This is the Afrobeat season. For weeks across the world, fans of the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti have been celebrating what they call ‘Felabration’. But there is a forgotten icon that will not be remembered by Fela’s fans, yet, without him, the late musician would have been unknown. Deputy Editor Adewale Adeoye digs up the file of Fela’s grandfather, the man who gave Africa some of today’s most celebrated melodies.
The world of late Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s fans across the world has been lit up since barely a month ago, when Afrobeat music lovers began to rekindle the spirit of the legend, whose music and rebellious lifestyle, banished despair largely among the oppressed. At Gbemisola street, Ikeja in Lagos, where his remains were interned since 1997, visitors from across the world have been visiting. Some kissed the cenotaph. Some cried. Many merely went there to pray that his soul be in eternal peace.
But there was is the untold story of a man, of who little is known but without whom Fela would not have been. Even among his relations, the man’s name like the strange mew of a mid night cat, rings only a faint bell, despite his monumental contributions to the Christendom beginning from 1865, when he was less than puberty age.
He was Fela’s grandfather. He was equally the great grandfather of Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka. If he was not a heroic icon, the British Museum would not be keeping some of his precious melodies, which he composed between 1800s and 1921, the year he visited England, a sort of evergreen intellectual property. When the late Prof. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti visited England, as recent as 1999, before his death, in that same England, a curator at the British Museum had asked him: ‘Did you know Canon J.J Ransome Kuti’, to whom Olikoye had responded with curious excitement: ‘Yes. He was my grandfather.’ The Brit went into the archive and brought a collection of music, by the late Canon, now converted into CD. A dazed Olikoye was reported by a journalist who interviewed him before his death to have said he was shocked to listen to his grandfather’s voice, not in Abeokuta, his ancestral home, but right in far away British Museum.
No doubt, many people across the world, except some obscured researchers, may never know much about him. Even his blood-bound relations do not have enough information about the man J.J Ransome-Kuti. The Nation met one of his great grandchildren, a middle aged lady, penultimate Saturday morning at her family home. She walked down the staircase, probably jumping over the steps, two at a time. Her maids had earlier caged three frightening dogs that keep vigil at the down alley apartment, located in the Anthony Village area of Lagos. She is a lawyer, and one in a third generation of the Kuti family. The oval face is the same as that of many of her genealogical peers. On that Saturday morning, she would soon be going for Felabration at the Shrine, where his cousins, Femi and Seun were billed to perform later post noon of that Saturday. ‘Did you remember J.J Ransome Kuti? The Nation asked Mrs Morenike Ledum, daughter of late Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti. She is one of those who, at least has some faint memory of the late J.J Ransome Kuti. She has some scanty information on her great grandfather, except that the memory is not enough to write a chapter in the life of a man who was reputed to have converted more people to Christianity, than any one in the last century and of whose songs are some of the most treasured diamonds at the prestigious British Museum and many Christian libraries across the world.
‘What I know about him are those things handed down to me by my father’, says Morenike. She is not the only one that knows little about a great music maestro nicknamed by the colonial masters as ‘the Singing Minister’ and who was nurtured to fame in Abeokuta at the ancient St Peters Cathedral, the first Church known to have been built on any land in Nigeria and one of Africa’s oldest. The Nation gathered that the late Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti was a man who made unparallel contributions to the music world and to the Christendom, but of whom little is known to have been written.
Oldies who spoke to The Nation in Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State and the ancestral home of the Kutis, did so with remarkable reverence yet with a lost sense of nostalgia. ‘I do not think anyone has made contributions to the music history and the development of the Christendom more than Rev J.J Ransome Kuti, though little has been written about him and he has not been honoured by anyone’, Pa Sowumi, who claimed his great grandfather, born in 1800, knew the late J.J, told The Nation at Abeoluta last Sunday. One old woman who is 100 plus said she remembers stories about the ‘singing minister’ who fought tooth and nail to wipe off idol worshiping in many West African communities, including Abeokuta and its environs. ‘Ha, baba J.J. He was a great man. He fought the wizards and the Witches of the time. He fought the Ogboni confraternity. He won the battle,’ another old woman of Ibadan origin, who said the late clergyman married from the Kudeti family in Ibadan, told The Nation.
Some near extinct old natives of Abeokuta spoke of stories passed on to them including how the late J.J used to go from one house to the other with a ‘magic lantern’ that captured the picture of Jesus Christ and that of Jerusalem. One source claimed that J.J used to spend the whole of his Sunday, beginning with the Sunday service up to the evening service in the late 1800s to 1930, the year he died. You can imagine children of Abeokuta in a Sunday school in the years around 1885: what kind of cloth did they put on? What kind of bible were they reading? How did they accept a new teaching about one God so different in history and conception, than the Sango, Orunmila and the Obatala that they had been used to? Even then, who was the first person to approach J.J, asking him to drop the believe in God through other means, other than Jesus Chirst?
Somehow, if there is a music gene in the human body, it is likely that Fela must have inherited the gene from his unsung grandfather. Imagine the evergreen melodies of J.J, one of which is the popular wake-up call on Chanels TV: ‘Kole baje o, kole baje o, ise oluwa……..’
A very popular Sunday school Christian music, Eje ko mode O wa o, eje ko mode owa,… jojolo, omo kekerre jojolo awon looore Eledumare, eje komode O wa’ (Let the little ones cluster around God, innocent jellies of which children are, the icons admired most by God, let the children, the little ones cluster around Him.’ J.J composed the popular Egba Anthem ‘Lori Oke ati Petele, Ibe lagbe bimi si o,……Ibe lagbe tomi dagaba o, ile Ominira.’ (Up hills and down the plains, there I was born, there was I liberated into manhood, Oh liberated soul-translated by Baba Oluwide). This track has been reinvigorated by the Juju musician, Ebenezer Obey and has become popular in the entire South West was . Baba Omojola, 75, whose father, a clergy man, Pa Oluwide, the first ordained priest in Northern Nigeria-born in 1886, first to establish a non-governmental school in Northern Nigeria, St Michael Primary School-and who knew the late J.J in a chat with The Nation quoted his father as saying: ‘My father told me J.J was the greatest of all the African music composers of the early 19th century.’ He was responsible for composing some of the most famous hymns of the Anglican Church but that as it was the practice in those days, communities, rather than individuals, were the custodians of such intellectual properties, meaning that some of such melodies were not authored by those who composed them. For a man of whom little has been recorded, controversy on all his trademarks should be expected. One source said he composed this listed track, another said he merely translated it into Yoruba: ‘Abide with me fast falls the evening tide, the darkness deepens; Lord with me abide, when other helpers fail and comfort flee, abide with me.’ (Wa ba mi gbe ale fere le tan…okun kun su…). One source said J.J composed over 200 scintillating music tracks, many of which have been ‘hijacked’ by the English society as being original to it.
One of those listed is ‘Like a bird in the deep, far away from its nest, I had wandered, my saviour from thee. But thy dear loving voice, called me home to Thy nest, and I knew there was welcome home.’
Some reliable archival sources told The Nation that J.J was a great player of the church organ. He was said to have played the organ in a way that attracted so many pagans, or non-Christian believers into the faith of what was known as the new world.
Who really is J.J Ransome Kuti?. The story goes thus: There was a certain man of the tribe of Egba. His name was Josiah Jesse Ransome Kuti, the son of a certain Olikoye also of Abeokuta. The name Ransome, he was thought to have adopted having dropped his traditional middle name owing to pressure from the missionaries or rather due to his conviction that Christian believes were better than the orthodox. He was born in Abeokuta on June 15, 1855, the very year of turbulence in the history of the ancient city, at a time Abeokuta was besieged by men and women soldiers from Dahomey, but who were on three occasions defeated by Abeokuta’s ancient warriors.
Mark you: Rev J.J Ransome Kuti should not be confused with Rev Oladotun Israel Ransome-Kuti, the first Principal of the famous Abeokuta Grammar School, Fela’s father and husband of the late Mrs Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, the woman who was the only female Nigerian delegate to the various constitutional conferences in pre-independent Nigeria. Both were clergymen. Both were famous. But one came before the other. J.J was Isreal’s father. J.J had eight children, three boys and five girls. In what appeared his own corset handwriting source from one of his great grandchildren, he listed the children thus: Josiah Oluyinka, born Feb 27, 1888, Anne Lape Iyalode, Oct., 20 1885, Isreal Oladotun, (Fela’s father), April 30, 1891, Joshua Oleremi, Jan 6 1894, Victoria Suranah, June 20, 1899, Olusegun Olusade, June 29, 1902. He listed two children who died in the same year, to be Olufela Daniel and Susnnah Olubode. Both died in 1889. J.J’s second daughter begot a grandson, famous for his stainless steel-heart, and literature. His name is Prof Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Price for Literature. But there are some unknown facts about all the children, expecially his first born Josiah and family members speak about him with little knowledge about what fate befell him.
On one account, he was said to have had children, that he was an aide of the then Alake of Egbaland and that he was a rebel against the sacred social order. Little of the man is known till date. But the man was said to have given birth to children, some of whose lineages, now very advanced in years, live probably somewhere in Abeokuta.
J.J was a curate under Rev D.O Williams until January 1911 when Williams died, leaving him to take over the activities of the Church. Ancient sources say J.J would seat upon a seat by the temple, to compose his music. In the night, he would hang out to curse the witches, beckoning on the dark imps of which he had been empowered by God to humiliate, empower and deride, by virtue of his own newly acquired ‘power of the Holy Spirit.’ Though there were no records of any persecution that J.J might have suffered from the hands of a society that knew nothing apart from oracles and superstitions, but being banished and ex-commununicated by the largely superstitious and awe-ruled society of the time, was normal. At least the time he was born was a glorious peak for the dreaded Ogboni Confraternity and a time Kings were buried with hundreds of slaves thought would serve the royal, in the world beyond. J.J was reputed to have converted so many homes and families in Egbaland and beyond into Christianity, mostly using his mastery of the Church organ and his infinite ability to convert any little scene into music and dance. He was said to have been described by the missionaries of his time as a ‘honest, disciplined and transparent’ man who lived and died as a devout Christian. The Nation gathered that many of the greatest hits composed by him may have been adopted by western musicians, who have unlimited source to the British archive. ‘He had a sonorous voice. He would sing all night to the delight of villagers. He was a wizard on the Church organ and a nightingale when he sings his chorus, with a scintillating baritone voice’ one source told The Nation..
One of his greatest achievements was his infinite attribute of interpreting English hymns into Yoruba.
Leader of Yoruba Amnesty, Alfa Jubril Ogundimu says the lack of any outstanding trace of J.J’s tremendous contributions to the world of politics and the art ‘further depicts the dilemma of the black man, especially Nigeria as a people that lacks a sense of history.’ Hear him: ‘We have a government that does not keep records. We have a nation that does not care about history, worse still, we have a nation that cares less about her past.’ He is of the opinion that since J.J was the first Nigerian clergyman to be made a Cannon, at a time when that revered title was the prerequisite of white men, his burial ground, should have been made a tourist attraction in Nigeria. Baba is optimistic that millions of Christians would wish to ‘visit the graveside and pay homage to him. ’He describes wherever his remains lay, 78 years ago after he died, ‘remains a bundle of wealth perished underneath.’ Unfortunately, not even J.J’s relations know where J.J’s remains are buried.
Yet, his contributions to the Christian world are no doubt a sharp contrast to the faith of many of this offspring. For instance, how would Fela, who never believed in Christianity and lived a life ordained by Orisa, had felt if he had lived at a time his grandfather used to read Psalm 121 ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.?’ Ogundimu says that scenario seems as important as imagining Canon J.J listening to Fela’s famous lyric; ‘My people, my people them go follow bishop, Amen, then go follow Pope Amen……everyday na church, everyday na mosque……... .my people, let us forget those gadem churches, those gadem mosques, including kerubu and sherabuuum uu.’ But a fan of Fela says the diversity and plurality of thoughts and philosophy in the Kuti family of which both J.J and Fela represents remains one of the greatest sources of strength for the Kutis, a family reckoned globally for its many feats in art, music and science.