The New Afrika Shrine is the best place to be any given Sunday evening Femi Kuti and his Positive Force Band are in town.
Located towards the outskirts (read entrance) of Lagos, it is close enough to the seat of power to assert some unease. Shrine, as it is called by the regulars, has its own sort of sovereignty—it is that place where you can buy and smoke weed freely without batting an eyelid, except you are Toni Kan’s neighbour ‘s son.
The entrance to the New Afrika Shrine is a beehive. Cab drivers dangle keys, angling to make eye contact and secure fares. Itinerant sellers push their wares -ranging from propane lighters to confectioneries – almost up your nostrils. An array of small sheds stretches across the street, where you could order a meal of pounded yam or bargain for 50 litres of skoochies.
But it the music that pervades the air. It is a bassline riding on the back of other musical elements. There is a queue at the cashier spot. At the main entrance, your ticket is replaced by an invisible watermark placed on your wrist. The music becomes more urgent. Ditto for the cannabis smoke. Vendors proposition you with their wares–stewed goat, chicken, Fela merchandise and keepsakes and weed.
You arrive at the arena and the stage is lit, awash with colours. The band is repeating the bassline like a cracked record, only that there is more soul in their effort, more deliberateness.
Made is dressed like the other band members, hoisting his bass guitar, eyes closed, body transfixed by his father’s scores. Perhaps he is in communion with the spirits of Afrobeat. The spirits best symbolized by the images of his grandfather, Fela Kuti, whose hands are triumphantly raised in some Blank Panther salute. Pictures of his great grandmother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Martin Luther King Jnr, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkurumah, Thomas Sankara are pinned to the stage scaffolding, all totems of the Pan-Africanism Fela espoused.
The Hammond piano is dutifully in wait for Mr Kuti. Also are his array of wind instruments, sitting beside each other. The Afrobeat King might be in his green room, having a moment of introspection, perhaps transfixed like his son, in some deep commune with the spirits that govern protest songs.
The wait is short. Mr Kuti arrives with his favourite quip—arararara—and a coterie of dancers. Dressed in his customary adire attire with longish short sleeves and sandals, he is holding a large towel that will become more useful as the evening progresses. His band becomes energised on seeing him, they play one of his older tunes, perhaps to put their sound to check.
Mr Kuti addresses his audience which has grown larger since his arrival. He announces that this will be the last Sunday Jump of the year. There is no regard for the upcoming yuletide celebrations as he name checks the different Lagos suburbs represented in the crowd. People come from far and wide, to listen to his brand of Afrobeat, to cool off what is left of the weekend and to enjoy a spliff in a place where you don’t have to look furtively over your shoulders.
The New Afrika Shrine is different from the Afrika Shrine but few people can tell the difference. To a staggering majority, Mr Kuti’s shrine was inherited from his father but those who are loyal to the music and to the man know that Fela’s shrine was on Pepple street, now over-run by the sweeping tide of commerce coming from Otigba street.
Mr Kuti is 56 years old. Two years younger than his father when he died. There are no roaring demands about Mr Kuti’s legacy. He has held his own as an Afrobeat musician. He stands part from his father’s legacy and has championed the cause of that protest music. But this could not have happened without a tussle and a conquering of anxieties.
If Mr Kuti has made peace with his up-tempo, short-tenured, hard-hitting, derisively funky brand of Afrobeat, the die-hard Fela fan will bring his own anxieties to the New Afrika Shrine.
The set-list is long and hard to keep up with. The band keeps belting one short track after the other. Mr Kuti alternates between blowing his horns, wiping his face, tapping his keyboard and doing his dance.
The dance is a rarity in itself. Goofy and derivative, it carries influences from disco, Yoruba dance, Fela’s iconoclasm and a bit of Mr Kuti’s poise or lack of it. It is not particularly graceful, but it is part of the routine his fans must endure and enjoy.
The best part of the evening is when Made drops the guitar and joins his father in a horn blowing match that has its own unique fandom. Eventually, Femi, not lacking in pulmonary strength, succumbs to his son, who is nimble and graceful and totally at ease with being on stage.
The evening darkens as the Sunday Jump draws to its end.