Dede Mabiakwu is without doubt one of the most vibrant and accomplished artistes in Nigeria today. He is a compelling singer and instrumentalist. He was mentored by the world-acclaimed Afrobeat originator and maestro, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Dede did not just play and sing with Fela, he lived with him and soaked in his intellectual and ideological essence.
Over 20 years since Fela’s passing, Dede says he cannot be separated from him. He tells you that Fela is in him. Indeed, what he claims is not left for you to imagine if you spend only five minutes with him. Dede Mabiaku talks, gesticulates, sits and dresses like Fela. You would easily locate him on the same intellectual canvass as Fela.
Dede Mabiaku has these several years lived a very engaging life as an entertainer. He is a man you could say has seen it all. He has witnessed humble beginnings and he has seen the pomp of acclaim. Did you know that Majek Fashek, Dede Mabiaku and other friends had to do a long trek to Ikeja to attend the launch of Majek’s ‘Send Down the Rain’ album? The event was crucial, they had no dime even to take a bus, so, they went on foot.
This interview with the trio of Victor Omuabor, Onyinyechi Unigwe and Arite Lawrence makes a most compelling and revealing read.
Dede, while preparing for this interaction, we learnt that you read Theatre Arts at the University of Benin and you were one of the best performing arts students in that institution. So, how did you veer into music like Jazz, Highlife, Afrobeat and all that?
Yes, it is true that I am a theatre arts graduate. There are certain things people tend to forget. For instance, what is theatre art? The theatre is a unit that embodies so many different people, it embodies a whole lot of things like drama, dance, television, film and music, so, it’s an all – encompassing thing. There’s also mass communication. They are all part of theatre. In our time back in school, it was a rounded treatment, rounded knowledge. I was in Sunny Oti’s choir for instance when I was back then in Unijos, when Nelly Uchendu sang “If You Want to Marry a Husband”. I have been involved with the theatre virtually all my life even from my primary school and music has been an integral part of me. During my secondary school, I was part of a band called Melbeates. I enjoyed every bit of it because it helped in my knowledge development. So, I will say music does come naturally if you have the interest.
The Theatre Arts Department of the University of Benin produced the likes of Richard Mofe Damijo, Ignis Ekwe, Femi Shaka and Chris Ugolo. How come you embraced Fela as your father, your mentor? Infact, every Nigerian sees you as Fela. So one would naturally ask, why Fela?
Why not Fela? If not Fela, who else? The truth of the matter was when I left the university I was in Lagos. Richard (Mofe-Damijo) and I and the rest, all lived together. We were doing the theatre thing together. Before 1987, there hardly was any thing of note that they did in the form of awards for the performing arts in Nigeria. Nothing like the Oscars. In 1987, or thereabout, they brought the idea of the Live Telecast Awards, that’s the Nigerian Festival Production Awards. So, all NTA stations in Nigeria were made to do production and from the production they now chose what then was the first awardees we had in Nigeria and I was pronounced the Best Actor in the country. This production was sponsored by the French Cultural Centre which went round Nigerian universities. Added to that, I was doing plays for theatre and I was doing lead roles in plays like The Lion and the Jewel etc. We were theatre conscious at that time, all of us, and after getting the award, I started feeling kind of empty and I was searching, not knowing that my journey would lead me to the right direction. Osita Ike, RMD, Ohi Alegbe and myself were always walking and grooving together at that time. We always went to Jazz 38 on Friday nights. We would enjoy jazz and from there we would go to the Shrine because Fela also went to Jazz 38 on Friday nights to play classical jazz. One of those nights, something happened. Usually, Fela would retire after playing with the band and he would retire to the main house to spend time with the sister. The sister was Fran Kuboye’s mother. Tunde Kuboye and Fran Kuboye owned Jazz 38.
Fela would retire into the house and spend time with his sister, Fran, Tunde and children. Then, the band would be playing Fela’s number instrumentally. So, on that fateful day, they were playing the number and Fela was inside. Ohi or Richard, ‘am not sure but one of the two of them or maybe both went to Tunde and said, ‘We get one friend wey dey sing Fela song’ and Tunde called me on stage and I started singing and Fela just came out of his room and looked at me. I froze instantly. Then, the next thing I saw was that he gave me a wink and a thumbs up and it was like a baptism. Fela then came out and asked me to follow him back to the Shrine. That night, while he was performing, he stretched his hand towards me and that handshake was like the beginning of the bond between himself and myself, I can’t forget it in my life.
It was unique, it’s too spiritual, it was too heavy. It was a special feeling and I was one of the few people Fela allowed to play at the Shrine. Majek Fashek was also given a day at the Shrine to play, mostly on Wednesdays. That started it. He just turned and told Chuddy Onuorah Udenwa… Chuddy was always with us too because he was a journalist. So, he just turned and said, ‘Chuddy, make this bobo come Kalakuta anytime when em wan see me.’ So, I went with him to Kalakuta. I stayed with him till 10am.
I was amazed at the kind of things that came out of him… the words he used, the statements… because inside my heart, there were questions I needed to ask and I asked them. He kept answering the questions and on top of the answers, he gave me more. So he asked me, ‘I know say you go like to come back’ and I said, ‘Yes oo’. He said, ‘Good. When you go like to come?’
That evening, I came back because inside, my spirit don dey disturb me and I wanted to find out … things like, How Fela be like this? All the things whe e dey do, government fear am pass anything and I need to find out about the why, the how and everything because if na say this man no dey for this part of the world, if na Europe or America them go don do research on top of am.
I went there wanting to find out and I found that I went to the right place to gain knowledge… because that began my schooling in life. I thought I had gone through school and the rest. In Kalakuta, it was a different kettle of fish. For Fela to accept you into his bedroom was something else. He just took me, he just accepted me and I went through the flow but you see, there’s a twist to this story.
When I was in secondary school, I was in a team of boys that called themselves ‘Fela Boys’. When I was doing my Youth Service in Owerri, I was part of a recording company that had a band. The company was called Labamba Records so it was Labamba Band I was on with Feladey, Okemiri, Barry and Charles Dickson who later became the pianist for the Wailers and then there was Kalu. So we had a band and every time we did shows around different towns in the East like Onitsha, Enugu, Aba and some of the local areas like Umuagwo where they have the College of Agriculture… because I did my Youth Service in Owerri. So, whenever we performed, anytime I did any of the Fela tunes, people dey go wild. So, you know, things followed a sequence from my secondary school days where we were known as Fela Boys. At the University of Benin, anytime I sing any of Fela number, them dey also trigger. So, to me it was something that was meant to happen. It’s now, through hind sight that I am seeing it and when he took me in, it was total because here I was, taking him in and there he was, taking me in also, teaching, training, educating and exposing me to the true life of who we are, what we are and then to represent this world that we are in with him. It was more of knowledge gathering. Fela was a voracious reader, who read books like Black Man of the Nile, Story of Africa, The African Gods, The History of Africa, The History of Egypt, books on science, books on African tech of ancient times and apart from these, we would go current affairs, going through the newspapers. So, it was a different thing entirely but ultimately it was worth more than anything.
He has been gone for over 20 years now. Artistically, is he like a muse or the essential inspiration to you? Do you reach back to him?
You want me to tell you what is going on? Can I ever leave him? So, I don’t think that he can ever leave me. You see, it is a spiritual bond which is eternal, that’s the best way I can describe it. Because for me, I will be stupid to turn my back on my ancestors that gave credence to me. Don’t forget what this man has been doing, and he is still doing it, because if over 20 years ago, he left physically, he is there, the first African ever to be presented on Broadway. That is the height of theatre in the world and that is who Fela was. So, he lives, he is in the present, his words ring a bell in everybody that has ears because all of us say that everything Fela has said is what is happening and it is true. Bakare said it on his pulpit and other pastors have been saying it. Alfas and Imams are also saying it. So, just look at it,… it is a spread sheet. This is somebody who gave his all for the people, dedicated his all to his people and he still went propagating the values of the people. Anywhere you went in the world in those days, if you said you were a Nigerian, they might not know you but if you said you were from Fela’s country, they would recognize you. So, he gave value to us as a people, fighting for your rights, not fighting for his own personal aggrandizement. He never joined in stealing or defrauding the government. He impacted positively on who and what we are as Africans.
Do you still go to the Shrine to perform?
The African Shrine is no longer in existence. We have New African Shrine which is Femi’s performance arena. It is there, I don’t go there to perform.
What is your relationship with Fela’s children like Femi, Seun and Yeni?
With Femi, it is mutual. With Yeni, it’s a warm and loving relationship. With Seun, it is an umbilical cord you can’t take off. From the age of 6, Fela handed Seun over to me to mentor and train long before he died. So, Seun at the turn of events moved in here and was living with me for years. He grew up in this house. So, it is a family thing, it is eternal because the bond is still there and you can’t cut it.
With Femi, is it like every man to his tent?
You know it is family and in it, no be everybody you go agree with. No be every pikin dey agree the same way. E no mean say, they no be family.
Dede, your art today, is it strictly stage performance? Are you recording?
There is a difference between recording and releasing. I am in the arts for art’s sake, not for money. I am a contented performer. I would rather be a performer, so I do more of the performing. I have been recording ever since. I got over 80 songs recorded but I don’t release.
Why no release?
A lot of people out there, including myself, would want to hear you recorded.
I am giving you myself now for free through this interview.
You have made waves in Lagos but we also know that you are the son of this illustrious man called Chief Mabiaku. So, if I may ask you, are you still a Warri boy?
I fit change from being a Warri boy? The thing dey your blood, e dey your blood and there’s nothing you can do. Na your own, na your own. I am a Warri boy, I am a proud Itsekiri man and yes, my father truly was a chief and am very happy I came from that source because he also taught me a lot. He taught me about caring for people even if you don’t know them as far as they are around you. He taught me about sharing especially when you know you have so much. Why hold on to it? He taught me about so many things and you know, I learnt a whole lot of things which I will hold on to. I am grateful to him because from him and Fela, I learnt so many things. I was born in a polygamous house so, entering Fela’s home wasn’t anything new.
When my father found out the bond between Fela and myself, he threatened me that if I went there he would disown me. I refused to listen and I was disowned publicly. So, I ran to Fela who laughed and said to me, ‘I told you they won’t accept us’ but he later made an accommodation for me at his house and that was the best experience I ever had in my life. When you live in a home where two hundred or more people come in everyday at the very least…people from different parts of the world… we had the ambassadors like the French ambassadors, the Germans, the Brazilian ambassadors… they were all coming in and relating with everyone at same pedestal. Fela was a voracious reader who I refer to as ‘Manputer.’ He also accommodated all who came to him for assistance.
For proving yourself worthy of trust, he placed you on a salary. All this he did without having a knowledge of the people he sheltered and cared for. On record, Fela happened to be the only African to have taken 71 people on tour which included journalists and his drummers (band members). When he was asked why he did this he said, ‘The best education you can give to anybody is travel’. The first tour I went with him, we were 52 including himself. It was a European tour and out of the 52, only 27 were band members. The rest were ‘carry go’, follow come’ and he took care of everybody without asking where they came from. Some of the people were from Togo, Calabar, Hausaland and Ghana. He took everybody in because his home was a melting pot. It was the freest home in the whole of Africa where you found ambassadors relating with erstwhile criminals at same pedestal and everybody reasoning together. This was a home you can’t find anywhere in the world.
Dede, if somebody wants to reach you for performance, how does he go about it? Of course you have a band.
Yes, I have a band and my musicians are trained to play different genres. I have a 23-piece band. My musicians cannot play useless songs. It is not possible.
Well, I have not seen much of the Kalakuta stuff around you.
This is a different part of the scenario. This is the other side of the story because at a time after Fela left, this house was more of Kalakuta 2. There were over 40 people living here. Even Seun also lived here. They had to leave Kalakuta so, we all stayed together with my entire team for a while but after a while, certain sequence of events started changing. I left Nigeria for six years. I had to do a little sojourn to Ghana. I lived in Accra. I more or less had a marriage break.
What is your tomorrow likely to be. What are you looking forward to artistically?
Using myself to render more services to humanity. That’s all we are here for. But in truth, I live a very simple life, and from what I learnt from Kalakuta, speaking your mind does not mean you cannot live your life in your own way. You learn first to live your life your way and when you talk, you know you are speaking from the position of no compromise.
Are you looking forward to building maybe a replica of Kalakuta or something like that?
That’s Fela’s responsibility. We must do other things as life progresses because tree get root already and im get stem. Wetin you dey add another root join am again for now? The tree don get branches and the branches go get fruits and the fruits will now spread. That is what we need to understand. A lot of time, I thought I was going to set up a shrine but my inner spirit said ‘No’. My inner self told me that my duty is to guide because I learnt from the source. Like in those days, you would find 2face, Eldee and those boys. I don’t leave them and they don’t leave me.
So you relate with people like 2face?
Yes, we dey rock together self; we grooved together wella, even people like RMD, Oyin Damola, Willie and the likes of them. I am a cut across. I am that bridge, and I like am like that because I like keeping it simple.
You get something for Warri?
I will tell you something about that Warri issue. Many years ago, I was called by a friend, Emmanuel Uduaghan (then the Governor of Delta State) to set up a Delta Music Academy in Warri and I asked him to provide us land. The government doesn’t necessarily have to spend any money. Just apportion us a place and I will do the funding to build a performance arena of international standard. After much promising from the man, nothing was done. I went to him because we were in school together, he was my senior at Federal Goverment College Warri.. I thought I had gotten to this point in life, let me go back home to do something but listen, home is where you cut your teeth. I get brothers and sisters, my papa born 25 children, we plenty wey fit do things but they no fit do wetin I do. I cut my teeth for Kalakuta… omo eko gan-gan na him I be. So, I was trying to do what would make Warri proud and I am still carrying that flag anywhere I go.
What about those shows they stage in Warri like “Warri Again”, “Warri Live,” and the rest of them.
You should go ask people like Amaju and the rest of them why they have not used our services for those. You can’t bully yourself into people’s pockets but you can only do what you are doing. When they don’t call you….
I don’t know why, you go ask them? There is no where in Nigeria you go to and you say they don’t like Fela. As an Itsekiri man, I’ve got a lot of Itsekiri songs, my own songs.
You play Itsekiri songs?
Live. I send anybody? I play them and the people dey enjoy am. It gives me joy to rep where I come from because culture is power. He who doesn’t understand that has no basis for existence. I come from a source and I represent that place where I come from. Warri taught me too much not to give back but I am giving back everyday in the value of what I offer. So, there has to be people to be able to stand for the African people, to speak, to wake up what is inside of the people to their reality.
Recently, we lost Majek Fashek. It was quite tragic. How did you react to that?
Hmmmm…. A great one came, lived his life, went through experiences, fought his demons, struggled to come back again but didn’t cross the barrier. That’s precisely what happened. If you know the story of Majek and everything that happened, you will know that is what happened. In those days on this street where we had Jazz studio, he had a band called Jastix, that’s the band that had Majek, Amos, Macroy and Black Oritse and then in the studio was Feladey. But then, they were my friends and things were rough, so we were like family and they moved from here into Anthony where I got a house for them and we kept relating. When the release of ‘Send Down the Rain’ album came…. There was an incident that I will never forget. When we were to go for the launch of the album, we had no money, no vehicle and there and then, Majek made me his manager. We had to trek from Anthony to Allen Avenue in Ikeja where we had Ozone Night Club where we did the launch of ‘Send Down the Rain’. All through his life we kept interacting but there were certain things that people did not know. They did not know he was spiritually challenged but they said he was on drugs.
How do you mean he was spiritually challenged?
Many people use their hand dey go some journey, while some don dey do journey before they even know. The mama na strong Olokun priestess and Majek na the pikin wey she dey carry follow body because na him dey play the drum for the shrine in those days. You can ask people like Charles Novia in the Nollywood industry because he did a research on these things. From Olokun, Majek went on to play the trumpet in the Aladura church. From there, he found his way to Lagos to try. I met Majek first when I was in Benin. He came and wanted to be part of MTV in Benin which had a programme called Music Panorama and which was handled by Pat Fin. But when he went through his major challenges, alcoholism came in. Myself and the rest knew what was going on. When Majek made it, certain things happened, he starting digging into different kinds of spiritual problem. He had Sat Guru Maharaji and the Krishna people who were trying to indoctrinate him into their movements. He was sucking all these things in. They were always coming to his house then in Anthony. He stopped the Aladura church eventually. He got himself involved in some other things that were introduced to him by his mother’s brother and his mother. They were too many because when you mingle too many things together something will clash somewhere. The spiritual drift made him go into alcoholism and some of the other things people saw. When his situation deteriorated at some certain intervals, the Supreme just put me there to stand by him and fight to see how we could make him to walk back. Captain Ossai tried to save him by taking him to London for his treatment and rehabilitation. After much treatment, Majek was okay but after sometime he went back again. I went to Dr Ajayi, the late founder of First Foundation Hospital to help one of our brothers. So he agreed to do many things to bring Majek up like getting a house for him. He did everything and was even planning to get him a car. He did the dentals and after all, Majek disappeared again and things took a different turn.
Finally, we found him again and he looked so fresh and I gave him a guitar and a combo after which we went to the studio to play. After then that evil man who posed to be Majek’s manager was using him to feed and fund himself. He even used him to beg in London and posted his pictures on the social media for people to help treat him. That was when his people heard of everything and his son came around and took him to America.
He was recovering, he really was recovering. But you see, we lost him. His life is a lesson and his life was a blessing. He came, he made a good name with good records here on earth before he died. But that guy dropped messages, if only we can play back and listen, we would find value and lesson in them. His stage performance was wonderful, it was unique, he was one of the only people Fela allowed to play at the Shrine apart from me.
You left Fela before he died or were you still with him?
Yes, I was still with him but he gave me the permission and most nights I performed with the Egypt 80 band at the Shrine.
Was there any link between Majek and Fela? Majek once said Fela was his boy.
Majek said that when he was high. Actually it was a concert at TBS, Fela wasn’t present. I was there when Majek talk say Fela was his boy …. So, me spark! Amos, one of my brothers, come dey hold me say, ‘No, no, no Dede. You should know your brother is high’ and I shouted, ‘I don’t like that nonsense!’ That was highness, Fela was never Majek’s boy.