As we commemorate the legacy of the Afrobeat legend two decades since his death, I feel like I met with him on that fateful first day visit to the shrine.
So it was on Saturday, August 13, 2016, that I’d have my first ever visit to the symbolic New Afrika Shrine, an entertainment hub located in the heart of Lagos, Central Business District, Agidingbi, Ikeja, Lagos which was set up for the annual commemoration of the legacy of the late iconic music and political figure Fela Anikulapo Kuti – hence the birth of Felabration.
Fela Kuti was a radical music legend and a voice of the people to put it rather mildly. What he stood for was not only a Nigerian or African issue, but a global one – social justice and freedom from political oppression.
I headed to the Shrine on this said Saturday with sketchy images of what the much talked about Afrika shrine would be like, except for one thing I was sure expecting to see – marijuana in the air!
I have been told it’s a place where hard drugs get puffed with no care in the world, so as I arrived at the shrine at about 4pm, my eyes firstly went to some newspaper cut posted on the wall in the compound that had to do with two former presidents of Nigeria – General Olusegun Obasanjo and General Ibrahim Babangida, exchanging heated words with each other like two teenagers, which naturally took me back to what Fela was about – using his music as a tool to call out corrupt leaders in the political scene.
I then proceeded into the hall where I saw some family photos of the Afrobeat pioneer as well as more politically and socially charged quotes written on the walls;
Also saw the shrine in itself where Fela used to have his prayers, the stage where the music was performed with eminent African personalities up on the wall backstage – Martin Luther King, Mandela, and Fela’s activist mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, amongst others.
There was no music performance going on at the time, but a Fuji artiste – Remi Aluko was billed to perform later at night. The arena was however occupied with adults watching a game of English football as a new season had just begun on the weekend.
I saw middle-aged men and ladies presumably in their early or mid 30’s, smoking what I thought was plain cigarettes, but I was soon to be schooled otherwise. It was generally a relaxed atmosphere, both on the ground and the upper floor where guests also occupied, having a nice time. The food vendors were going about their normal duty, the barbecue guy was smoking his chicken and the retailers anticipating their next customer.
Along the way, I ran into some work colleagues – Shola and Noel. I met them at one of the shops close to the Shrine entrance where he was trying to get local jewelry for his girlfriend, telling me his lady always complained he never brings a gift back for her whenever he travels.
Noel happens to be a fan of Fela’s music, and coming from Berlin, one of the venues Fela performed back in the days, made it not surprising. Asking him what he enjoys in Fela’s music, he tells me it’s all about the vibes the Abami eda’s music exuded.
A tour guide named Martins who was on an orange T-shirt labeled with the words ‘Shrine Police’ or something close to that, was on hand to show us around and give us some insight into what goes down in the Shrine.
First stop was to the shrine, located a couple steps down the entrance of the hall. Martins emphasized its importance saying the shrine itself is what inspired the name of the place without which, it wouldn’t have been called Afrika Shrine.
He explained that it is a place where the late Fela offered prayers to God, likewise his son Femi and others. “Femi comes to pray here anytime he is about to travel”, the guide said.
Martins also pointed at a picture frame of Fela’s Egypt ‘80 band seated in the shrine, explaining that Fela’s son, Femi decided to form his own band – The Positive Force, made up of three dancers and a band who travel along with him whenever he was going out to perform.
“ There is a musician that performs at 6pm to open the stage, after which, his band, Positive Force takes over, and they’ll play till 8pm, after which Femi Kuti takes, live performance is on Sundays, while rehearsals are on Thursdays, the performance ends most times by 12am, depending on the mood he is in.”
There were two cages positioned wide apart from each other in front of the stage were used for, which Martins said it was for Femi’s dancers who took turns dancing inside, and after one session of musical performance from an artiste on stage, a dancer would step down for another to take over.
Along my line of thoughts, I presumed Shola had been at the shrine before, and so asked him if he had been and what his experience was like; he confirmed my suspicion, telling me about their experiences last year of some of the Pulse TV and Pulse editorial team members at Felabration 2015.
He narrated how one of them was overwhelmed with the marijuana in the air and how part of the video camera equipment got damaged along the way. He also recalled a random guy who was totally under the influence of drugs at the event that he soon became an object of ridicule that night, with pictures of him taken from every angle.
I got asking about how the performance goes down on stage. About schedules, the tour guide talked about Seun Kuti’s regular schedule - performing every last Saturday of the month and having his rehearsals at the Kalakuta Republic, every other Wednesday.
The Kalakuta Republic situated on Gbemisola Street, Allen Avenue, Ikeja, Lagos was home to Fela but has since been transformed into a museum and exhibition center which displays some of Fela’s trademark items like his keyboard, guitar, traditional clothes and so on.
Noel got asking how secure the environment is during performances, to which Martins explains that the place is actually quite safe, saying policemen don’t have right to come in and arrest or harass anybody, and if they happen to be chasing anybody into the shrine, they would have to wait until the person comes out.
“The shows we have here usually have at least 30 security men because we value the people,” Martins said. He talked about how the previous night Friday August 12, 2016 a disco night held at the shrine was filled up to the brim, showing the extent to which the place gets patronized.
Martins further goes on to detail the order of regular shows that go down at the shrine on a monthly – The first Wednesdays of the month goes to the ladies tagged “Ladies night”, Second Wednesdays is for the rappers and Hip hop culture enthusiasts tagged “Hip hop night”, Third Wednesdays are for discovering new acts tagged “Artist discovery night”.
There is also “Tuesday Night Flight” (TNF) which sees artists performing and rewarding the audience with gifts but has since been shifted to every last Wednesday of the month. A Reggae music DJ who deejays at one of the popular radio stations in Lagos now has Reggae gigs at the shrine every Tuesday. The only free day of the week happens to be Mondays.
The Fuji artiste Remi Aluko who was to perform that night performs every second Saturday of the month.
We then get talking about the Felabration experience, which Martins gets to let us know that it occurs around the date of Fela’s birth October 15, saying the event which lasts a week long usually falls around 11th, 12th and 13th October of every year . All week long, the shows are free except on Sundays where a gate fee is charged – the day Femi Kuti performs.
Noel then asks Martins the tour guide whether Femi is more popular than Seun. Martins replies saying Femi is more popular. “He has more tracks than Seun and he travels a lot, and in Kalakuta where Seun rehearses, not everybody goes there, they don’t have much crowd there, but the shrine is close to the main road where people can easily locate it whereas Kalakuta is more inwards such that people cannot easily locate it” Martins explains.
He mentioned that different nationals come to see Femi perform on Thursdays and Sundays and that time constraint is a factor as Femi performs his own shows between the hours of 6pm and 12am whereas Seun starts his own show from 12am, a time most people might not have the luxury to wait around to watch him perform.
The tour guide also talked about how Fela’s death was marked this year as opposed to previous years, revealing to us that the commemoration of his death that usually was marked on August 1 and 2 each year was marked from the second to sixth of August this time around in 2016, and had various contemporary Nigerian stars such as Wizkid, Olamide, Lil Kesh, CDQ, Reekado Banks and others grace the stage of the shrine performing their hit songs.
He also talked about an audition event that do come up in September for upcoming artists that would want to perform at Felabration in October. The audition comes up the first week of September every Wednesday of the month, for all the four Wednesdays – First Wednesday is the first round, second Wednesday presents the second round. Then the third and fourth Wednesdays mark the semi-final and final stages respectively.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti was known rather infamously for smoking marijuana and influencing the widespread use of it for recreational purposes among his fans, something that did not go down well with the government. The drug also known as ‘Indian hemp’, ‘Cannabis’ or ‘Weed’ has been the subject of controversy till date on a global scale over its use.
I had already been greeted by sights and smell of people smoking in the open some substance I assumed to be cigarettes right inside the shrine even when there were notices on the wall that stated that no smoking was allowed in the shrine .
So I asked my tour guide Martins about the culture of hard drugs use there, with weed on my mind in particular, trying to find out if it was something they had to do in hiding; and of course he obliged me pointing out that the substances were not sold in the shrine.
“You can smoke anywhere, you just buy your thing outside, choose a convenient place and smoke with no harassment from anybody” Martins said.
When I mentioned seeing people with cigarettes, he quickly interjected me saying you would not easily see cigarettes in the shrine, mentioning the type of drugs that are prevalent in the shrine including SK, also known as Skunk, Arizona and Push among others.
Speaking about the shrine being closed at some point by the Lagos State Government, Martins made me understand that it wasn’t because of the substance abuse that the government clamped down on the place but due to traffic congestion the Shrine was allegedly causing.
He talked about Femi Kuti arguing out the case maintaining that it was the event centers close to the shrine that were the main culprits behind the gridlock because they held their parties during the day on weekends making vehicular traffic higher in the Ikeja environs. He added that Femi eventually won the case and got the shrine re-opened.