Son of a Tiger
He was facing the stage, arms akimbo with perspiration gradually gluing a purple polo shirt to his back. Oblivious to the hordes of spectators in the cavernous warehouse, the light skinned man bobbed his head and snapped his fingers to the band’s high-energy polyrhythmic melody. Afrobeat prince, Femi Kuti had wandered among the mortals and their plastic furniture to listen to how the music landed when it leaped off the stage.
It was rehearsal night at the New Afrika Shrine (NAS). And just my luck—on the only free day I had to visit the site—this scion of a deity was holding an open practice session.
Femi made his way to the pit in front of the stage, ear cocked towards the podium, arms furiously playing imaginary shakers, feet; two-stepping. He was swimming in the groove. That is, until he sharply raised his hand. There was a slacker in the horn section. Bounding back up, he went from brass-to-brass until he found the culprit. A trumpet player couldn’t hold the melody. Its tricky pirouettes, at first a slippery bar of soap in his hands but then; after wide-eyed concentration and Femi’s steady gaze, he grasped it.
Then, with Femi at the keyboard, the band banged out the delicious jam, again, and still, a second, third and fourth time. Welcome na de shrine where rehearsals are not a joke.
Located in Agidingbi, Ikeja, NAS is a massive converted warehouse set up to honour the fearless troubadour Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. On his return from America in 1968, Fela turning his Empire Hotel night club into his first shrine. It was a performance spot and where as Chief Priest he officiated at personalized Yoruba traditional ceremonies. Nigerian soldiers burned it down in 1977 and subsequent attempts to set up at new venues were met with resistance and evictions. Years after his passing, Femi finally secured a new home for his father’s fiery music and ideologies.
To enter the main hall, I walked past the garden bar where people had stuck plastic chairs on every inch of concrete, smoking and drinking, music blasting with taxi and okada men hanging about looking for fares. Past the ticket booth, the first things I saw were revolutionary quotes by the Black President and several young men milling around the grounds. One kindly informed me that I was allowed to take pictures of everything except people smoking weed. I could only do so if I’d asked for their permission.
Entering the dome, there was a library and a line of pool tables to the right, the stage and seats took up the middle with a gallery accessible via winding staircases to the far left. Beneath it were an ice cream bar and food kiosks selling roasted goat meat and shawarma.
I settled in close to the sound mixers and gasped when Femi Kuti first got off the stage to access how the band sounded. He’d stood so close I almost touched him. Fearing it might get me thrown out, I settled for the camera’s discreet strokes. Handsome and with a boyish charm despite the faint ghost of a bald patch, the 52-year-old Femi Kuti seemed happy with the band’s performance of the new tune. There was less frantic pacing up and down and even fewer stops. The stage lights had bathed his band, The Positive Force in a light blue hue and, like any self-respecting Afrobeat jam, the song wasn’t over until it dissolved into a medley of wind and percussion instruments before rising to a final triumphant crescendo.
Femi then slipped into his regular repertoire and out of the sweat-drenched purple tee for a pink pinstriped one. Taking up the saxophone, he moved closer to the edge of the stage and serenaded the growing crowd. We were all shaking our shoulders by now. Behind him, two hype-men began to dance among the portraits of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkurumah, Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba and Fela’s mother, Olufunmilayo Ransome Kuti that lined the stage.
But the men’s moves had nothing on the background vocalists and dancers. The three women may have had different body types; the first was tall and slim, the second, short and stocky, the third, skinny with a pronounced baby bump, but they shook their rumps and gyrated their waists in seductive and highly choreographed moves. Their barefoot, maroon tracksuit-wearing instructor, Yemi, Femi’s sister, occasionally ventured on stage to lead them in a routine. Short-sporting lasses tag-teamed in the fishnet cages set further back from the stage.
As the night wore on, it became very clear that the band played crowd favourites. Like father, like son, Femi’s music touched on everyday struggles: “Our problems plenty”, “Evil people will do anything to survive”. He lamented and the crowd repeated the refrains. I couldn’t help joining in the repetitive call and response game. A drunken reveller even wandered to the pit, faced Femi and struck Fela’s iconic two-fist pump pose.
This was a free concert but it was also work therefore there was no pause for applause between songs. However, a wicked electric guitar solo (during which time Femi change into a third tee) attracted enthusiastic clapping.
It got fairly hypnotizing at one point when the spinning overhead fans began to distribute more smoke than fresh air and certain songs were more horn-laced moans than lyric.
A sudden blackout didn’t dampen the mood; although it did draw scattered jeers aimed at the Nigerian power company. When the lights returned–there were probably several generators stashed at the back–Femi called all the dancers to the stage for a group routine that ended with the familiar fist salute. He later addressed the people in English and pidgin. Femi spoke about his plans for the shrine, the new single and the Afrobeat revival he sought.
And that’s when I left. Walking away more than satisfied and a little jealous (because the rehersal-cum-party-cum-sermon was still going strong). Femi showed himself to be a talented musician who embodied the very spirit of a father whose image and words loomed large on every wall. That three-hour experience proved the Yoruba saying to be true, omo ti ekun ba bi ekun ni jo; the son of a tiger will always be a tiger.