“There he is, that is the man I used to play with. Fela. Fela Kuti”.
CC Yoyo, a dark man of slight build stands in front of a black and white portrait of the Nigerian musical icon.
His eyes glimmer with a knowing look behind a set of wide-framed, blue-tinted glasses as he turns to the image behind him. His greying hair shimmers under the iridescent lighting as he signals for me to move closer. As I approach curiously, he says emphatically: “That’s him, my sister!”
I’m at The Republic Bar and Grill Pub on 3rd Lane Kuku Hill in Osu in Accra, Ghana. My encounter with CC Yoyo is entirely by chance.
“So, you know Fela’s Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense? Ya. I played on that.”
Sighs of admiration punctuate the conversation as the 66-year-old drummer regales his new-found audience with storied glimpses into the height of one of Africa’s most poignant musical periods – Afrobeat.
Numbers are exchanged and an interview location is settled.
“Ya, maybe around 12. Come to the Freedom Centre. I have a drum kit there, I can show you some of my work,” he says as his hands, weathered by time and experience, instinctively pick up an invisible set of drumsticks.
“Ok my sister, I’ll speak to you then.”
At the Freedom Centre
Born Frank Ankrah, CC Yoyo, takes a bus from his home in Tema, which is a coastal town about 25km east of the capital.
He meets me in front of the Freedom Centre just off Kotoka Avenue.
His blue shades are more appropriately placed today under the harsh Ghanaian sun.
We make our way into the building and CC Yoyo shows me his burgundy coloured drum kit, which he says is used as a teaching tool when he is in Ghana. He is also a regular at the weekly Monday Groove sessions at the Freedom Centre, where he jams with students and other musicians.
We find a quiet spot for the interview under an imposing portrait of Che Guevara. The drummer sits across from me and starts recounting how he was first introduced to music. “Gone are the days in Ghana where the Catholic schools encouraged [their learners to take up] musical instruments” he starts. “Those who held [academic positions] between first to fifth in class were allowed to take up an instrument. I was interested in playing the drums when I was young. I went to a Catholic school and we had a school band. In order to join the band, you had to be good in school”.
At 19, CC Yoyo started a band with his schoolmates called Matthew Chapter 5. “Matthew, like the book of Matthew in the Bible and five because there were five of us in the group. [The group included] bass, percussion, guitar, keyboard and I played the drums.” Matthew Chapter 5 performed competitively against other schools in the area, and played frequently during school holidays, something CC Yoyo and his peers came to think of as a holiday job.
Encountering Fela Kuti
Instead of furthering his studies at university, CC Yoyo explains how he “was taken over by a love of music”. This realisation coincided with the arrival of an artist who was becoming increasingly targeted by the Nigerian state for his overtly political views.
“That time, the music was in me too much and this guy, Fela Kuti, came to Ghana. He had problems with his country at that time. That time,” he continues, “[General Olusegun] Obasanjo was in power and [Nigeria] was a military dictatorship. So Fela had to come and stay here.”
[When Fela was in Ghana] he stayed quite close to where we are now,” the drummer reflects suddenly, “He stayed and played at the Apollo Theatre. After the interview we can take a walk there.”
Fela, along with Nigerian drummer and bandleader Tony Allen, pioneered the Afrobeat genre, a syncretic mix of jazz, soul, highlife, calypso and funk.
In Fela: This Bitch of A Life, a biography on Fela Kuti by Carlos Moore, Fela explains how his music transitioned from highlife jazz, as he called it, to Afrobeat:
“When did I start calling my music Afrobeat? Let me tell you. I was playing highlife jazz when Geraldo Pino came to town in ’66 or a bit earlier with soul. That’s what upset everything, man. He came to town with James Brown’s music, singing, ‘hey, hey, I feel all right, ta, ta, ta, ta…’ And with such equipment you’ve never seen, man. This man tearing Lagos to pieces. Woooooooh, man! He had all Nigeria in his pocket. Made me fall right on my ass, man. Ahhhhh, this Sierra Leonean guy was too much. Geraldo Pino from Sierra Leone. I’ll never forget him. I never heard this kind of music before-o, I’m telling you. Only when I went to Ghana shortly after that did I hear music like that again, soul music. Shit!
“… I went back to Nigeria, but soon after returned to Ghana in ’68. One day I was with a friend sitting down in a club in Accra, listening to soul music. Everybody was playing soul, man, trying to copy Pino. I said to myself, ‘This Jame Brown music … This is what is going to happen in Nigeria soon-o.’ I saw it so clearly. That’s why I said to myself, ‘I have to be very original and clear myself from this shit … I must identify myself with Africa.’
“Raymond Aziz, a Nigerian-Ghanian who was sitting next to me, looked at me kind of pensively. ‘You ok, man?’ he asked. I said, ‘Raymond, you see that my music. I must give it a name-o, a real African name that is catchy. I’ve been looking for a name to give it. And I’ve been thinking of calling it Afrobeat.’”
The attack on Kalakuta Republic
Fela’s form of Afrobeat was not only noted for its intricate and sophisticated rhythms, but also for its uncompromising political and social commentary. Fela spoke to the issues of injustice in Africa, in lyrics delivered in pidgin English. One of his most popular and politically contentious hits was a song called Zombie, which was released in 1976 with the band Afrika 70.
Zombie was a critique of the military and state officials who Fela likened to Zombies, who lacked the capacity to think and act for themselves, killed indeterminately and were subservient to the whims of dictatorial authority.
Soon after Zombie’s release, Fela’s compound, Kalakuta Republic, was raided and burnt down by the military. Fela’s mother, bandmates and dancers were brutalised during the attacks, many of them sustaining serious injuries, and some of the women were beaten and raped.
Fela’s mother was thrown off a balcony during the raid. She died in hospital soon after. Coffin for Head of State a song Fela later released, was a retelling of how he delivered his mother’s body in a coffin to General Obasanjo.
Kuti then moved to Ghana between 1977 and 1978 . This was when CC Yoyo was first introduced to him.
After a brief retelling of Nigerian political history and how Fela positioned himself as an important player within it, CC Yoyo goes back to the music. “The drummer used to be friends with my niece. That is Mr Tony Allen – he was my master and he trained me a lot,” he starts.
“So at any time, I would come to Tony’s place (they were staying at the Apollo Theatre), so every time I would come there, I would play the drums in his room. Once I finished doing my work for the day, I would have a chance to play the drums … he [Tony Allen] trained me to play the original Afrobeat. That makes me now the second Afrobeat drummer. If Allen is the first, CC Yoyo is the second.”
CC Yoyo remembers how life in Ghana became increasingly difficult. “That time, too, Ghana was hard. There were curfews. There were problems. Famine – the rain don’t fall. Ghana was hard. No food. No job. The military fighting the military and so I decided soon after to follow [Fela and Tony back] to Nigeria.”
CC Yoyo recalls that he left Ghana for Nigeria when he was about 20 or 21 years old. He now imagines himself Nigerian-Ghanaian as he built and established a life for himself in both of his musical icons’ countries.
“I was staying with Tony Allen. He was like a father to me. He trained me and Fela like[d] me. Sometimes when Tony Allen, the master, wasn’t around, Fela would like me to play”.
“Tony Allen went and formed his own group. He went and formed his own band and then I took over the drums. Shakara and Lady, all those songs were played by my master. When I took over, we were about to do Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense. I was Fela’s drummer on that record,” recalls CC Yoyo.
Like many of Fela’s songs, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, is a critique of state sponsored colonial education and the fundamental brokenness of Nigerian democratic institutions Fela mischievously dubbed ‘demo-crazy’.
Given how skilful and prolific Fela was as a social commentator and artist, invocations of Fela have and continue to be used across time and space. In the latest South African iteration, hip-hop artist AKA claims he is referred to as Fela in Versace, which features Nigerian artist Kiddominant in his latest afrobeats-inspired single. AKA stands in front of a mural, painted in green and white, of Fela smoking grass with the words “teacher don’t teach me nonsense” emblazoned next to him. The South African song is a far cry from the political critique heard in Fela’s own work, but perhaps serious Fela followers may find solace in Fela being referred to as ‘a big shot’ and ‘superstar’ by AKA in the hook.
Life after Fela
“When Fela died, the band was no more and some of us joined Femi Kuti [in Egypt 80], but life was difficult again in Nigeria so I came home to Ghana and joined the military band called Sappers,” recalls CC Yoyo, whose posture has changed slightly as he now clasps his hands firmly in front of him.
Ghana is well known for its military and police bands. CC Yoyo thought it best to form part of that nexus when he went back home.
On his return from Nigeria, he played with Ghanaian highlife musician Gyedu Blay Ambolley as well as Afrobeat and highlife guitarist Ebo Taylor, who was a close friend of Fela.
“You know, Fela was also friends with Hugh Masekela,” remembers CC Yoyo as he recalls the roster of prolific artists he has played with. “So when Hugh visited Ghana, I was the one playing drums for him. Later, he invited me to South Africa for some concerts. I also played with Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela at the Coming Home Concert after he returned from exile.”
On his return to Ghana, CC Yoyo developed his skills to become a multi-instrumentalist, playing bass, drums and keyboard along with developing a compositional skill set.
“Now, I work on a project called African Connection: Queens and Kings.”
African Connection is world collaboration comprising Danish, Ghanaian and American musicians. Their music blends Afrobeat, highlife, funk, rock, and West African traditional music.
“Mostly we are working on Fela Kuti; we are raising his spirit. Our next concert will be playing with Sean Kuti in Copenhagen,” says CC Yoyo as he describes the feel of his latest project.
As we make our way down to the Apollo Theatre, CC Yoyo reflects on his first impression of Fela when he was introduced to him. “You know, Fela was a different man. His smoking was different. He made sex different. His stage attitude was different. He had a different style of living.”
We approach a yellowed, dilapidated building. Chickens cluck at the entrance. “This is it, this is the Apollo Theatre,” he announces.
After being granted permission by one of the makeshift guards, CC Yoyo shows me around the premises. We walk into an empty courtyard with a theatre in the round feature in the middle.
“That over there was where Fela used to perform,” he says as he points to an elevated mosaic tiled floor. “That was Fela’s stage.”
He shows me an area on the opposite end of the building that served as a bar. “Over there,” he says as he points to a balcony attached to the house to the left of the main entrance, “was where Fela used to stay with his women. He used to smoke ganja on that balcony.”
CC Yoyo stops and surveys the space. “So much,” he says softly, “so much of that time is coming back to me.”