The Afrika Shrine
Fela’s inspiration for the original Afrika Shrine is barely remembered now, but it is noteworthy and is reflected in today’s New Afrika Shrine. Fela modelled his club, which he opened in 1972, in part on the Mbari Artists and Writers Club in the university city of Ibadan. The Mbari, which Fela knew well in the mid 1960s, was founded in spring 1961, some six months after Nigeria won independence from Britain. It was both a place of entertainment and a cultural and political salon, where young Nigerians gathered in a spirit of optimism to discuss the country’s post-colonial future. Fela’s cousin Wole Soyinka co-founded the Mbari after a spell in London, where he had been studying and sharing accommodation with Fela.
The Fela Ransome-Kuti Quintet played its first gig at the Mbari and Fela appeared there several times with his next band, Koola Lobitos, who probably also played at the sister club in Osogbo. (Both venues closed down during the turmoil which followed the outbreak of civil war in 1967).
Along with its roles as a performance space and progressively minded salon, Fela added a third component to the Shrine. He envisioned it as a community hub dedicated to improving the lives of the “sufferheads,” the name he gave to the downtrodden, urban poor from whom he drew much of his inspiration and to whom he dedicated his music. Every year, Fela took dozens of young Lagosians off the streets and gave them a new start in life with jobs and responsibilities at the Shrine. In addition, literally hundreds of families living nearby depended on the club for their livelihoods, directly or indirectly. The Shrine was also active in local health and education initiatives. These various strands inform the New Afrika Shrine today.
The New Afrika Shrine
The Shrine was Fela’s home from home until a few weeks before his passing in 1997, when it fell into disrepair. The New Afrika Shrine, which opened in 2000, was built by his family, led by his eldest daughter, Yeni, and his eldest son, Femi. Their primary motivation was, and remains, to acknowledge and preserve the contribution Fela and the Shrine made to the local community and to the broader evolution of post-colonial Africa. Unable to reopen the original Shrine, because it stood on land leased for the duration of Fela’s life only, the family built a new one. They invested a substantial proportion of the monies received from licensing Fela’s back catalogue in the project.
There is no entrance fee for most events at the New Afrika Shrine, the doors are open 24/7, and everyone – locals and overseas visitors, rich and poor, black and white – is given the same warm welcome, often by Yeni herself when she is in town. Femi performs with his band The Positive Force every Thursday and Sunday, unless he is away on tour. His younger brother Seun appears with Egypt 80 on the last Saturday of every month, unless he is on tour. There is a popular disco night on Fridays.
Four times the size of the original Shrine, the new club can accommodate two and a half thousand people. Overheads are covered by selling food, drink and merchandise – but no-one is ever pressured to buy. On occasions when there is an entrance fee, it is generally 500 naira, a little over one US dollar. The club has a small library, pool tables and chill-out areas, and organises education and outreach activities.
“The New Afrika Shrine is probably the most important thing I have ever done, aside from my children,” says Femi. “At first it was really tough because the government tried to stop us building. So we did it quickly, before they realised what we were up to. Then we had police raids for eight years, just coming in and breaking the place up, trying to stop what we were doing. In 2009, the authorities closed the Shrine and there was a huge outcry. That was the last time we had any police trouble.”
As in Fela’s day, the Shrine gives a huge boost to the local economy. “There are maybe 150 people who work at the Shrine,” says Femi. “Perhaps more. I don’t have the precise figure - the management is all done by Yeni. My job is to make sure the music is good. The whole community depends on the Shrine. Before it opened, the area around it was all bush. Now there are buildings everywhere. There are clubs, hotels, event centres. There are people selling food and drink. We have created a prosperous little city.