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Fela's stories: Confusion Break Bone

We embark to Lagos with old lion Binda Ngazolo. The chaotic megacity was often referenced by Fela, much like in “Confusion Break Bone” (1990).

When I say confusion
Everything out of-ee control
When everything out-ee of control-ee
E go be say, it Pafuka-oh (Pafuka na quench)

Abidjan, 2001: I receive an unlikely offer. I’m invited to stage the play Le Fou du Carrefour [“the crossroads’ madman”] in Lagos, Nigeria, under the title Madness Junction. This urban fable was penned by the great Ivorian playwright Hyacinthe Kakou in 1994, and depicts a frenetic African city invaded by garbage and other toxic waste originating from industrialized countries. The city’s arteries are blocked. Vehicles can no longer move freely, workers can no longer get to their respective occupations… The people grumble. The cops beat them down. The economy is blocked, the country is suffocated. Everyone complains, but no one does anything.

One day, one of the inhabitants feels he has had enough and starts cleaning the city. They call him “the madman”. What could he do where the government has failed to improve this situation? But the man persists. And the city becomes clean again. But as a result repercussions break out: those who lived off the garbage find themselves unemployed and begin to complain. The madman must be driven out. The government grants the injunctions of the protestors. The madman is chased away and garbage accumulates again. Everyone complains… But no one does anything.

This is Lagos!

To put on this play in Lagos is a real challenge for me. I am worried stiff. My level of English is as low as you can get. Cameroon is certainly bilingual but I speak English only when the Francophonie card cannot be played any longer. Fortunately, I’m a bit of a “Pidginophone”. As if that wasn’t enough, Cameroon wages in open conflict with Nigeria, the two countries fighting over the Bakassi peninsula. If I decline the proposal, they will say that I am afraid. Who has ever seen a Cameroonian confess that he’s scared, huh? So I decide to take up the challenge. As you may know, in every big megacity, there is always a sign saying “welcome to…” this or that. But in Lagos it’s simply: “This is Lagos”.

As a Francophone, you generally pee your pants a little in advance. All the terrible stories they told about the country invade my mind. But, hey, so far, so good. The vehicle drops me off at Ekoyi, the wealthy residential area. I still need to translate the play, because I want to perform it in English and Pidgin. In my mind, I would need a bilingual Nigerian or Cameroonian to help me with the translation. Someone also, who can bring me into the lively atmosphere of the popular neighborhoods, so I could immerse myself in the energy of Lagos-city. Ekoyi is not this kind of neighborhood, and I guess it is where young student Emmanuel Macron stayed at the time of his internship in Nigeria. Fortunately, I am told that they have found me a fearless translator. And that he’s on his way…

But you would have never guessed who I see getting off a rusty minibus in the parking lot of the French Alliance in Lagos? A white man! A smiling guy, dressed in a shirt, a pair of jeans and… clogs. Clogs, in Lagos! To top it off, he’s Belgian! Neither an Englishman, nor a Flemish Belgian, no! A Walloon, thus a French-speaking person. But what the hell can a Walloon Belgian do in Lagos, eh? This is not Kinshasa! I cannot believe my eyes. This must be some kind of joke. Does anyone seriously think that I will put up a White man in Lagos? It does not make any sense. At best, this would be a call to murder. Here, the Whites are barricaded inside their residential neighborhoods, behind high barbed-wired walls, protected by armed guards. White ghettos. So who is this guy?

Smoke it, it’s Belgian dope!

Right from the beginning of our exchange, I realize how much I was wrong. Every single one of my prejudices would disappear, one after the other. I discover that this Belgian guy had lived in Nigeria for 25 years. As a European, one must be seriously crazy to do that. So when he tells me that he has worked with Fela, I am dumbfounded. He even went to jail with him. Lagos is already an overcrowded city, so can you imagine the state of the prisons? What’s more, with a White guy inside? This is just too surreal. For me, there is no doubt: this Belgian is a madman.

The man invites me to go for a ride in the slums of Lagos-city. I climb into the spooky minivan. And fasten your seatbelts: I am sitting in the passenger seat. My Belgian guide starts the engines and drives like crazy. The Nigerian way. I start thinking that it was not a good idea to go with him. He even zigzags, and curses the Nigerian drivers, sometimes in Yoruba, sometimes in Pidgin. I feel that all this is going to end in a bloodbath. But to my surprise, Nigerian drivers seem astonished to hear a White guy talk Pidgin without a foreign accent. They conclude that he has somehow turned into a Nigerian. This would explain why they don’t react to his insults. Phew! But as we exit Ekoyi, a monstrous “go-slow” swallows us. Read: one of these famous inextricable traffic jams that only happen in Lagos. This is only the first day of my journey, and here I am immersed in the nightmare that Fela sang in “Confusion”, in 1975. 

When one finds themselves entangled in the traffic jams of Lagos, they can only think of this song, and its sister-version he recorded fifteen years later, “Confusion Break Bones” – or “CBB”. Imagine the scenario: stiffness in a hearse that has just crashed into an artery of the crazy city, Lagos. Fela foresees the damage done:

Na him be say when we say confusion e be say e pafuka
Na him be dat we dey tok confusion e break e bone confusion e break e bone nko, nko o nko, nko o nko,nko o nko,nko o nko, nko o nko
Dead body get accident yeepa
Confusion break bone ni yeepa

You enable the English subtitles on the video.
“Underground Spiritual Game”

With these lyrics in mind, here I am, deep in what Fela called the “underground spiritual game”. Read: the connection to the world of underground energies… The inalienable spirits who keep on fighting, generation after generation, against the gravediggers of Nigeria and Africa..

I sing a song some time ago
Dem call am “Confusion”
Den army never burn my house
Oil money dey flow for Lagos den
Laruku repeke repeke lau lau lau….
My people think say Nigeria don dey
But me as I see am, I no say Nigeria go
Go down how country go
Dey make money make people of country no see money,
Laruka repete repete lau lau lau
I see many wrong things in Nigeria
Sometime ago I come sing one song
Laruku repete repete lau lau lau
When I say confusion everything out of control

Here I am, sucked in by the meanderings of Fela’s world in Lagos. As if the spirit of the master was guiding my steps in a sometimes hazardous measure. Like that first night when the Belgian guy dragged me into Lagos’ gloomy slums in the middle of nowhere, in the shadows of the city parallel without electricity or street lamps. In the darkness, one can barely see a shapeless mass of a building from which strange people emerge. They are girls and boys. I fear the worst. But the Belgian seems to know them. He gets out of the rusty minibus, which does not seem like a good idea, for a White man in Lagos, especially after midnight. I would even say that this is heresy for anyone with a dose of survival instinct. I do not say anything, but I have a strong suspicion that what is happening is a business deal to do with illegal substances. I had already seen that the Belgian was crazy. I realize now that he also has suicidal tendencies. They do not stop arguing. Shortly after, he comes back with the whole crew and they all rush into the minibus. Then just as he gets ready to start, a battalion of cops come down on us!
I cannot tell where they came from…!

They are all the more irritated that a White man is involved! In this ill-famed part of Lagos where even a common Nigerian would not venture into… Especially after midnight. Because in Lagos, outside after midnight, it is only cops and thugs, and both roles are interchangeable.

“What the hell are you doing here?”, yells a policeman.

Then in a perfectly mastered Pidgin – which ends up discontenting the cops – the Belgian begins to wind them up. And they see him as untrustworthy as he is too Nigerian to possibly be honest. The cops start a deep body-search, including inside the underpants, on everyone, the girls and me included. “Hands up everyone!” To me, this is crystal clear: I will spend the rest of my life in a Nigerian prison because of this damn Belgian. For sure, the cops will eventually find an illicit substance in one of the guys’ pockets. In short, we are cornered.

Fela Kuti – C.B.B. part. 2

The cops raid the whole of the rusty minibus searching every nook and cranny. They do not find anything. But I’m not reassured yet. They would easily be able to slip a cannabis butt in the vehicle, just so they can racket us. Eventually, they drop the case. I do not know what the Belgian did with them. But they give us the order to leave before they change their minds. The Belgian man takes the wheel and we go back immediately. Phew! I suggest to the Belgian to forget it if he ever wants to go back to Lagos after midnight.

Pafuka fit be police station (Pafuka na quench)
Pafuka fit be hospital (Pafuka na quench)
And then I say confusion na wetin-oh (Confusion na wa)

And this is how I met a friend, an incredible human being, and found an unexpected connection to the world of Fela. He will not only masterfully translate the play, but also put me in touch with the Kuti clan, and in particular with Fela’s legendary cover designer: Lemi Ghariokwu, who will do me the honor of designing the poster for the play, Madness Junction. 

Madness junction

The next day, bumper to bumper, we are entangled in traffic jams again. We painfully reach the famous hub “Ojou Eelegba”, Lagos-city’s Gordian knot of road traffic and the metaphor for the dysfunction of the foundation of Nigeria and Africa’s operational process. Everything that Fela has spent his life denouncing.

I sing about one street for Lagos dem call am “Ojou Eelegba”
I take am compare how Nigeria be,
One crossroad in centre down
For Ojou Eelegba
For Ojou Eelegba
For Ojou Eelegba
For Ojou Eelegba
Moto dey come from east
Motor dey come from west
Motor dey come from north

[I sing about a street in Lagos
They call it “Ojou Eelegba”
I compare it to Nigeria
One crossroad in center of town
At Ojou Eelegba (x4)
Vehicles approach from east
Vehicles approach from west
Vehicles approach from north
Vehicles approach from south
And no policeman to direct the traffic
The result is utter confusion!
It is utter confusion.]

In Lagos at the time, there was no traffic control, and no traffic lights.

My problem e no small at all
Nothing dey for me to sing about
If something good dey I go sing
Nothing good do self to sing about
Nothing good do self to sing
All the things e dey no dey good
If I sing-ee say, water no dey
Na old old old news be dat-ee-oh

And because he sang this song:

After e no tay police and army come burn my house
My problem e no small at all nothing dey for me to sing about
If something good dey i go sing nothing good sef to sing about
Nothing good sef to sing all the things wey dey e no dey good
If i sing say water no dey na old news be dat…no old news be dat

And the same goes on, Fela says, regarding lack of food, inflation, corruption, mismanagement, embezzlement… Nothing new.

I say the problem still dey paparapa
The thing wey e dey worry me how this robbery come get big head (2x)
The first one na leg robbery, where man go go pick pocket, the man go start to take leg run
The second one na armed robbery, where man go go steal big thing he go take gun defend himself
The third one na head robbery, where oga pata pata go go steal he go take position steal all free, free stealing na him policy, head robbery…
Which head we get e no dey steal, which president we get e never steal?

Together with the amazing Belgian/Nigerian, we eventually succeed to extricate ourselves from the infernal traffic jams of Ojou Eelegba’s chaotic hub.

Na him be say when we say confusion e be say e pafuka
Na him be dat we dey tok confusion
E break e bone confusion e break e bone nko, nko
Confusion break-ee bone-ee, yepa 2x
Confusion break bone-ee yepa 2x
Na double for dead body and the owner of dead bodi
Confusion break-ee bone-ee, yepa
Double wahala for dead-ee body
Biola oh dead-ee body

The shattered Maccabee was ejected from the hearse. He lies on the roadside, but does not really “rest in peace”. Just like Nigeria itself, which wades in confusion. Is it not from the same confusion that this accursed Boko Haram was born? All this makes me want to listen to another one of Fela’s tracks, “Coffin For The Head Of State”.