Randy Weston (shades) and your correspondent during a 2007 interview sposored
by Jazz Alliance International onstage at University of District of Columbia.
This is the latest installment in our ongoing series of anecdotes and excerpts from the forthcoming book African Rhythms, the autobiography of Randy Weston (composed by Randy Weston; arranged by Willard Jenkins) which will be published by Duke University Press. This time we focus on Randy’s experiences at the historic 1977 FESTAC, the African world Festival of Arts and Culture held in Lagos, Nigeria. Randy’s experiences are particulary pertinent now because the African nation of Senegal will host FESMAN ’09, the successor to FESTAC and thus the third African world festival, in December ’09. Scroll down through the latest installments in The Independent Ear to Read details of the recent U.S. launch event for FESMAN 2009 last January at the UN. Weston serves on the U.S. organizing committee of FESMAN 2009.
FESTAC ’77 and another hang with Fela…
In 1977 I traveled [to Africa] on my own to join a delegation of artists and great thinkers at the FESTAC event. FESTAC ’77 was actually the second Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. The organizer’s idea was to bring over black representatives of the global arts and culture community from across Africa and the Diaspora, including places as far away as Australia, which sent some Aborigine artists.
Once again I traveled to Lagos, which by that time was a bit different place than it was when I was there in the 1960s. For one thing cars had literally taken over the place and the traffic was horrendous around the clock. Ethiopia was the host of FESTAC ’77 even though NIgeria was the site. The Nigerian government reportedly put up huge amounts of oil money to stage this event. The whole idea is that we are one African people, that was the goal of FESTAC. No matter if we’re in Mississippi or Havana or Australia, or wherever…
They invited about 20,000 artists from across the globe. I only wound up playing once, at least officially, though I did jam with Fela; but we’ll get to that in a minute. Sun Ra was there and he played once. There was so much great artistry at this conference that you didn’t need to play more than once. Representatives from the entire black world organized this thing. They hosted colloquiums throughout FESTAC on everything from education to health to music, all things involved with African people. It was designed to develop a sense of global unity. FESTAC lasted one month, throughout January. I stayed most of the month because I had come individually on my own; I didn’t come with the American delegation because I was living in France at the time.
The array of folks there was incredible. For example I’d have breakfast and my tablemates might be Louis Farrakhan, Stevie Wonder, Queen Mother Moore, and a heavy Sufi master named Mahi Ismail. Imagine me hanging out with those cats! When he arrived Stevie came into the hotel with his guitar, walked in the lobby, sat down and started singing and playing his guitar.
Fela was one of the main people I wanted to see while there, and like many African musicians he had his own club called The Shrine, just opposite his village in Lagos. Fela’s club was really big, it must have held about 1,000 people and the night I went there it was packed. When I got to Fela’s village he was sitting in a corner, holding court and eating away. I’m stepping through all kinds of women, all surrounding this dude. It was quite a scene. He saw me and said "Randy, come on and have some food." We talked awhile then it was time for him to perform, so he put on his stage costume and we were stepping around all these women to get outside. As we’re walking through this village it was obvious Fela was like a king to these people.
We entered The Shrine and this place, along with Bobby Benson’s joint, really became my inspiration for wanting to open up my own club. Fela got his band together for the performance and he called me over and said "Randy, you sit there." He had an English film crew capturing his every move. He started playing this little rhythm on the piano, then the band came in and he grabbed his saxophone. The rhythm was totally infectious, but you have to hear it live, you have to be where people are dancing to this band to fully appreciate this groove. At one point in his performance Fela grabbed the mike and said "Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to meet my brother from America," and they brought me onstage. So we jammed a bit. Next thing I know he’s talking on the mike again and he’s got me by the hand and he’s cursing out the military — and there were military guys in the club! I wanted to get the hell off that stage with a quickness ’cause those cats don’t play! Man, Fela was fearless, but I was sweatin’… what this guy DIDN’T call the government… and he wouldn’t let go of my hand! The people were cheering him on!
One week later, after we had all left, the soldiers raided Fela’s village and destroyed the place. They threw his mother out of a window, beat him up and took him to prison, and raped all his girls. But when he came out of jail Fela was the same, still defiant. He said "I’m the president of Africa"; he was against all that stuff that was in opposition to the true Africa, he was incredible.
As for FESTAC, which was over by the time all that madness happened to Fela, the final night was Stevie Wonder, Miriam Makeba, and Osibissa in a stadium with 50,000 people in the stands. As I always say, we’re all a part of this, all our music is different, and all our music is the same. But this FESTAC thing was too powerful, it was too big. The white press gave it absolutely no coverage… But this was the most fantastic event I ever participated in up to that point.
Excerpted from African Rhythms, the forthcoming autobiography of NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston. Stay tuned to these pages for further anecdotes from our book…