Through an accident—performing a service for a friend of his in London—I was invited to stay in Fela’s house the first time I visited Africa. In 1973 the naira was high, Lagos hotels were expensive as well as bad, and I was not rich, so I accepted. For six weeks or so, off and on, I was treated as a privileged member of Fela’s entourage and spent much time in his company. We were six weeks apart in age, enjoyed one another’s conversation and had many noisy arguments.
Despite the inconvenience of my presence, other members of the very large household eventually tolerated me, and I learned a thing or two. One was that sooner or later I was going to have to amuse people publicly to show that I wasn’t just a bore. ‘You’ve got to go in for Worst Dancer’, people said when they had seen me dance.
Worst Man Dancer, accompanied by Best Woman Dancer, was a late-Friday-night competition at Fela’s Shrine club, then in Surulere. Another turn was a competitive karaoke act by his friends jk and Feelings Lawyer, singing Fela’s current hit Gentleman. The Worst Dancers, often the same three guys, were of course actually very good dancers, good enough to dance comically on purpose. ‘I’m very shy’, I whined. ‘I’m not good enough for Worst Dancer.’ But they were adamant. ‘You’re a natural’, they said unsmilingly. I was to be a good sport. My heart sank.
Well lubricated from the bar and the back yard, I gloomily took the floor with fifty or sixty competitors. Three senior dancing girls moved about the floor and conferred, choosing the finalists. They ignored me. Saved! I headed for the bar in relief. But when Fela announced the finalists’ names he added: ‘It is my privilege, as master of ceremonies, to name a fourth finalist...’ He was chuckling. Shit! I was in the finals. The orchestra revved up and the seven of us took the floor, each dancing alone. One by one, Fela called the finalists on stage to catch the footlights. He left me till last.
Late Friday night at the Shrine was always one of the world’s most mind-blowing musical experiences. Fela’s original sound, of which one often hears echoes these days in other people’s music, and to which no recording has ever done justice, had a uniquely magisterial, scowling grandeur. At full volume, ten feet in front of the whole orchestra and surrounded by its speakers, the sound would pick you up and flog you around like a housewife dusting a doormat. That’s what it felt like when it was my turn to cut loose for the audience. I mean, I was really dancing well.