How Fela Introduced Me To Igbo by FELA's album sleeve designer, Lemmy Ghariokwu
Legendary album sleeve designer, Lemmy Ghariokwu, who famously designed many of Fela’s album sleeves, tells Entertainment Café about his career, encounter with the Afrobeat king and other issues.
Where have you been?
I have been around, doing my job quietly because I make a living out of album designing. I have designed over 200 album sleeves in my 38-year career. For Kennis Music, I designed 90 percent of their album or CD covers. I designed album sleeves of Eedris, Tony Tetuila, Kenny St. Brown, Azadus and others .
Did you set out to be a sleeve designer?
I believe in predestination. I believe in destiny because whatever we will be in future has been pre-destined. That is why some parents get their children confused and want to ensure that their children do their bidding.
Did that happen to you?
My dad wanted me to become a mechanical engineer and I studied hard for that. While in school, I took interest in Technical Drawing, Chemistry , Additional Mathematics and other related subjects. Despite all these I took interest in drawing. In fact, I sometimes ran into trouble because of my interest in drawing.
After your school certificate, did you go to any school to study art?
After my school cert, I had enough time to move around. Between the time the result is released and the admission period was a long time in those days. So, I was doing the drawings and at the same time, going to the National Television Service (now NTA in Lagos). I used to do drawings for people like Art Alade, Mike Enahoro. An advertising company, Image Makers, invited me. They asked for my certificate and I told them I didn’t have any. So, I was employed as artist in training. I did that for a short period. For two weeks, I was not allowed to handle the brush. I supplied paints, but I knew I could do what the artistes were doing. At some point, I just stopped going there. And in 1974, destiny called, when a guy in my neighbourhood called me to do a potrait of Bruce Lee’s film, Enter The Dragon. The guy’s name was O.D.C. He owned a beer parlour. The film had three main actors: Bruce Lee, Don Saxon and Jim Kelly. I did the poster paintings of the film and the man loved it and put it in his shop. In the same year, Fela made the Roforofo Fight album. As I was looking at the album, I was moved to do an illustration of the album cover, which I did. I have it in my collection. There was a journalist called Babatunde Harrisson. He worked with THE PUNCH, which was was a weekly journal then. This guy was always coming to relax at that joint. But as at the time I did the poster, he was out of the country. On his return, he saw and liked it. He later requested to see me. When we met, he asked for my other drawings and saw Fela’s picture. He then asked whether I could do an album cover and I said I could. I had done two album covers for my uncle, Peter Okoh, who led a highlife band. But the albums were not released. But my first album cover that saw the light of the day was the one I did for Tessy Alan’s group called World Affairs. Harrison promised to take me to Fela, but I did not believe him; I thought he was drunk. I was wondering whether he knew Fela. He promised to give me a picture of Fela, from which I would make a portrait. The second day, he brought it. And within 24 hours, I finished the drawing. When he came to drink the next day, I told that I had finished the drawing. My mum gave me five naira, which I used to buy paints. Immediately Harrison saw the portrait, he said he was taking me to Fela. I told my mum, who told me to be careful. Harrison then called a taxi. We went to Fela. That was how I met Fela.
What was the meeting like?
It was memorable. I was so scared when we got there. We didn’t go inside the building when we got there because by they said Baba (Fela) was sleeping; so we stayed in the compound. Harrison then took off to have a drink somewhere in the neighbourhood because he abandoned his drink in Fadeyi because of me. When he left, I was a bit apprehensive. Fortunately for me, a girl came out of the house; she was from my neighbourhood. Her name is Ibe Agu.
She asked: “Kilo wa se nibi?” (what are you doing here?). She thought I was in trouble and I had run away from home. I told her that I came with a drawing. She went inside and woke Fela up. I was shocked. When I saw Fela, he wearing only his pant. I said: “Good afternoon sir”. He said: No, don’t sir me. Call me Fela. Are you the artist? Let me see what you have.” My hands started shaking. I held it for him to see and I’d never forget the words Fela said to me that day. He said: “Wow! Goddamn it!” I met many people in his living room. He then instructed his personal assistant to bring his cheque book and wrote a cheque of N120 (one hundred and twenty naira) for me. I used to earn N30. When he gave it to me, I looked at it and then I handed it back to him and said: “Fela I give you this from the bottom of my heart.” He was shocked. I was 18. He took the cheque and asked them to bring him a small exercise book. He tore a sheet and wrote: “Please admit bearer to any show free of charge”, signed it and gave it to me. That was my ticket to Kalakuta. Anytime, anywhere he was performing, if I gave it to those at the gate, they always wondered where on earth I got that note. When I got close to them, I was told that it was a rare thing for Fela to sign that kind of pass to any of his shows.
When did you start designing Fela’s album sleeves?
About two weeks after meeting him. The police attacked his house and it was in the news everywhere. I was worried. I saw it in THE PUNCH, so I asked Harrison if Fela was fine. He said he was, but on admission at LUTH.
Harrison took me to LUTH. Fela was in a private ward and there were so many people with him. He had plasters even on his head. When we got close to his bed, he greeted Harrison and then turned to me and called me the artist. I felt good. That same day, he said if he came out of the hospital, he would make a song to yab (criticising) the police, and even talked about electrifying the fence around his house because the police came in too easily.
A few weeks later, he composed Alagbon Close. I witnessed the composition because I was always there. Anytime I listen to that song, I remember a part he put in because of me. When he was composing the song, he said to me: “Artist, if dem take you go Alagbon, you go paint for cell.” So he added that part. When he finished, he said: “Let’s see what you can do on the album cover.” He never discussed concepts with me, so I came up with an illustration.
Were you paid for it?
I was paid N120. I did 26 album covers for Fela between 1974 to 1993.
How did you feel when he died?
I felt bad. I did the last but one album cover. Dede did the last album cover. You know he is an artist and was living with Fela then. Underground System was the last album Fela released. I was not really surprised that he died when he did. My only surprise was that he lived that long because Fela was a person that burned his candle at both ends.
Was there a dispute or why did you not design the last album?
There was none. I left in 1994.
What kind of person was Fela?
Fela was a very complex person. People like him are rare. It might take about 60 years before we’ll get someone like him. He had too many things going; he was set on a mission. Fela was an egalitarian being and he loved the common folk. He was able to share whatever he had with so many people. Everyone of us knows he was a revolutionary, he was bold and daring; he was a rascal. I learnt a lot from Fela. My association with him helped me lay a solid foundation for my life.
What bad things did you pick from Fela?
I did not learn any bad thing from him because I chose not to. I was fortunate because I was able to separate the wheat from the chaff. That is the way I live my life–I don’t follow people blindly.
What of Igbo?
I smoked Igbo (marijuana). Prior to the time I started smoking igbo, Fela always offered it to me whenever I visited him, but I always rejected it. But one day when it was just two of us, he said how can my artist be drinking Fanta. He said: “Take igbo small; you will be high and be more creative.”, I did. After taking it, he gave me goro, a potent concoction he created. I was feeling uneasy, so he Fela took me home himself with an instruction that I should not say anything and think of the album cover. I followed the instruction to the letter. When I woke up the next day–at about noon–many ideas came to me and I started flirting with them. And when I showed them to Fela, he loved them and was happy that he introduced me to igbo. “See what I mean,” he said. Let me end the story like this: I am in support of the legalisation of igbo. I don’t advertise it. I tasted it because of Fela and I stopped when I discovered that my body could no longer take it. Others did it and got carried away.