This article was originally published in Mean Magazine (October 1999), with art direction by Camille Rose Garcia, and an overview of Fela’s catalog by Michael Veal; the main article text, and sidebars, were later reprinted in full in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 book (thank you Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick). Main article text is online here: http://www.arthurmag.com/2009/11/02/fela-king-of-the-invisible-art
by Jay Babcock
Best known for his work with Cream, Ginger Baker is one of the all-time great drummers, a versatile master at ease in a number of the world’s drumming traditions. He also has a reputation as an imposing interview subject. Still, at his wife’s recommendation, I called Ginger at his South African home at 7am, interrupting his morning bath. Here’s how the conversation went.
Q: When did you meet Fela?
Ginger Baker: I knew Fela since the very early ’60s, when he was at the World College of
Music. He used to play trumpet, and come and sit in the all-night jams which I played in… 1960-61… I went to Nigeria in 1970, that’s when I saw Fela again. I [inaudible] there from 1970 to 1976…
I’m sorry, did you say you were living there during that time?
[voice rising] I lived in Nigeria from 1970 until 1976!
[pause] Uh. Okay. What can you tell me about making the record with Fela?
Absolutely nothing. [pause] That was a combination of a lot of things before it, that we made the record, and a lot of things after it. It wasn’t just a one-off thing, I mean I did a five-week tour with Fela’s band when
Tony Allen was ill.
“Oh, okay.” Yes. ISN’T THAT FUCKING AMAZING? “How extraordinary!” Fucking, man…
When did you do that?
During the period I was in Nigeria! Do you think I keep a diary and write things down?!?
No, I’m just trying to get it straight—
Between 1970 and 1975! That five-year period.
Okay…um…some people say…How much of Fela’s sound, do you think, came from James Brown, and how much of it was his own thing?
100% of it was his own thing. Completely his own thing. Absolutely nothing to do with James Brown.
Fela blew James Brown off the stage when he came to Nigeria.
“Whu-whu-ohmygawd-whoa-have I got a story here!” Fuck, man. You’re talking to someone who [inaud] here.
[pause] Um. When did they play together? Do you remember the circumstances? Was it a big stadium show—
I can’t remember, exactly. You’ll have to check it out. I’m sure you’ve got records you can check out.
Um…so how did [drummer] Tony Allen work with Fela?
Tony Allen tuned the band up. Virtually in charge of the whole situation.
But the arrangements for the songs were Fela’s?
That was Fela.
So you were there in Nigeria when Fela had an incredible band.
That was the best band he ever had. The very first band had a tenor player called Igo Chiko…before Fela played tenor, Igo Chiko was the tenor player, who was pretty fucking cool. He had a row with Fela and left the band and that’s when Fela took up tenor saxophone. [pause] The band with Igo Chiko was THE happening band.
And that’s the band you recorded with?
That’s the band I toured with too.
So Tony was ill and you filled in for him?
Yeah, Tony was sick.
How did that work out?
It was terrible, I got fired every night, they threw eggs and bottles at me and told me to fuck off cuz I was a white man.
What do you think?!? No, of course it was FUCKING ALRIGHT! OTHERWISE I WOULDN’T HAVE DONE IT!
[pause] Well. I mean, had you been sitting in with the band much prior to that?
Yes I had, I used to sit in regularly with the band because people used to ask me to, especially Fela. Fela and I were very, very good friends. You know…Fela got very political. His music, instead of being humorous,
became very political and he upset the Nigerian Army, which is not a good thing to do. [long pause]
Right. I’m pretty familiar with the politics, as much as I can be from reading these books and—
No, I don’t think most people know everything that went down that led up to that event. I know more of it than most people. I mean, there were a whole load of events that lead up to it. It wasn’t suddenly… The Nigerians got very, very worried about Fela. The Kalakuta Party held a political rally in Lagos City Stadium and got 250,000 people there!
That’s the thing that’s so hard to grasp, isn’t it, how extremely popular he was, and how radical. But was it simply an anti-corruption thing for him, or was he a socialist—
No. I blame the people who were around Fela at the time. Fela himself was an incredibly humorous, wonderful fellow. Some pretty radical people got very close to Fela. I think they mis-advised him some. I really believe Fela could have become president…How good a president he would’ve been, I don’t know. I mean, how good a president would I be? [laughter] He took a couple of wrong turns, that, to me, were very un-Fela-like. It really wasn’t like Fela. It was the committee…We used to sit round a table the shape of
Africa. Called The African Table. And I was on that committee for two years.
So as Fela got more popular—
They got over-confident. Several of Fela’s people heavily provoked the military, yes. Not a very good idea in a place like Nigeria.
Bill [Laswell] told me [see sidebar interview] Nigeria was one of the most corrupt, evil places on the face of the earth…
Absolute rubbish. Absolute rubbish. When I mentioned this, when I was in Ghana, about the corruption, the reply I received was, ‘Where do you think we learnt it?’ The British government is the most corrupt government in the world. Or it used to be. I think the American government is now the most corrupt government in the world. And if you don’t think that, if you can’t see that, then there’s something wrong with you. [pause] Corruption in Africa is on a finer scale compared to the corruption in the United States
or the United Kingdom. They cover it up pretty well, they’re not quite so open about it. That is the fact.
Well…um…what about the harassment by the military, by the police?
Harassment of Fela? [chuckling] The harassment was a two-way thing.
Really? What do you mean?
Well, you know, Fela won a court case against the Nigerian police where he won a lot of money, when his house was first raided, when they came to arrest the underage girls that Fela had just married…
…And there were other times when he embarrassed the police?
Pretty much so, yeah. Some of it was very cleverly done. After the police thing, Fela got really angry about the army being on traffic duty with whips. And he brought out a record called Zombie. That was the period when things started going awry. I think I had left Nigeria by this time.
See, Fela was in the same position I am. There’s an awful lot of stories, exaggerated, done by people like you…[laughs]…tend to get things arse about face, you’ve probably got everything I’ve said arse about face…
[Nervous laugh] I’m getting it all on tape, Ginger, I don’t want to misquote you…
Yeah, but when you edit the tape, you could come up with…I’ve had it done to me so many times. Fela has, too. Really, Fela was a wonderfully nice fellow, you know, who was EXTREMELY popular. He was far more popular than James Brown in Africa by a country mile. I don’t mean ‘slightly.’ Fela was an incredibly popular fellow, and his music was incredible, especially, you know, in that period of the early ’70s.
What did he have that his competitors didn’t?
He didn’t have any competitors. [laughs] There was nobody doing what Fela was doing. It was just…heh…you had to go to Fela’s club to see that. You didn’t see anybody that wasn’t moving. The whole place was jumping. He had several clubs-the Afro-Spot, the Shrine, various places. One stunt he
used to do…when the Shrine was on the opposite side of the main Lagos road, they would close the road before the gig, and cause a traffic jam for miles in both directions. [laughs] Completely block up Lagos. When Fela was ready to go to the gig he’d go across the road on a donkey, with all the girls and the band in a procession. And every time he did a gig they’d stop Lagos’ traffic from moving. Completely. The whole of Lagos. This was a couple of times a week. The shows would go for hours. Two sets a night. If I was around, they insisted that I sat in.
The favorite number everyone wanted me to play with Fela was “Gentleman.” You ever hear that? That was when Fela was at his peak! It was humorous stuff. Fela had an incredible sense of humor, and [it was when] he was doing his tongue in cheek humorous stuff was when he was really hugely popular. He then started to get too political in his music…Well, it upset a lot of the band. Cuz the band were all, they were just like musicians. They were getting scared, is what happened. A lot of those really good players, you know, gave it up eventually because it was getting very heavy. Ask Tony Allen. [laughs]
In the movie you made [Ginger Baker: In Africa], when you meet up with Fela, he just looks like the most generous, sweetest, good-humored person…when he comes out the door and is greeting you all in his underpants—
[laughing] Fela lived in his underpants. He used to get dressed to go onstage, but most of the time Fela walked around in his underpants.
It just looked like he was always in his underpants. And always smoking something.
Yeah, well, that was the whole thing of the Kalakuta Party, it was a smokers’ party, which is why the government was so anti the thing.
What did he smoke?
Marijuana. Natural Nigerian grass. NNG. You know, most people in Africa-most of the population smoke—but it’s illegal.
I’ve seen a few videos of Fela live…he’s really yelling at the band, making sharp motions—
Fela was…ah… Have you ever been to Africa?
Well, you need to. [laughs]
Yeah, see, I don’t know if he was being playful, or if he was serious—
Fela could get very, very angry…All musicians get pissed off, eventually. Fela was a very nice man is what I’m trying to tell you. Very humorous fellow, just great fun to be around…