Theo Lawson is an architect, businessman and self-styled chief warden at Freedom Park which he built from the ruins of the old colonial prisons. A true renaissance man he is also chairman of the local organizing committee of the annual Felabration in honour of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Mercurial and cerebral, we “detained” him for a short interview around this year’s Felabration taking place from Oct 14-20, 2019.
The Lagos Review: Another year, another Felabration. What are we to expect this year as we countdown to Felabration at Freedom Park?
Theo Lawson: Felabration has become in someway a household name and everyone looks forward to it, especially musicians and avid music fans. Felabration at Freedom park has always been about the ambiance, a concert in the open air, only that it lasts for a whole week.
TLR: People, especially the island elite prefer to enjoy Felabration @ Freedom Park instead of crossing the bridge to The New Afrika Shrine. How safe is Freedom Park sitting right here in Lagos island?
TL: What could be safer than being within the walls of a former prison; not to talk of the area command of the Nigeria police force right next door.
TLR: Felabration has become a global phenomenon with celebrations going on in far flung places like Brazil and Argentina. How does it work? Do they all use the same theme?
TL: All licensed promoters worldwide must display the year’s official logo as a seal of approval and affiliation to the mothership in Lagos. They are however free to choose their own titles and duration of events.
TLR: Chimamanda will be speaking at Felabration. No one would have thought she would be a Fela fan? Whose idea was it to contact her for this?
TL: Why would you assume she’s not a fan? I heard Obasanjo was/is a closet Fela fan.
Immediately after each festival, the committee meets to do a postmortem and also decide on the theme for the following year. Our theme ‘from LAGOS with Love’ was about celebrating Lagos and to give the new administration a tourism marketing tool. The phrase ‘Eko, ilu ogbon’ meaning ‘Lagos, land of the wise’ led us to decide on the symposium topic,”Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense”, an extract from a popular Fela track.
TLR: 22 years after his death, Fela Kuti remains an enduring icon with his brand bigger in death than in life. What do you think is responsible for his enduring relevance?
TL: Haba, you know now, Fela brought it on himself now..he said “I can never die, I have death in my pouch..” I think Fela was not only ahead of his time, he was also of his time and from before; he was prophetic, a strange being, an Abami.
TLR: You are married to Fela Kuti’s daughter and I suppose you met or knew Fela while he was alive. What Fela memory would you like to share?
TL: I never met Fela in his lifetime, I only watched him perform live a few times, but no one outside my parents has had more impact on my being as him. Fela’s music and philosophical energy helped me find my design anchor as an architecture student in England.
TLR: The theme for Felabration @ Freedom Park is This is Lagos. Why this is Lagos?
TL: Why not, is this not Lagos? 😁
TLR: And speaking about Lagos, this city was Fela’s playground. Do you think Fela would have been Fela if he lived in Abeokuta or Portharcourt for instance?
TL: Lagos and Accra in the 50’s and 60’s were the centre of anti-colonial agitation in West Africa, the anticipation of Independence and excitement that pervaded made this the heart of entertainment and ‘Highlife’. Most aspiring musicians played gigs in these cities for relevance. Fela however, remains a unique entity as he is a product of many parts; his antecedence- family, education, radicalization, Nigerian situation all contributed to his make up.
TLR: You are chairman of LOC for the annual Felabration. How tasking is it to organize this, year in and year out for 22 years now?
TL: I have been Chairman since 2007, that’s twelve years only. Felabration has been both frustrating and exhilarating at the same time. I marvel at our achievement each year against all odds. The participating artistes remain the heroes of our story, for without their sacrifice to honour Fela, year in year out; the festival regardless of our effort would have fizzled out.
TLR: So, I want to attend Felabration but I am not sure when best to come since it’s weeklong. What will you suggest I don’t miss?
TL: We have striven to make each day unique and engaging, ultimately we hope people would see the festival like Woodstock or Coachella and prepare to revel in the whole week.