On any given day, Harlem’s Shrine World Music Venue serves up a stream of entertainment as eclectic as its patrons, from traditional Senegalese kora players and Brooklyn post-grunge bands to gospel singers and Nollywood film premiers.
It’s the creation of Abdel Ouedraogo, an immigrant from Burkina Faso. In 2007 he opened Shrine in the mothballed office of a former black-liberation charity, naming it after the music hall Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti ran in Lagos in the 1970s. The club space now includes Yatenga Fresh Bistro and Bar next door, and hosts the annual Mafrika Music Festival.
Shrine’s diverse crowd represents a unique corner of the new Harlem renaissance, too. Immigrants from the Ivory Coast, Mali, and Ghana mingle with longtime neighborhood residents, Latinos from blocks down, East Village hipsters, and Harlem’s new gentrified crowd.
We spoke to Ouedraogo about his path from immigrant to club proprietor, and the power of art to break down cultural barriers.
ArchetypeMe: How did you found Shrine in Harlem?
Abdel Ouedraogo: I came to Harlem because of the music. Harlem was a dream for me and the idea for Shrine was about music. In 2007 I put together the funding to get the space. I named it after my hero, Fela Kuti, and his original Shrine in Nigeria, and I modeled it after a club I once owned called Sahel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
What were your original goals in creating the club and how have they evolved?
From day one the concept has remained the same: bring music, arts, and people together as one. The idea is to connect the love, passion, and feeling in music and arts.
How do you attract, select, and manage the sheer volume of artists?
Anyone who is a musician and artist is welcome here. Music, art, dance, spoken word—we book everything. From the first night we’ve had all types of groups and bands: Afrobeat, reggae, rock ’n’ roll, reggae, charities, video shoots, art exhibits. Last night we had the gospel gathering that comes once a month before a DJ from South Africa. We only ask groups what they’ve done before, hear from people who know them and have seen them, and the selection comes from that.
Since the beginning Shrine has worked by word of mouth. That’s grown to include social media. I never believed in paying PR people to write on or promote Shrine. We opened the doors with no press and we’ve grown through natural contacts.
What are you most proud of when you look at Shrine?
The welcome we’ve received and returned in Harlem. I believe strongly in black culture, and I see Harlem as the black cultural capital of the world. Harlem is also a music capital of the world. I began to learn that back in Africa. Lots of music was developed right here—blues, jazz, all types. For me, Shrine has helped develop that part of Harlem’s new renaissance. Shrine is a continuation of that in a new form.
What are your favorite moments at the venue?
To see people expressing themselves and coming together through live bands, poetry, hip-hop, gospel—that’s what I love. My favorite moments happen every single night.