. Its immediacy led new listeners to wonder what lay on the inviting vinyl inside. For the initiated, it told the story of life under an oppressive military dictatorship—and what it takes to come through feeling that you're still somehow in command of your destiny. Like the mighty Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, fearless in admonishing the guilty ones here.

"I sometimes get into a reverie and spin back my life's time-capsule to the golden days of the 1970s: the great times I had with friends and accomplices trying out a little naughtiness and rascality, and maybe some criminality, the moment we were let out of the sight and control of our parents or guardians. And here I was in Kalakuta every day of the year, visiting with my mentor and patron and doing some reasoning—occasions when we sometimes delivered judgement on the evils being perpetrated by the establishment.

"Yes, it was the best of all times to be a soul rebel and a youth radical. [Photo shows Lemi, centre, with Mabinuori Idowu, left, and Durotimi Ikujenyo, the three founder members of the activist group the Young African Pioneers, at YAP's launch at the Shrine in 1976. 'The three musketeers,' says Lemi. 'Fela was the don dada.']

"Fela wanted me to learn to smoke. He had been nudging me for quite a while, and sometimes in a mischievous way. 'How can my artist be drinking Fanta Fanta Fanta? Lemi you have to smoke igbo [weed], men-n!!!' That was it. The master had marked his territory and the acolyte had to go through a paradigm shift.

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