It’s hard to miss the energetic atmosphere around The New Africa Shrine whenever heir to Afrobeat throne Femi Kuti is in the building. The transplanted Kalakuta Republic is the new symbolic location of Fela’s original Mushin home and recording studio raided and destroyed by the soldiers from Surulere barracks in 1977.
In the last four days of every month, Femi Kuti usually holds host a series rehearsals leading to an eventual concert at the end of the week (depending on touring and other globe-trotting obligations). I first heard of his occasional but rare appearance two years ago but long hours at my old job and the need to preserve some sanctity for my weekends by staying indoors robbed me of the chance to actually watch him perform.
My first real opportunity to watch Femi on stage came this year, thanks to a chance first meeting at the Shrine with Stephanie, a budding writer I started obsessing over after finding her blog last year. We settled into our seats a few minutes into one of Femi Kuti’s rehearsal sets. Femi was feverishly running scales on the piano while his band played behind his resplendent red, blue and green stage lighting.
The Shrine stage is not a very big one. But even as a banner of corporate sponsors, hangs at its feet, symbolism for freedom and justice is retained in pictures of past African leaders, black rights activists and Fela iconography hanging off scaffold pipes that backdrop the stage. The biggest attractions on the stage however were three dancers who doubled as back-up vocals on Femi’s right and a lone odd ball softly tapping a small wooden percussion instrument on his left.
While the dancers twisted their waists and contorted their fluid buttocks to swing in several quick directions per second, the lone drummer tapped his instrument, at once in sync with and removed from the rest of revue. He didn’t seem to care, the rhythm of his barely audible taps expressing the glee in his eyes. His contribution to Femi’s set also fascinated Stephanie, who pointed out he was probably the most important person on the stage. We both laughed at the joke, but silently agreed his presence on the stage was no oddity.
The second time I stumbled on Femi Kuti rehearsing, I arrived Shrine early and found a seat beside one of two cylinder cages where scantily clad dancers preen like birds to a mating call. Femi’s band practiced, its surprisingly young lead composer wading in to the fray to correct errors that evident to no one else but himself. We tolerated the disruptions, the star of the evening was not yet on stage.
A few minutes after eight, the stage lights go off, the music follows and the band melts into darkness for a brief interlude. The gentle lull settles into the The Shrine until a shout from backstage demands everyone’s attention. The voice behind the shout, doesn’t leave his shadowy perch, but his voice carries, demanding silence, stirring our curiosities. Not everyone stopped to listen, but there were enough of us entranced by his mystique.
A middle-weight praise-singer is unveiled as bright lights flooded the stage again. An Oriki is a sacred, and for someone as historied as Femi Kuti the scion to Fela Anikulapo’s legacy, hearing an Oriki in his honor is a spiritual experience. The praise-singer’s choice to do it in English is a compromise that diminished the experience, but the band was taking positions on the stage again in wait for Femi to come on. Worrying about cultural appropriateness could wait.
At this point, the praise-singer’s voice is already transitioning into coarse lower volumes, signalling the first signs of strain on his throat. But he pushes his voice to the limits anyway, lifting his upper body and standing on his toes to repeatedly force the word “Speak!”, out of himself. By the time Femi Kuti came on stage amidst a loud applaud to relive him of duty, his voice has been reduced to a static screech with tears streaming down his face.
The most fascinating thing about his prelude to Femi’s arrival is an inherent religious dedication evidenced in the rawness of his voice and passion (even) for a routine rehearsal. It gave the impression that even if he had come on the stage to yell literal gibberish, everyone in the room would have still been forced to hear him out first. It also reminded me Fela’s following over the years has remained so cult-like, because Afrobeat like Jazz, Soul, Punk and Emo-Rock amongst other genres outside mainstream pop come with its own lifestyle and rituals.
After prepping Femi with enough motivation to “embody” his father’s “spirit”, I attentively watched the praise-singer’s next moves. He seemed to catch his breath for a moment before squeezing two pure water sachets into his mouth and rising his face with third. Then he leans forward to pick up the same handheld wooden instrument from the lone drummer from the last rehearsal used. It’s hard to tell if its the same man from my first night at Shrine but perhaps Stephanie had been right after all.