As celebrated dancer, Yeni Kuti, clocks 50 this week, artists and scholars pay tributes to her efforts in creating the Afrobeat dance step, Abimbola Adelakun reports.
Yeni, the daughter of late Afrobeat creator and music legend, Fela Kuti, might not have been sure exactly which direction her life would go but there was something she knew right from childhood: she would be a dancer.
With the help of Dele, one of her father’s dancers, Yeni learnt dancing. She says Dele was a beautiful dancer who taught her Afrobeat dances. Later came Ogunde, who also taught her how to dance. Her inspiration, according to her, was first, Dele. It was followed by the Ipi tombi dancers of South Africa and, third, the Calabar dancers whose colourful costumes she admired.
Her father had a band and, at a time, when she mooted the idea of choreographing the dance steps for the band, it did not go well with the rest of the extended family. Indeed, for a family where the father had many wives who were also dancers (he married 27 of them in a day), it was not easy getting into the politics of the band. So, when her brother, Femi, started his own band, she and her sister, Sola, joined and then started creating dance steps for the group.
At a session organised for her by the Committee for Relevant Arts at the Freedom Park, Lagos on Sunday, she explained that the method of creating those dances were not just about listening to the music and forming the dance. Rather, they worked with Femi’s inspiration as it came. When Femi was inspired to put some music together, they danced along with it, in its unfinished state. In other words, they were part of the process of the music and that explains why the songs and the dances went so well together.
“Our routines inspired his creativity because we worked along, not parallel. We worked together as one. What kills bands, especially Black bands, is when people separate themselves and then they break up later to form their own. Sometimes they just don’t make it.”
The weird costumes for the dances, she said, was inspired first, by ease of movement and, then, the type of dance involved. She said the Afrobeat kind of dance was a very sensual one and costumes were supposed to be sexy and eye catching. The make up, however, was inspired by Fela who used to paint his eye with white chalk. His dancers too copied that style and, as time went on, they improvised the make up with more design which later evolved into a brand that was loved by their international audience.
“We wore tons of make up in the effort to outdo ourselves and when our foreign audience started saying they loved it, we wanted to do more. The costumes were what Fela wanted. He always believed African women should show their assets because they are always well endowed. He hated boubous. He said they covered everything up. Afrobeat is a very sensual dance. In fact, when people come to learn, we teach them those hip movements by telling them to imagine themselves in a steamy session with their lovers. It helps them conjure the image,” she said.
Yeni also spoke on FELA!, the Broadway show that recently came to Nigeria, saying that the Fela brand has gone beyond Nigeria. With FELA!, Nigeria went on an international stage not for the usual vices of corruption and fraud but as a cultural export. She said it was a positive thing and is a good branding for Nigeria. She responded to the members of the audience who complained that the cast didn’t have a Nigerian in it, saying the pan Africanism Fela stood for while alive was retained by having most of the cast who are Africans.
“But now, we Africans ourselves are losing the pan Africanism that Fela was talking about. What we should celebrate as Africans, we have foreigners celebrating for us. During Felabration, our own people don’t like to sponsor it. They say ‘Oh, is it not Fela.’ Then, people sent us money from abroad to celebrate Fela. Do you see the irony?”
At the session was Dr Sola Olorunyomi, a lecturer at the University of Ibadan, who has researched and written extensively on Fela, gave the keynote address where he said that to understand Femi’s Positive Force, which Yeni choreographed, one needs to view it in context of the cultural production and economy of arts. He said Afrobeat might not do well in Nigeria as much as it would do abroad because we run a politics-dependent economy which has a consequent effect on the cultural policies and attitude to the arts.
Others on the panel – including Benson Idonije – paid tribute to Yeni whom, he said, he had known for 48 years when Fela’s music began with heavy un-danceable highlife. Another on the panel, Dr Kayode Esuola, said Afrobeat dances needed to be packaged in such a way that it became more family-friendly and generally appealing rather than all about sex.
Esuola, who said he had accepted Fela, as his lord and personal saviour, said he believed that Fela learnt choreography but didn’t focus on it so as deliberately spite the hypocritical ruling class.