Nigeria 2: Lagos

LAGOS, NIGERIA 2/18/06
Lagos is chaos. Picture Blade Runner, that apocalyptic sci-fi vision of a futuristic urban hell, strip away the robots and the neon, and you've pretty much got what awaits us as we pull further from the border and deeper into what can only be called a kind of urban insanity. The traffic doesn't just thicken, it congeals, and we are surrounded on every side by tro-tro's packed like sardine cans with people hanging from the doors , trucks, motos that zip everywhere with no regard for traffic flow and a teeming mass of humanity that spills over from the shantytowns and market stalls that line the road into the freeway in the form of people running across through the deadly maze of moving metal to get to the other side. Around us are shacks piled on shacks, concrete buildings, some finished, most not, jutting a story or two into the sky, and above us a haze so thick it chokes. The smog here makes Los Angeles or Houston on its worst August day seem like the clearest Colorado Rocky mountain morning. The natural effect of cars and motos and trucks and buses spewing exhaust literally everywhere we can see invades us- we feel it in our lungs, and the soot and exhaust hovers over this city like a blanket. At one point we head up a freeway ramp- like every other road we take here a parking lot that funnels forward in fits and starts- and see before us a nearly pitch black cloud covering the entire sky, fed by smokestacks from power plants and crumbling warehouses by the side of the road, bracketed by frayed electrical towers and lit up by the setting sun behind it- barely detectable through the gloom. If you had ever asked me what the end of the world will look like, I would have painted something very close to this.
Through it all the cars and trucks and motos and tro tros are packed so tightly around us it is as if we are all blood molecules squeezing through the same enormous vein. Around us horns bleep and blap like the inhabitants of a mechanized rainforest- at one point a tro tro on our right bursts staccato horn blasts that repeat over and over, on our left a truck sounds an immense rumbling horn and in front a moto emits a high-pitched buzzing wail- all of a sudden I understand Fela's jagged, angular horn lines a little bit more. We are inches from sure death at any time, there are precious few traffic lights and seemingly no traffic rules- motos buzz every which way, sometimes through the cracks in the traffic going the wrong way, cars and motos drive on the shoulders perilously close to the vendors selling plantains, water, watches and whatnot. The bus is bumped and scraped several times- this seems natural, unavoidable, even logical. We pass many roadside hulks, crushed cars left to die in the dust, dark rusting burned out skeletons of fuel tankers that have sat there for days, weeks, months, who knows. Through it all Chambers is superhuman, threading us through this psychotic tangle to safety as Sunday barks what directions there are to him. We should be dead by now it seems, or at least stranded with a broken bus by the side of the freeway, which right now seems to be much the same thing. I am tired and exhausted but cannot close my eyes, the knots in my stomach drawing tighter with every inch.
And then suddenly, somehow, we are on a clear residential street (one with no visible houses for the high security walls that line each side), and we pull into a warehouse driveway in front of wrought iron gates emblazoned with a big circle framing a map of Africa. "We're home" shouts Sunday. It is the Shrine. We are here.

THE SHRINE, LAGOS, 2/18/06
We park and file out of the bus, exhausted but somehow wide awake. I walk through a big iron gate with a yellow outline of Africa emblazoned on it, and through an alley lined with European model cars. Then right through what looks like a service entrance, and straight through a short hallway where I see the back of the stage in front of me, visible through a square cut in the wall, through which I can see the back of a drum set and a cavernous gymnasium beyond. I round a corner and there he is- Femi, wearing sweat pants and a tye-dye T-shirt, lounging at the bottom of some stairs awaiting our arrival. "Thank God", he says as he hugs every one of us hello. "I don't know what I was going to do if you guys hadn't made it, man. Probably go on stage and start criticizing my government again or something!" He is gracious and kind as he greets every one of us, and although it is already 8:30 PM and the show has been advertised as starting at 6, he insists we stay in the dressing room and eat the food that is on the way. We talk, us a bit awestruck, he totally relaxed and the picture of hospitality, asking if we have enough to drink and do we need anything else. It's all a bit surreal after what we've gone through to get here- then again, I'm guessing Femi knows what we've gone through a little too well.
The Shrine is a big warehouse with a metal roof and a sloping concrete floor that looks from the stage like a sea of plastic chairs and tables littered over a concrete sea. It's not huge- maybe the size of the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco- but it's imposing when we finally take the stage, wearing our shirt and ties and facing a canvas of Nigerians sitting around eyeing us suspiciously like a cat eyes a mouse to see what tricks he can do before eating him. As we stand on stage ready to start, the sound system plays what sounds like a Nigerian youth anthem- loud and fast and full of trouble- and the crowd- mostly young men and boys, goes crazy, moshing and running into each other and throwing plastic bottles everywhere. It's the first time of many over the next few days where I bizarrely feel I'm reliving a part of the British punk explosion of the late 70's. Finally the music stops, the dance floor clears and we play. It isn't our best set by any means- nerves and the sheer exhaustion of sitting around in a hot bus all day with your life in danger will do that- but at one point, maybe during a version of 'Sirena' where my bass and Jason's drums slap around the Shrine's cavernous interior like a hockey puck, I think to myself that on a wall somewhere (maybe in this building) or just inside someone's head (maybe Femi's), there is a list of people that have ever played music at the Shrine. It says Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti, God knows who else, and Aphrodesia. Gulp.
During 'Money', our third song of the set, we notice a commotion out on the floor and it is Femi, dancing around with a beautiful African woman and causing the whole crowd to rush up and see what he's doing. Before we know it he's onstage with us, blowing his alto sax at the end of 'Sirena' where we normally end. We keep playing and he solos over the last chorus, his sound hard and brittle, the notes spewing from his horn in a tangle that echoes the crazy streets and freeways that surround us. Reports of Femi's musical inferiority have greatly missed the mark- his sound is raw, yes, but in the torrent of sound that comes out of him everything somehow- sometimes bizarrely- hits a rhythmic mark. It also echoes perfectly the chaos and humanity that surrounds us here, in the Shrine, in Lagos.
We go straight into "No Agreement", Femi smiles, sings a verse, plays more, and we try not to wonder if this is really happening to us. Eventually we wrap up the set, exhausted, and play another short set after that when Yeni, Femi’s sister, and Sunday wonder to us why we left the stage after only two hours. I walk around in the crowd and meet tons of incredible people who shake my hand and tell me how blessed we are for coming here to Nigeria, how strong we are and how they are proud of us for coming here. Nigeria may be dysfunctional, corrupt and broken. Its people are not.

Eventually some of us are driven back to Femi's house- which is an immense house surrounded by walls where Femi never goes. "It's too easy for them to get to me there", he tells us the next day, explaining why he never leaves the Shrine. He is talking about the government, or just thugs, or maybe pretty much the same thing. The repression and violence that marks much of Fela's music is not, unfortunately a thing of the past. Our show here is on the 27th anniversary of the Kalakuta Raid- a drunken binge of soldiers who raided and beat Fela and his followers at the old Shrine, threw his mother out a second story window and inspired his song "Coffin For Head of State". Nowadays Femi tells us he stays on the road touring throughout the world because it's too dangerous for him to be there. A few years ago, he says, he was on tour in South Africa when he received word that a man who looked and dressed like he did at the time- a fan- was gunned down in front of the Shrine. It seems international stardom, a few million records sold and a Grammy award have not changed the fact that there are plenty of people in Nigeria who would rather see Femi dead- for his own outspokenness and especially for his father’s. When he tells me the government will be very angry that Aphrodesia played here because it legitimizes him and the Shrine internationally, I nod, not knowing what to say. Are we really a part of this history now? Or have we just inserted ourselves into it like tourists snapping pictures at a museum?

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