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17 October 2014

For years, I wondered what Fela Kuti had really done to that man on stage

Suzanne Moore’s weekly column, Telling Tales. 

By Suzanne Moore

It is safe to say that when I saw some guys digging a grave outside the venue, even I twigged this was not to be the usual gig.

I’d had word that Fela Kuti was going to be doing something special. In a tiny club. The place was difficult to find, somewhere in a dark alley in Hampstead.

I had just been to see Fela in Brixton. It was a mighty thing. If you have 27 wives, as he did then, it’s already a lot of people on stage. If you have Tony Allen driving the machine it’s full-on freakpower.

While I was at the bar, Fela’s juju man had cut his own tongue out.

“God, what is he doing?”

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“They’re Nigerian,” said the barman, as though this was to be expected. Another guy beckoned me over. He was with the band, he claimed, and he asked if I wanted to see more of this kind of thing. Obviously I gave him my number. It’s not an offer you get every day.

Then some dumb music journo dared to suggest in a review that the man had not actually cut his tongue out.

This irked Fela, to say the least. He did not like to be disrespected. This was a man who had changed his middle name from Ransome, which he said was a slave name, to Anikulapo, which means “he who carries death in his pouch”; who’d seen his mother thrown out of a window and killed by the military. Fela had delivered his mother’s coffin to the generals’ barracks in Lagos and written a song called “Coffin for Head of State”.

So the Black President did not take a bad review lightly.

To question the integrity of Professor Hindu, his spiritual guide, a man who knew all of the past and all of the future, was not a wise move. This was why I had come to see a demonstration of the Professor’s power.

“Would you like some mushrooms?” said my new friend. Why not? As if things were not strange enough. Fela held court at a table in the middle of the tiny club. Some poor guy had volunteered to be killed and resurrected.

What happened next was odd, lots of stupid card tricks and amateur magic with pocket watches. Then the volunteer was on stage, the Professor slit his throat, and he was carried outside and buried.

What disturbed me most were the card tricks. Why? And being in Belsize Park. It was so posh. We were told that the dead man would be raised up two days later and we could go back for that.

I’d seen enough, and for many years afterwards I wondered about it.

Thankfully, I ran into the legendary writer Vivien Goldman some years back. Not only had she been there, but she’d gone back to see the dead man raised. He’d jumped out of the grave in a suit all covered in earth and propositioned her. “Being buried alive makes you horny,” he exclaimed. That makes sense, when you think about it.