Fela Kuti's Lover and Mentor Sandra Smith Talks About Afrobeat's L.A. Origins, as Fela! Musical Arrives at the Ahmanson
At the time of his death in 1997, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was known by many names: Afrobeat pioneer, a political instigator, husband to 27 wives, just to name a few. The Nigerian musician had spread his fiery brand of African party music around the world, serving up biting social commentary sugar-coated with blasting horns, slithering Rhodes keyboards and undulating beats that ignited global dance floors. His incredible life is chronicled in the critically acclaimed Broadway musical Fela! -- opening at the Ahmanson theater this week -- which follows Fela's rise to musical prominence, acerbic political criticism and his deadly clashes with the Nigerian government. But before Fela became an international phenomenon, it was here in Los Angeles that Fela found his sound and vision.
Sandra Smith and Fela Kuti, when they were together in 1969-70
Fela and his band came to Los Angeles in 1969 as just another international act, and left in 1970 ready for revolution. Musician and social activist Sandra Smith (now Izsadore) witnessed it all first hand. She was Fela's guide, teacher and lover while he stayed in the City of Angels. "Sandra gave me the education I wanted to know," Fela told author Micheal Veal. "She was the one who opened my eyes. For the first time I heard things I'd never heard before about Africa! Sandra was my adviser. She talked to me about politics, history. She taught me what she knew and what she knew was enough for me to start on."
LA Weekly recently caught up with Sandra to talk about Fela's L.A. days and his evolution to becoming an African icon.
Describe that first time you saw Fela Kuti.
It was [jazz musician] Juno Lewis who had insisted that I come with him to see this group form Nigeria. I was somewhat apprehensive, but Juno was so insistent that I see this group that he came and picked me up. We went to the Ambassador hotel for a NAACP event. I looked up on the stage, and Fela was looking down, and there was an immediate connection.
I was sitting at the table, enjoying the party, and Juno came over when the band had an intermission, and Juno said that someone wanted to meet me. So when I went to the bar, Fela was there. Juno was instrumental in making that happen, and might I add, my life has never been the same since.
What was that first conversation like?
It was very raw. The first thing out of his mouth was, "Do you have a car?" And I said yes, and he says, "Good, you're going with me." Just like that. We got together that day and we were together until he left.
I laughed because I was the one with the car, so I thought that he was cocky and somewhat arrogant. He was different than any of the other African student that I had met. So the curiosity set in.
Where was he staying?
Inglewood. There was this man named Morris, and he had extended his home to them. Then the situation changed, so my parents had this back house that no one lived in, so my parents said they wanted to help. So Fela and the band were housed for back there. It was August of '69 when I met him, and they were here since I think maybe March of '69. Then they had to leave because there was a disgruntled Nigerian man who brought them here from Nigeria, and all that he said he was going to do for them fell through. It was Americans who came in to the rescue. The generosity of African Americans here [was] how Fela and the band could stay here. Everyone was trying to help them stay in the country. We saw them as our brethren.
Tell us about the Citadel de Haiti and that series of shows Fela's band played there.
It was the club of Bernie Hamilton, the brother of Chico Hamilton, the jazz musician. Bernie was an actor and he had this club, The Citadel De Haiti. It was at 6666 Sunset. They don't even have that place anymore, the address itself is even gone.
It was great club, just no clientele, so he hired Fela to come in, and he paid him under the table. In a little bit of no time, that club was packed. Everybody knew that there was this great Nigerian band who was just off the chain.
What was Los Angeles like back then?
This was a time that African Americans were becoming aware of ourselves. Everyone was embracing Africa at this time. Everyone was wearing dashiki's and James Brown sang "I'm black and I'm proud, say it loud." That was all going down, so there was this positive energy. And of course, it was the dawning of the age of Aquarius. Hair was playing at a theater across the street from the Palladium, where the Nickelodean studios are today. The cast would come over and hang out at Bernie's place after they did their show. It was such a revolutionary time here in Los Angeles.
What was your relationship like with Fela?
I was in love. From the time we met, we connected on a very strong level. We were together constantly in L.A. And remember, I had a car. I was really good to make sure he made his concerts and stuff.
It was really exciting when he auditioned for Disneyland. I was like, "ooh, a free trip to Disneyland!" I was so excited, but at the end of the day, I was disappointed.
Disneyland told Fela that he wasn't playing African music. They wanted him to play in Adventureland.
They had thought he played just stereotypical African music, like what they have on the Small World ride?
They thought he was going to be something else, and they said that he wasn't playing African music at all. How do you tell an African man, playing African rhythms who had studied African music, that he is not playing African music? Crazy. So that was Disneyland.
He broke down these notions of what Africa is. He represented an urban Africa.
That's what was so impressive about him. He was the real first urban African man I met. Everyone else came from rural areas. He was different.
What were your conversations like?
He would talk about Africa and I'd tell him about America. Meeting him, I was under the impression that I was going to learn everything I needed to know about Africa. Not knowing that I would be teaching him. I didn't know at I was teaching him anything. At that time, this stuff was just common knowledge. I had been attending the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad, and I had attended the Black Panther Party and SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] through school. Through those organizations that I [gained] different knowledge, and I shared that knowledge with Fela. He was learning from me, without me being aware that I was teaching.
At that time, I had learned about all the great African kings and all that. Because I hadn't learned it in school, I hadn't learned it in church, and my parent had hidden the ugly truth of America. When I became aware, I became very angry. I couldn't understand inequality. So I was like, we can change this.
How did this knowledge affect Fela's music?
When I heard Fela's music, after we had been spending time together. I heard them rehearse, and I liked it, but I had no idea what he was saying. So I asked him, "Fela, what are you saying?" He said he was singing about his soup. He was singing about nothing. I laughed and I said, "That doesn't make sense, you should use your music to educate. You should write songs that have meaning." I was looking for African pride, and I looked to my own African King, and he told me that there was no pride in Africa, at that time. I was shocked.
When H.B. Barnum, the music director for [original Rat Pack member] Joey Bishop's TV show, and Duke Lumumba brought him in for the 1969 sessions, Fela started writing music that had some meaning for his people. When he went back [to Nigeria], he was a changed person. It wasn't until 1976 that I learned that it was [because of] the books that I had given him and that knowledge he came into at my mother's home.
All that time I thought that Fela had taught me about the world, but he told me that I, in fact, had taught him.
What happened after Fela left Los Angeles?
It took me ten years for me to get over Fela. I wasn't about to be part of his harem. When I met him he had one wife, but when he left the planet he had 27. He married them in one day! I was very fortunate to say that I had the opportunity to live at [Fela's Nigerian compound] Kalakuta too. It was a party every day. I was there in '76, I lived there for three or four months.
Then I tried to untie myself emotionally from Fela, so then I moved to England, where I got tied up in a new kind of music. Reggae. Back then, it was just the Wailers, so I partied with Bob Marley. By the time I had gone through everything with Fela, I knew that with Bob Marley, it was time to stay back.