A wild shrine to music, history and the struggle for human rights

Published in The Independent (June 5th, 2009)

We bumped our way down the ramshackle streets of Ikeja in the traffic-choked megacity of Lagos, and there it was: the new Afrika Shrine, spiritual home of Afrobeat, the sound created by Fela Kuti and Tony Allen which grew to become the most influential music to emerge from Africa in decades.

Outside, there were hawkers selling goods: groceries, cigarettes and, from one enterprising salesman, 2ft marijuana joints.

Inside, it was like Hollywood’s vision of an African nightclub. A carnivorous wooden shed that holds several thousand people, with a bar at one end and a simple stage at the other. There were netted podiums for Femi Kuti’s famous female dancers, and artefacts of his father’s along one wall – beside stern warnings against drug use.

In one corner, a cow was being chopped up for our lunch, the butcher cheerfully posing for pictures with the skull. Dozens of people sat around drinking palm wine, chatting and playing chess, for the Shrine serves as a social club and welfare centre for local residents during the day, offering refuge to the homeless and jobless despite endless harassment from the Lagos authorities. Over the years, it has been shut down repeatedly.

One afternoon I watched a televised match between Everton and Arsenal with about 200 enthusiastic fans, mostly rooting for the Gunners because of their former player Kanu, who seems to be on virtually every advertising billboard in the city.

Our party wandered backstage, climbing stairs adorned with photographs of famous musicians such as Bob Marley and Baaba Maal (who was part of our group). Upstairs, I stumbled upon a room which turned out to be Femi’s bedroom, where his partner was suckling a child. She smiled, and said hello. Next door, Femi’s sister and friends were in the living room, and welcomed us in. Despite Femi Kuti’s success, like his father he still lives here in the heart of his people, with a window of his house looking out over the stage.

Come showtime, it is all rather different: the most exhilarating and wildest nightclub imaginable. During Femi’s spectacular shows, bouncers at the front whack people who get too close to the stage with huge wooden staves. Giant plumes of fire are ignited from aerosols. During one song about anarchy, the audience suddenly raised all the tables and chairs above their heads while dancing.

Meanwhile, at the bar at the back of the hall, some folk continued their games of chess, seemingly oblivious to the music and mayhem all around them.

I was there with a party of artists for Africa Express, which brings together Western and African musicians and headlined a festival marking the anniversary of Fela Kuti’s birth. Among those performing was Flea, bassist with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who had flown from California for the privilege of playing at such an historic venue. Afterwards, I asked him what he had made of it. “That was, without a doubt, the craziest show I have ever played in my life,” he said. “It was fantastic.”

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