“Abujans know how to party,” says Time-Out Abuja editor Nana Ocran, noting that on any given night of the week you’re spoilt for choice in sounds and rhythms.
The capital of Nigeria, Abuja is what urban scholars call a “purpose-built city”—deliberately created out of the wilderness in the 1980s to replace Lagos, which was thought to have grown too big and too wild. Still, Lagos retained a dominant reputation in music, both because of its large number of clubs and because it was home to the internationally known rock star, Fela Kuti.
We had been to the New Afrika Shrine, built by Fela Kuti’s son in his honor in Lagos, and wanted to see what Abuja had to offer. We didn’t have much time, so our friend Lucky—a drummer who has played all over Nigeria—suggested we start with his old venue, Blake’s Excellency Resort & Night Club, and then move on to Eden Park and Gardens.
We were thrilled to check out Blake’s (in the Garki II district), which is listed in all the guides, but we were clearly too early. At 8:00 p.m. they hadn’t even started up the grill or heated up the pepper soup. The bandstand was empty, and a few forlorn souls drank beer at the bar, waiting for the scene to start. A local later told me that Blakes had been badly hurt by the government’s recent security regulations, forcing clubs to close early to counter terrorism threats. And indeed NigeriaA-Z.com seems to agree: “Gone is all the gaiety and riotousness,” says the site.
We headed over to Eden Park (opposite Chida Hotel, Augustus Aikhomu Street, Utako), which was already jumping with a few hundred people sitting at the tables surrounding the stage. (Weekday audiences are said to be around 950 people, with 1,500+ on weekends). Eden Park features jazz, highlife, hip hop, ragga, breakbeat, and reggae, but that evening they were offering open mic to rappers. Lucky figured—rightly—that we’d like it because Nigerian rap derives from American rap, with all sorts of West African pidgin and Nigerian phrases mixed in with American (my favorite, borrowed from Jay-Z by a cute guy in a Yankee cap: “I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here I can make it anywhere, yeah, they love me everywhere.” And yes, we loved him.)
As in Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, audience members raucously vote performers up and down. A pleasant host (who is much nicer than the Apollo’s “executioner“) comforts the losers before escorting them off the stage. The other pleasure of Eden Park is the food—fabulously spiced and grilled catfish, which you select while they’re swimming in tiled tubs (thus the Nigerian name of “point & kill” fish, which briefly took away our appetites). Washed down with Nigerian Star lager (or Guinness, a Nigerian favorite), you couldn’t ask for a better meal.
As we left I asked a musician if Abuja might ever top Lagos in music. “Nah,” he said, “This scene is good. But the Lag still reigns.”
For those who would like to try Abuja nightlife, the Nile Guide (“For Travelers, By Locals”) offers a good list.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Regional Plan Association and director of its Center for Urban Innovation.