Lagos is a pulsing mass of infectious energy. Densely packed houses stretch to the horizon below a visible halo of pollution. The streets are busy at all hours, with people eating, drinking, talking, getting haircuts and buying and selling anything and everything. Nigeria’s biggest city is complex, diverse and unequal, but all over it, the same music vibrates: at any hour, the world-conquering sound of Afrobeats pours out of cars, bars, windows and parks.
Located in the northern suburb of Ikeja, hidden among warehouses and factories, lies the New Afrika Shrine – the birthplace of that distinct sound. This expansive venue, with its weathered corrugated metal roof and faded walls due to years of humidity, serves as a reincarnation of Fela Kuti’s musical home. Kuti, known for his Afrobeat style characterized by the rhythmic drumming of Tony Allen, paved the way for the popular Afrobeats sound of today. Though he passed away in 1997, Kuti’s legacy and impact are honored every year through Felabration – a week-long celebration of music, art, and politics.
Ezra Collective, a highly anticipated British band, has been extended an invitation to perform at this year’s festival at the Shrine. The experience is more akin to a spiritual journey than a typical show. Lead musician and drummer Femi Koleoso arrives at the venue at 2pm, appearing both enthusiastic and fatigued. “I joined some local musicians in the studio last night, so I didn’t get much rest.” It seems he partied late into the night, as he was still grooving along to Made Kuti, grandson of Fela, at 1am. Clearly, he was determined to make the most of his time here.
The group of five musicians recently received the prestigious Mercury prize for their album titled Where I’m Meant to Be, highlighting the abundance of talent in the UK jazz scene. Koleoso expresses his joy for this accomplishment, stating that it was a natural progression for them. Although it was a significant milestone, he acknowledges that there is still more to achieve and they will continue working towards their goals. Their upcoming performance at the Royal Albert Hall in November, where they will be the first jazz group to go from playing in the intimate Elgar Room to selling out the main auditorium, is a testament to their success.
Despite being sleep-deprived, Koleoso exudes excitement. He gestures around the nearly-empty Shrine, where the remnants of last night’s event are still being cleaned up, and says, “This moment right now is even more significant than winning the Mercury prize. I never sat down with the intention of writing something to win an award, but I have definitely sat down with the goal of bringing my brothers and I to perform at the Shrine.”
The tenor saxophonist, James Mollison, of the band also shares the sentiment, stating that their first show in Africa was a tremendous privilege and honor. He has been a fan of Fela’s music for a long time, and being able to perform in Lagos is a surreal experience for him.
Koleoso was determined to secure the booking and he succeeded. He recalls his persistence in December of last year, spending a significant amount of time in the building asking how he could get his band to perform on stage. He was not concerned about money or travel expenses, he just wanted to know how to make it happen. As he speaks, he becomes visibly emotional and predicts that he may even cry when he is on stage that night because it is such a special and meaningful experience for him. He describes being on stage as being his true self, in musical form, and expresses how much it means to him. He struggles to find the right words to fully express the depth of his emotions.
In order to comprehend his feelings, it is necessary to revisit the time when he first began playing with sticks. “My parents, who are both Nigerian, gave me a toy drum set when I was three or four years old. It quickly became my favorite possession. Additionally, my dad would play Fela Kuti’s music on CD in the car. The drum set and Fela’s music were both instrumental in my love for music, making it a vital part of my life.”
The early records of Ezra Collective showcase their admiration for Kuti’s music. The group, consisting of keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi, and bassist TJ Koleoso (Koleoso’s brother), was formed in 2012 at the Tomorrow’s Warriors youth club under the mentorship of renowned British jazz musician Gary Crosby. Koleoso combined his love for Afrobeat and Fela Kuti with the bebop jazz he had been studying, laying the foundation for Ezra Collective’s sound. If you were to attend their early performances, you would have heard them cover Kuti’s songs such as “Zombie” or “Colonial Mentality.” Later on, Koleoso had the privilege of being taught by Tony Allen, who sadly passed away in 2020. Koleoso fondly recalls Allen’s impact on his drumming style, stating that “Zombie” would not be the same without him. Allen taught him the art of restraint, allowing the music to speak for itself and making every note count.
After continuously honing their skills through countless hours of practicing jazz standards and listening to Fela Kuti’s music, the band has incorporated elements of hip-hop, salsa, dub, and reggae into their sound, creating a contemporary, dynamic, and distinctly British style. According to Koleoso, the diversity of London’s cultures allows jazz musicians to respond gracefully. Mollison also acknowledges that their surroundings influence their music, incorporating a wide range of sounds.
If Ezra Collective music reflects the musical diversity of London, it also shines a light on the troubles faced by the city. Politics was at the very heart of Fela Kuti’s music: the struggle against colonialism, police brutality, poverty and oppression. Koleoso believes Ezra Collective can highlight similar things, but in a different way. “You will never hear me say: ‘Vote for this’, ‘I don’t like that’, ‘Campaign for this.’ That’s not the language I’ll use,” he says, getting ever more animated.
Koleoso believes that the best solution is for individuals to do their part in assisting those in need around them. As someone who resides in north London, he witnesses poverty on a daily basis. Working at a youth club connected to a food bank, he hears firsthand the struggles of young people whose schools are deteriorating both physically and symbolically. The issue of youth violence deeply saddens him, but he does not believe that simply urging people to vote for a certain political party is the answer. Instead, he suggests that the solution lies in taking action and finding ways to improve the situation.
During his acceptance speech for the Mercury prize, Koleoso expressed his strong belief in the value of youth clubs for the band’s success. He continues to offer support by participating in assemblies and organizing activities like paintballing for kids. Koleoso also believes in the power of music to bring people together and create positive change. He observes that a well-crafted bassline and drumbeat can unite individuals and even lead to unexpected agreements. As he looks around the Shrine, Koleoso imagines the potential impact of playing Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” for a global audience.
The exact time of the band’s performance is uncertain. According to Joe Armon-Jones, the band’s talented keyboardist, he has been given conflicting information of 8pm and 1am while struggling with tough pre-show chicken. Ultimately, they begin their set just after 9:30pm, met by a seated and hesitant audience unsure of what a British band at the Shrine will bring.
However, as soon as Koleoso begins the first beat of Welcome to My World and is joined by the synchronized horns of Mollison and Ogunjobi, the crowd becomes more attentive. When TJ adds in a catchy bassline and Armon-Jones contributes with his distinctive keyboard sounds, audience members quickly abandon their plastic chairs and make their way towards the stage.
Femi Kuti, the talented trumpeter and son of Fela, surprises the audience during No Confusion. The crowd and band erupt in cheers as they finish with a rendition of Fela’s Water No Get Enemy. They have successfully won over the Afrobeat enthusiasts in the audience, dispelling any doubt as they bask in a cloud of marijuana smoke. Femi remarks, “It’s a wonderful thing to see young musicians picking up instruments like the trumpet because they are inspired by artists like Ezra, rather than just wanting to emulate bands like Blur.”