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
Lester Bowie, who died Nov. 8, 1999 of complications from liver cancer, was one of America’s most acclaimed trumpet players and jazz composers. He is best known for his work with the adventurous avant garde troupe Art Ensemble of Chicago. Less than two months before Lester joined the great orchestra on the other side, I was privileged to visit the great lab-coated trumpeter at his Brooklyn home. As we shared half a watermelon, Lester recalled his 1977 trip to Nigeria…
Lester Bowie: I’d always wanted to go to Africa. The Art Ensemble of Chicago had been trying to get to Africa for years. So after one of our European tours, I had enough money for a one-way ticket to Nigeria and I think I had a hundred dollars. I didn’t know anybody there, no idea about anything. The hotel in Lagos where I was ended up staying at, the restaurant’s waiter found out I didn’t know anyone, and he says, “Well what you need to do is go see Fela.” And I told him I ain’t never heard of this Fela before. And he said, “Well just get in a taxi cab and say, ‘Take me to Fela.’ Everybody knows where Fela is.”
So the very next morning I get in a taxi cab and tell him to take me to Fela. The guy takes me to this Crossroads Hotel where Fela had really taken over. The cab pulled up into the courtyard and I got out. I had my horn with me and a couple of photos and records and so on, and this little guy comes up to me and said, “Well, you’re a musician?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “What instrument do you play?” I says, “Trumpet.” He says, “Well, You must be pretty heavy. What kind of music do you play?” I says, “Jazz.” He says, “You must be pretty heavy then.” I says, “Well, you know, a little bit.” He says, “Well you come to the right place.” I say, “Why is that?” He says, “Cuz we the baddest band in Africa!” [laughter]
Fela was asleep. So he took me to a room and said, ‘We’ll get Fela up.’ Fela got up and we talked for a minute. He said, “Ah Lester Bowie, you’re from the Chicago Art Ensemble.” I say, “Yeah that’s right.” And then he tells this guy to bring in a record player. And he tells this other guy, “Bring me my horn.” The record was one that just had a rhythm section, so he figured we’d play along with that. So I just blew. I didn’t know anybody in the town, I was playing my heart out there! So after I play about two [verses], Fela says, “STOP! Stop. Go get his bags. He’s moving in!” [laughter] And I stayed there I think for about six months.
I stayed as an honored guest, so I was treated with the same respect as Fela was treated with. He said, “I’ll show you how to be an African man. You want to be an African bandleader? I’ll show you what it’s about.” And he showed me what it was about! They’d bring us food. Nobody else could eat until we finished. Which I wasn’t used to, but I just played it off like, you know, ‘Cool with me too!’ [laughter] He showed me about all the wives. He had eight wives at that time. At that same time, I was believing I should have more than one wife. At the time I was getting divorced, I was between marriages. I thought the best thing for me to do was have a couple of wives. But after I stayed with Fela for that time, I saw that one was better! [laughs]
I told him, “Fela, you’ve got too many women. You don’t have time to put into practice. You want to get into jazz, it takes time, you know. You’ve got to practice. You can’t just be mediating arguments about who get the clothes or who get to drive this or do that. Fela had about 50 people around him, and he was responsible for ’em. He was the chief, so they would come to him with ALL their problems. Anything, he’d have to solve anything. There were people comin’ in off the streets asking for money all the time. And Fela, you have to realize, there was always 10 to 15 people around him but him and I were sitting there having a private conversation like you and I are right now. He always had a court around him… He was like the village chief. He showed me what that was like and I was helpin’ him with the music. I was with Fela the whole time—I [even] used to go to court with him when they were giving him a lot of problems..
Fela’s house was burned down, they burned down the free clinic he’d established for the people. I don’t remember if he was in a cast at the time, but he was HURT.
Q: So during those six months, was he performing live?
He’d do performances in the courtyard of the hotel where we stayed. And we did mostly studio work. We were in the studio a lot at that time. A lot of the time Fela was just kinda showing me around. Fela would ask, “Lester, you feel like playing tonight?” I’d say, “Yeah.” So he’d find where a band was playing, and then he owned a bus, about 30 people would get in the bus and we’d sit in and play, you know. [chuckles] We’d get to the club, the club owner would have a big table set up for all of us. It was something else. His band, all the guys were really great, the whole band…and they really treated me well and I had a good time. We played all the time, I’d go around and hang out with all the different cats, show cats different things about the music. Rehearsing with them a lot. It was quite educational, believe me.
What did you learn?
It’s a way of learning how to adapt what you know and fit it into what’s being played at that time, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. It broadens you, anytime you play in a different set of circumstances. I’ve
tried to play in just about any kind of situation. I could play with a bus. A motorcycle. A baby crying. You’re learning how to deal with all these different sounds. It’s all about sound. You don’t play bebop licks with a
truck going down a highway, you have to have something that works. [laughter]
Fela and I just hung out. Fela was interested in music, he was a jazz fan! [laughs] He liked jazz… Like I said, he’d heard of me before. So most of the time, we talked about the music. Music and its ramifications. What it implied. What is it. What can it be used for. It’s about… Basically, I always believed art is functional. It’s not just something you put in museums, it’s better for it to be used for something functional: educational usage, therapeutic usage. But it should be USED. Music should be used, not just as entertainment. I’m not saying it’s NOT entertainment. It’s EVERYTHING. It’s entertainment, it’s religion, it’s a lot of things. That’s what most of what our conversations would be about: the spiritual aspect to the music, what binds all these different types of musics together.
That’s why we say “great Black music.” I think Black music is the only music that can be subdivided down into ten subdivisions, and each division is like world astounding-type music, you know what I mean?
What was it like being in the studio with Fela?
When Fela was in the studio, we were either learning the tunes or playing the tunes or recording the songs. He was very serious about the music, and he was serious in a way I can respect. He would do a lot of parts on the organ or keyboard or something. He would maybe write something out for his own reference, but after that he would go play it. He always created our songs in the studio. He’d do a part and show it to the horns and say, do that. He’d work em out on keyboard. I just did what he wanted me to do. If he’d suggest something, I’d suggest something, we’d just do it. But he had kind of the same work ethic as me. Like when I work, I’m going to work. If I’m gonna play, I’m gonna play. If I’m working, I’m working. If I’m making a record, I’m making a record. So we got on great.
Why did you leave?
After seven months, I was starting to get migraine headaches. Between eight wives…seeing all that entourage Fela had… the police and the soldiers… When they suggested I leave, I was ready to go! [laughs]
What happened was, word came down that people were asking, “Who was this guy from New York? We heard he’s a troublemaker. It’d be best for him to get out of town.” Which I rapidly did, because I didn’t want to end up in a Nigerian jail! And I had to bribe—this is the type of corruption going on there—I had to pay 50 bucks at the airport to a uniformed guy just to get a plane reservation!
Later on, someone gave me a tape of those same guys in the band. And those guys were still playing like me, especially the trumpet player, still playing some of my stuff! We had a good time…
I’d always try and see Fela when he came to New York [later on].
Ginger [Baker] said Fela was a truly humorous man…
Oh yeah, he was.
Always in his underwear…
In his underwear, smoking those big ol’ joints… [laughter]