“You meet two kinds of people in Nigeria,” says Rikki Stein, who managed Fela Kuti for 15 years.
“Those who, if you ask them if they went to the Shrine would say, ‘Oh no, no. My parents wouldn’t let me.’ And then there’s the other ones, who used to sneak out of the house and find their way there.”
Fela Kuti first began referring to the venue for his performances as The Shrine in 1971. Back then it was at a place called the Afro-Spot in Yaba, a suburb of Lagos. Later it moved to a courtyard of the Empire Hotel in Mushin, just opposite the Afrobeat pioneer’s own mother’s house, until both were raided by the Nigerian military police in 1977 and burned to the ground, the land seized as government property. Finally, it wound up on Pepple Street in Ikeja, where it provided a permanent home for Kuti’s group Africa 70 (later Egypt 80) and a base of operations for the man who would declare himself the Black President; one of the boldest, most determined musicians of all time.
“It was just wonderful,” Stein recalls of the Pepple Street Shrine. “Absolutely extraordinary. You would meet every kind of people there – street urchins, ministers, bandits, businessmen.” No ordinary gig venue, the Shrine was a world unto itself: at once shamanic temple and political soapbox.
Rikki Stein had managed the Moody Blues and organised Jimi Hendrix’s first European tour, but nothing would compare to the 15 years he spent as manager to Fela Kuti. He still remembers the first time he heard Fela and the Africa 70. “I was lying in the back of a Mercedes van on the M4 motorway, lying in a heap of African dancers, on our way back from a gig. Somebody put on a cassette and it was ‘Sorrow, Tears and Blood’. And I was gobsmacked. You know, sometimes you hear something that really registers. I thought, who the fuck is this? He was talking to me. I just felt some real affinity.”
“It’s called the Shrine because he asks for a minute of silence to pay homage to the ancestors and the gods.”Dele Sosimi
At the time, Stein was putting together a festival of music from rainforest countries. Hearing Kuti was in London at the time on tour, he decided to ask him to join his board of directors, “and also, of course, to perform at the festival.” In order to entice him to the role, he prepared a thick leather-bound proposal. “I went up to his hotel and knocked on the door. It was in the winter and I was wearing a hat and a coat, a scarf, a sweater,” Stein remembers. I went into this incredibly hot room. It was like a sauna in there. He was sitting there in his Speedos, surrounded by ladies. My hat came off and my coat came off and my sweater came off. I didn’t get down to my Speedos, but I sat down next to him and gave him this proposal. He started leafing through it.
“I can’t really remember exactly what was said, but at some point he swung around and looked at me and we both just started to laugh. We became friends in that moment and it was a friendship that was to endure for the rest of his life.”
Fela Kuti’s father was a protestant minister and president of the Nigerian teachers’ union, and his mother was a prominent activist who would count among her friends both Kwame Nkrumah, the architect of Ghanaian independence, and Mao Tse Tung. When just out of his teens, Fela’s parents sent him to London to study law, but instead he enrolled at Trinity College of Music, quickly falling in love with the jazz stars of the age, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. But it was a trip to America a decade later that set him on the path to the new style of music he would call Afrobeat; the songs started getting longer and funkier, and after a galvanising encounter with the Black Panthers he began to develop the Pan-African philosophy that would inform his lyrics.
As his son, Femi Kuti, recalled to me over the phone, it wasn’t only Fela’s music that changed after his American sojourn. “His behaviour changed too. The way he talked. Everything he said, he kept saying ‘man, man, man’.”
Femi was born in 1962 while his father was still in London. Back in Lagos, his mother would take him to see Fela perform highlife tunes every Friday night. But shortly after his return from America, as Fela’s living arrangements became increasingly communal, Femi’s mother moved away, taking her son with him. It was around this time that Fela scored his first big hit, ‘Jeun Ko Ku’. “Everybody played it everywhere,” Femi assures.
‘Jeun Ko Ku’ was also the first track of Fela’s that Dele Sosimi heard. The future Egypt 80 keyboardist was only seven or eight at the time, but to him the record sounded like, “a breath of fresh air… funky with a bit of roots. In my wildest dreams I never would have imagined that our paths would cross.”
At high school, Sosimi would start to hang around with a group of kids who would meet before the morning bell and congregate around one of Fela’s nephews at the school piano. “He used to sneak out at night to go and watch Fela and sneak back into the house in the morning, and his parents would not be the wiser about the fact that this guy had just spent the past six hours at the Shrine soaking up the music,” Sosimi recalls. “Then he would come into school and he would play all the new licks. We would just have a ball in the assembly area, singing Fela’s songs before the morning assembly, jamming, people tapping rhythmical patterns on parts of the piano, some people actually singing the songs.”
Before long, Sosimi was introduced to Femi. “The minute we met it was like, ‘Oh! Brother from another mother!’ We became inseparable.” When Sosimi’s father, a prominent fraud investigator, was assassinated, Femi took Sosimi to see his Fela, who was immediately sympathetic, asking, “What happened exactly? How is your mum coping? Is she getting any support from the bank? Is she getting any support from the government? Have you guys been for any kind of psychological counselling? I think you guys deserve better.” The concern he showed contrasted dramatically with the attitude of Sosimi’s father’s colleagues, who seemed more intent on what Sosimi calls “fear-mongering”.
“Of course,” Sosimi continued, “he knew I was a keyboard player. Femi had already told him about me. Femi was already playing the saxophone then. Fela noticed that the more we were together, the more the saxophone was on his shoulder. We would be going to go and jam in one of the jazz joints in town. Soon it became frequent for us. So when he opened the new Shrine, then we would be sitting in with him.”
Femi recalls “trembling” the first time he sat in with Africa 70. His friend Dele Sosimi felt the same. “I don’t even know how to describe that fear,” he says. “But I realised that, when I came off stage, people were looking at me different. I knew that from that first taste there was no going back. From the age of 13, I never missed a Shrine night.”
Sosimi adds: “It’s called the Shrine because there’s a day of the week where during the performance he asks for a minute of silence – although it’s not compulsory – to pay homage to the ancestors and the gods. And he will carry out a ritual. It will last about 10 to 15 minutes, and then they will go back to the performance. That usually happened on Saturdays.
“Sundays was a family-orientated day, with earlier performances so people could bring their children to come and watch. It usually would start between 3 o’ clock and 4 o’ clock and end at 9 o’ clock – a reasonable hour. And then on Tuesday it was ‘Ladies Free’. Those were the nights that you’d make sure you never miss, because you never know who you are gonna bump into. And then Friday was more or less like a current affairs night. It was the night where he talked about the politics of the day. It used to be called Yabis night.”
Stein gives a fairly typical example of one of the many Yabis nights he attended while working with Fela Kuti. “Around 11, we would go to his niece’s house. She was a dentist, but she was also a jazz singer. In the courtyard of her house and surgery, there would be a band set up – PA and amplifiers and drums – and anybody was free to get up and play. So we would to go there and Fela would love to play old jazz classics, like ‘Lullaby in Birdland’, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, ‘My Funny Valentine’. All those things. So we’d stay there ’til about two.
“Meanwhile, at the Shrine, the band would have started playing at around midnight, so by the time we got there the place was already happening and packed to the rafters. Fela would climb up on stage and start to play and we’d finish with the sun coming up around six or so. Then we’d sit near to the entrance at the back, the opposite end to the stage. We’d sit down and Fela would receive people. People would come to him with requests or with issues that they want to raise. And people would talk and Fela would say, ‘Ah, my brother, are you mad?’ He would come up with his own interpretation of whatever was going on at the time. Then whatever they were talking about and whatever was going on would inspire him to write a song.”
There existed a kind of feedback loop between the issues people raised at the Shrine’s Yabis nights and the content of Kuti’s songs, which would in turn inspire more people to come to him with their issues. In a country like Nigeria, ruled by a succession of military juntas throughout the 70s and 80s, it was inevitable that this would bring him into conflict with the state. The Kalakuta Republic, the commune on which Fela lived with his many friends, wives, players, and hangers-on, had been a self-declared independent state since the early 70s, but was subject to a succession of raids throughout the decade.
Femi recalls returning home one day, after having moved back in with his father as a teenager, to find his house on fire: “I was coming back from school and I saw all the soldiers there. I ran back to tell my mother that the house was burnt.” Fela’s 75-year-old mother was thrown out of a first floor window and died a few months later from the injuries. Her son responded by delivering a coffin to the official residence of the Head of State, Olesogun Olesanjo.
An even more brutal raid came about four years later. “They picked us up at the Shrine and took us all to the police headquarters,” says Femi. “That’s when I saw him. They had handcuffed his hands to his legs and they threw him in the back of a Land Rover and he was bleeding from head to toe. They beat him so much he remembered his spirit leaving his body. He thought he was dead. And then when he felt his spirit go back into his body, he never felt so much pain his life. They told him to sit in the corner of the cell and told me to sit on the chair. I refused. I got up and went to sit beside him. They took him to a special police station where they normally put people that are charged for armed robbery when they want to execute them. Then they locked me back in the cell. It probably was the biggest raid I witnessed.”
It must have taken incredible determination to carry on in the face of that kind of brutalisation. “I think that’s why a lot of people appreciate him,” suggests Femi. “Because he had so many opportunities to leave the country and seek political asylum. He could’ve stopped talking and just had a good life. He was already very famous. But he never compromised. So I think this is why he is still very relevant.”
When Stein thinks of Fela today, more than anything it’s the man’s sense of humour that he remembers: “The fun and his singleminded courage. He didn’t see himself as courageous. He just was unequivocal.”
“It’s down to earth, it’s strong, it’s truthful. It doesn’t compromise its integrity.”Femi Kuti
On August 2, 1997, Fela died from a Kaposi’s sarcoma brought on by Aids. Stein recalls attending the funeral in Lagos: “I went to the morgue and combed his hair and shaved him and put a big spliff in his hand. He was in a glass coffin and he was laid in state in Tafawa Balewa Square, which is like Trafalgar Square. It’s the main square. All of the family came together and everybody had their jobs to do. There was a red carpet and a canopy covering where the coffin was. I think we put the coffin in situ around 6 o’ clock in the morning and people started slowly drifting in. People were filing by to pay their last respects. So there was a queue that gradually got longer and longer and longer and longer until it was right around the square.
“And then at a certain moment, I think it was around 11 o’ clock, the place exploded, man. It just filled up. At around two, we had to leave because we were planning a private ceremony for friends and family in the Shrine. I said, ‘How are we going to get out of here? We’ll have to run.’ So at a given signal we picked up the coffin and ran and put it in the hearse and headed off, intending to hit the motorway and away. About a thousand people pre-empted this move and blocked our path and said ‘turn right’, which would take us through the city centre. We had no option. We had to turn right.
“Every inch of pavement, every walkway, every bridge, every window – just rammed full of people. We came to a point where we could see far, onto the motorway. There were no cars on the motorway. It was just full of people. To do a 20-minute journey, it took us seven hours. A pick-up truck appeared with a band in the back of it playing Fela tunes. And I danced for seven hours on top of this van. It was just amazing.
“Then we were getting nearer to the Shrine, which is in a small side street, and I thought, god, what is going to happen, the road is going to bloody well explode. When we reached there, there was nobody there. In other words, a million people – because it was a million people, easily – had decided it wasn’t appropriate for them to be there. We had the ceremony in the Shrine and then left there to go to the house. We had speakers which we turned around, facing out into the street and the road was rammed full of people and we danced the whole night through. Then in the morning, invited people came, fought their way through the crowd to make their way to the yard, and Fela was buried there in the courtyard. His house is now the Kalakuta museum.”
Since the death of his father, Femi has opened a new Shrine to celebrate his memory and provide a centre for the community. Asked why he thinks his father’s music continues to resonate so strongly nearly two decades after his death, he is adamant. “It’s the sincerity of it,” he says. “It’s down to earth, it’s strong, it’s truthful. It doesn’t compromise its integrity. And the songs start to answer questions that many other songs don’t answer for people. With all the love stories, they don’t talk about injustice and corruption that people see on a daily basis. So okay, yes, love stories. But is that really the issue we should be discussing right now globally? This is why this music becomes so important for people now. They understand that the rhythms and melodies are all synchronised in this format to talk about these issues.”
On Friday, October 16, the British Library in London, will host Felabration with Tony Allen, Laura Mvula, Afrikan Boy, 2Face Idibia, and the Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra.