JoJo Kuo in the NY Times, Drumming for Fela
By now, every theatergoer on Broadway has heard of the Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Jojo Kuo, 50, an Afropop drummer from Cameroon, played with Fela — twice. He shared his recollections with Ozier Muhammad for the seventh installment of “Sounds From Uncommon Spaces.” His remarks have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.
I met Fela in 1979 in Lagos, Nigeria, on a gig there. When I first tried to play with Fela, I didn’t know exactly what was going on with the music. I couldn’t get it psychologically, and the language was difficult because it was a pidgin English. So I often would get fined for my mistakes.
The more I played, the less money I would get paid.
Sometimes they would put a microphone in my bass drum and the volume would be very loud. Fela said I was playing too loud. Fela said: “Play soft! Soft!”
After six months, I left and went to France to study music and do studio work. About a year later, I started making big money.
The second time I worked with Fela was in 1984. I was just passing through Nigeria, on my way to France after visiting my village in Cameroon. I took a taxi to a recording studio where I was to meet a friend. While sitting in the studio waiting for him, I started playing cowbells. The producer heard me and said, “That’s just what I need,” and took me in the studio to record. I was paid $500 for that.
So now that I had some money, I decided to delay my return to France and stay in Lagos a little longer. I went to Fela’s compound to look for him, to see if I could join his band again.
He accepted me back. I felt lucky to have another chance, because I had learned to read and write music while living in France. Some members of the band ridiculed me for that. They said, “Africa man go to France to learn how to play music.” No, it wasn’t that. What I did in France was learn how to read and write music.
Fela imposed this condition that I would not get paid for three months. He asked me do I accept the condition, yes or no.
I said, “Fela, yes but —”
“Yes or no,” he said.
I said, “O.K.”
The first night of my return with the band, we were warming up at Fela’s club, the Shrine. Every time my name was called to solo, I’d say to myself, “Jesus be with me now.” So now I am starting to sweat. This is late at night, and Fela gave me a pattern to play in front of the audience. He pointed to a section in the crowd and said: “Those are all drummers: They came to see you play.” II did all right. I knew how to play Fela’s music.
I loved the energy Fela brought to his music. He really affected my way of playing. I learned a lot from him.
By OZIER MUHAMMAD