Review: Late at the Library – Felabration! @ British Library (London, 16th October 2015)

It’s not every day that you witness one of the most famous libraries in the UK (and one of the most important cultural centres in London) being transformed into the Shrine, the mythical Lagos club from which the legendary figure of Fela Kuti emerged in the late 1970s – yet that’s what’s happened at the British Library to inaugurate the exhibition entitled ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song.’

The London institution went all the way, reviving the intoxicating atmosphere of the Nigerian music scene in a convincing and appealing way. Indeed the organisers could think of no better way of engaging with the West African tradition than organising an afrobeat ‘grand gala’, inviting some of the finest interpreters of the genre, musicians who had grown up listening to Fela Kuti’s albums. It was up to the audience to do the rest.

An uninhibited and footloose crowd packed the library’s main hall and danced for more than two hours without interruption, not even stopping during the set changes. All the Afrobeat enthusiasts needed was the first song played by Dele Sosimi (who supported Fela playing the keyboard in the Egypt ‘80) and his Afrobeat Orchestra to turn the library main hall into a dance floor. Everybody followed the wild and groovy mood of the event, cheering the rhythmic Nigerian manna flowing from the stage.

As the band-in-residence, Dele Sosimi and his musicians called the shots throughout the show, but more than twenty musicians took turns alongside them to present some of the most popular of Fela Kuti’s songs. Famed performers like Tony Allen (Fela and Africa 70’s drummer) and Nigerian hip-hop star 2face Idibia shared the spotlight with the fresh and talented voices of Terri Walker and Shingai Shoniwa. Together they revived momentous tunes like ‘Zombie’, ‘Kalakuta Show’ and ‘Lady’. Woolwich MC Afrikan Boy set his rhymes free on ‘Blackman’s Cry’, while the remarkable expressiveness of Laura Mvula enriched ‘Opposite People’ and the promising and gifted Trinity College Afrobeat Ensemble blew their brass on ‘Coffin For Head of State’.

The grand finale was characterised by a collective and overwhelming interpretation of ‘Shankara’, paying an exuberant and heartfelt homage to one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Felabration finally acknowledged the significance of the afrobeat movement that went – and is still going – beyond musical borders.

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