Inside the New Afrika Shrine
By Pelu Awofeso
The air smells sweet inside the New Africa Shrine. “It’s Frankincense. You know, like you have in the Bible,” says Kolade, a slender chap in his twenties, when I meet him on the Shrine’s sidewalk a little before midnight. It takes me a few seconds to connect his analogy with the legendary gifts from the Three Wise Men in the New Testament. As fate would have it, Kolade, dressed in a cream-coloured T-shirt, is actually on the evening shift to fill up the containers with more of the fragrance. “We make sure that all the containers have enough of the substance at all times so that the place continues to smell good.”
Kolade’s response has whet my appetite and I am duty bound to know more about this whole business. Where is the Frankincense from (‘Jamaica and Cuba,’ he says.); How many people work to keep the thing burning? (‘Three of us but I am just assisting’.);are you going to be doing this till the next morning? (‘Not quite. Somebody is likely to take over from me in a short while.’)
Every step I take, every inch of ground I step into inside the Shrine, it seems like the fragrance are on my tracks. Kolade, plastic bucket in hand, senses my interest and invites me to come along on his round of Frankincense filling. First he walks us back to a wooden box near the entrance, where he refills his bucket, not just with the Frankincense, which looks and feels like saw dust, but also two other substance, one of which I guesss must be Myrrh. That bit done, we both begin the stroll to the different Frankincense-spots in the Shrine like a doctor calling on his patients in the hospital ward.
The first point on our way is the shrine built in memory of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late Nigerian music maestro and creator of Afrobeat, who died in August 1997. All black marble, it’s dotted by a couple of miniature sculpted images, including a recognisable bust of the Abami Eda (The otherworldly creature) himself, wearing his trademark open-chest shirt. It is the ultimate proof that though he may be dead, Fela remains highly venerated — by his family and by his fans, who throng the New Afrika Shrine every week to connect with Afrobeat music dished out by his son Femi Kuti, a Grammy Awards nominee.
The inscription ‘FELA & EGYPT 80’, painted in red and black over a yellow background, gleams from a rectangular wooden slab across the floor of the shrine; and five feet above that hangs an orange long-sleeve shirt, unmistakably Fela’s. “The ones that we place on Fela’s shrine especially must never go out, never,” Kolade says with some seriousness, bending down to shake some Frankincense into one of the receptacles. The weak fumes suddenly come alive, burn more vigorously and the shrine is soon enveloped, not just by the aroma but the smoke itself.
Kolade’s duty for the next few hours is to see to it that the containers are continuously fed with Frankincense, until he is relieved by another hand. He looks spent already. We climb the stairs, past a quartet of bouncers, onto the stage and disappear behind the backdrop backstage, where some of the receptacles are positioned. On our way, we pass by Femi Kuti, dressed in a patterned red shirt, who is being interviewed by a two-man crew from the lifestyle and music channel Sound City.
But Kolade and I are both not by ourselves. As a matter of fact, we are surrounded near and far by literally hundreds of Fela fans, male and female, all of them chattering merrily, pumping palms, hugging and embracing one another, smoking ganja and drinking every type of liquid on sale – from bottled water to coca-cola to spirits.
And we are all here in the name of Felabration, the weeklong concert held every October to celebrate the music and the ideology of Fela (born October 15) since his death 13 years ago. Tonight is the second evening of this year’s outing. Large as the New Africa Shrine is, seats are not enough to go round and many of the visitors just make do with enjoying the goings-on on their feet.
On the stage, one performer to the other do a song or two from their repertoire to the audiences’ delight. Glittering guitars, shining saxophones add brilliance to an already pulsating stage, itself doused in multi-coloured spotlights, twisting and turning in every direction. In the auditorium itself, there are no bright lights – just a couple of red, yellow, green and blue bulbs on the side, so the place is lighted well enough for everyone to move about without bumping into anyone. A few standing young men and women puff on their self-wrapped weed and up spirals the smoke towards the hip roofing, some of that caught by the roving central spotlight.
“I am aware that so many people beg to perform on that stage,” one insider told me hours earlier while I was browsing the open-air reading cubicle. “They perform for free because it is a privilege to delight the crowd in honour of one of Africa’s musical giants.”
Seun Kuti, Fela’s youngest son and inheritor of his father’s band, the Egypt 80, is billed to perform two days from tonight. And Femi, Fela’s oldest son, will wrap up the show three days later on a night that one of Nigeria’s current superstar D’banj is also billed to entertain the crowd.
Outside the auditorium, hundreds more enthusiasts of Fela’s music are lined up in multiple queues, pushing and shoving relentlessly in a bid to be admitted to join those already enjoying the performances inside. A horde of traders, selling consumables from sweets to suya, occupy both sides of the paved street. I raise up my head for a brief moment; a half moon lights up the sky. But the stars, usually in their hundreds, are few tonight – just two in sight. It just might rain.