A Lecture at National Gallery of Art’s Seventh Annual Distinguished Lecture on December 17, 2003.
By Segun Olusola, Africa’s pioneers TV broadcaster (1935-2012)
THE performing arts review, and subject of this lecture, would incorporate works of art situated and communicated in all media — stage radio, television, film as film, later video, the night markets, the roads side backyard spaces, the bishops courts, Mbari, Caban Bamboo and much later — the National Theatre.
Growing up in Iperu-Remo, my remembrances of the performing arts should also flash back to the masquerades and the Oro shrines and street parades, in that historic city.
Iperu Remo, in the 40s and 50s, was a big enough community to host Hubert Ogunde’s Concert Party tours and where one of the most outstanding popular music stars of Nigeria, Irewolede Denge, popularised our traditional ruler, Oba Okupe, in the unforgettable lyric Okupe oba wanlo! Se wo lo tawaya s’orun powo o de simo Eleda tawaiya pada – po wo ma mbo o.
The performing arts was also magic. I cannot be tired of recalling the story of Onisigu, the masquerade of peace that would emerge from a crack in the wall of the cult house – trudge round the community streets keeping peace – with women and children in tow – and his head bent to be raised only when there’s sign of conflict following which there will be torrents of rain showers.
Onisigu o – a fehin to mi orun gogo: the one who holds back rainstorm on his neck.
In a review of Duro Ladipo’s plays, Oba Moro and Oba Koso for Nigeria Magazine in 1964, the Onisigu was recalled!
“It was dramatic; each year the ritual was flawless. We were witnessing the descent from heaven of one of the gods, bringing cure for the sick and holding back the anger of the great one with his bent back. And I believed it… we had to believe it. It was one remarkable example of a play well staged, properly timed and exploiting the sense of imagination of the women and us kids.”
There are many ways therefore in which the performing artists can be likened to the masquerades – creatures of our imagination who straddle the time specific and gender divide to communicate with the rest of us – warning, advising, chastising, sometimes abusing us – in order to move us from one level of understanding to the next.
In popular currency, therefore, it is to Lagbaja, the masked one – dancer, instrumentalist, actor, the most recent in a long line of masquerades from my Iperu years of Onisigu, that this lecture is dedicated.
Festivals of the arts
WHEN the National Festival of the Arts and Culture was first introduced 33 years back in 1970, it was designed to celebrate the end of hostilities of the Biafra-Nigerian encounter.
In a review of the inaugural festival, Prof. Michael Crowther, eminent historian and editor of Nigeria Magazine remarked in his post festival report thus:
“In its scope and concept, the planning of the festival had little to fault it. It represented all the states in traditional culture; it rightly included the universities as important agencies for the stimulus of contemporary culture and the investigation and presentation of traditional culture.”
The first three festivals – in Lagos (1970), Ibadan (1971) and Kaduna (1972) and the Special Festival of Traditional Dances of December 1974 also in Kaduna, had served as appropriate preparation for Nigeria’s eventual hosting of the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977.
The founding director of CBAAC, Z.S. Alli wrote in his preface to The Arts and Civilization of Black and African Peoples: “As an event, FESTAC was indeed a tremendous undertaking. For observers both within and outside Africa, its most striking feature was the atmosphere of festivities.”
So altogether, between the festivals – 1970, 1971 and 1972 and the Special Dance Festival of 1974 and thereafter FESTAC 77 – Nigeria has staged her 16th Festival of the Arts in Owerri – previous hosts having been Port Harcourt, 1995; Calabar, 1994; Abuja, 1992; Kaduna, 1990; Lagos, 1989; Maiduguri, 1983; and Port Harcourt, 1982.
In a National Radio ‘Newstalk’ broadcast on Network on December 26, 1974, it had been remarked: “The irrepressible character and strength of our traditional culture, which have survived these years of colonial servitude and cultural invasion, was the first gesture that came out so clearly at the Kaduna Festival.
“Indeed, the Kaduna exhibition of our traditional dances bore a testimony to the highest spiritual development of the Nigerian peoples which preceded the arrival of foreign cultures and their staff bearers who delighted in describing our culture in contemptible terms. That is why our traditional rulers and community elders deserve the nation’s gratitude for remembering so much and some of our traditional rulers also need to be told of the nation’s appreciation for personally honouring the invitations extended to them to be Guests of Honour at the Festival. The opportunity given to the very young ones, from babies in arms to school children, whose theirs is the future, to participate in the Kaduna carnival cannot be passed unnoticed.”
It is not too difficult to understand the enthusiasm with which media practitioners, particularly broadcasters respond to festivals of performing arts because that’s what they feed on.
In the run-up to the inaugural festival of the arts in 1970, media focus, particularly television coverage, had been inevitable and assured and the opening ceremony of the festival from the grand foyer of the Lagos City Hall – had been broadcast live by television, a habit that has been sustained all through the years – including the opening and closing ceremonies of the last two festivals in Port Harcourt and Owerri.
Given the Federal Government’s proprietary rights over the affairs of the Nigerian Television Authority, it was inevitable that such rich theatrical materials as a reproduced by the NAFEST organisers be freely available to the NTA – but arrangements should be in place for direct feeds of such materials to other broadcasting stations.
Television resources are enriched naturally with rare occasional materials from such periodic festivals, which should be available to sustain our growing number of television operations.
In the meantime, one of the newer independent television organisations, DAAR Communications’ AIT, has gone further and sponsored Drama Festivals – premiered on September 26 last year at the Tamarin Hostels, Ikeja.
Dramafeast was designed as a celebration of arts, culture and drama on television – consisting of seven different thematic dramas – weeklong on AIT.
Our broadcasting organisations must be commended for sustaining the proprietary and, institutional roles of broadcasting particularly television in the promotion of our arts and culture for national development.
Television broadcasting and the performing arts
FROM the inception of television in Nigeria in 1959, the arts of dance, drama and music generally designated as the performing arts, have been irretrievably linked.
Although I had been recruited as a television producer in 1959 – from a background of radio features production, and some amateur theatre experience – my initial confrontation was with the British managers of television who saw Nigerian television as a natural outlet for some of the more popular products of Western film serials from Britain and America.
In the first few years, some progress was made and our efforts resulted in the commissioning and production of our first original play in English, My Father’s Burden by Wole Soyinka, which was transmitted live from our Agodi Studios in August 1960:
“Before the production, the managers of television were genuinely worried and took steps to prevent the production. The publicly declared reason was the ‘very high cost of the production?’ But more forbidding must have been their fear that once launched, a television programme of ideas in dramatic form, created by a singularly imaginative writer like Wole Soyinka would cause ruptures to established, if questionable, models of a developing colonial society. Their consternation and resultant threatening stances were suitably conveyed to the producer, their own employee. On the other hand, the playwright had his own fevers of doubts and second thoughts. A director of experience himself, the reality of a play commissioned of him and production of which he would have very little control over was sub-consciously objectionable. Neither the novelty of the medium nor his own mutually friendly disposition towards the television producer totally overcame his doubts.”
I must therefore take some time to rewind to the promise and the performance of the multi-disciplinary art environment, which nearly overwhelmed many of us in Ibadan in the five years season of artistic experimentation that can be situated in 1959 to 1964.
Just before television was introduced in September 1959 – in the heady days of regional self-government – Players of the Dawn – an amateur theatre group outside of the university and within the city centre had brought together writers, performers, directors and play readers and found accommodation for rehearsals and public performance at the old British Council.
Not even the special interest in our production of T.M. Aluko - eminent writer and novelist - suggested to us that we should attempt plays written by Nigerians in the repertoire which included, some Shakespeare, and later Arthur Miller.
The mutual enjoyment of amateur environment changed dramatically in the early 60s with the arrival on the scene of the multi-media genius – Wole Soyinka who established the 1960 Masks – incorporating the lead members of Players of the Dawn, Christopher Kolade and Elsie Thomas Nkune and this speaker – with Francesca Pereira, Yemi Lijadu, Frank Aig-Imokhuede, and Ralph Opara. Rehearsals and workshop training sessions commenced in Ibadan – sometimes on the premises of the Cambridge University Press hosted by Christopher Okigbo.
Rehearsals and performance schedules were vigorous and took place in either Ibadan or Lagos while the range of media incorporated theatre, television, film, radio and sometimes the night clubs in both cities – particularly Central Hotel and Black Morroco or Brokentime Bar, its radio variety and Caban Bamboo at weekends.
By the time Mbari Club was inaugurated, the multi-discipline, multi-media, multi-genre, multi-national approach to the arts expanded to include Uli Bier, Frank Speed, musicians, poets, teachers, sculptors and designers, filmmakers and before long – Culture in Transition, a documentary — drama film production and the first African television drama – My Father’s Burden written by Wole Soyinka were realised during this period.
|Late Segun Olusola|
It was risky, was daring, was hazardous particularly the shuttle road journey between Ibadan and Lagos – but it provided some insulation against the political “rascalities” of the season – some of which was captured for us – only two weeks ago by one of the living masters of the season, Otunba T.O.S. Benson – in his memento: Fire on the Mountain in The Guardian newspaper on Monday, December 1, 2003.
Drawing inspiration from the first drama serial on radio, Save Journey of the Shaky and Alao fame – the Ibadan multi-media creative group designed Broketime bar – with scripts and variety songs from Wole Soyinka, Ted Mukoro, Segun Sofowote and this sometimes lyricist – producing the series and providing the themes including: Nwene Lagos O, Okoko koko. But that’s another story – another day!
The Mbari phenomena – the club of artists should be understood as the physical manifestation and response of the arts community – first in Ibadan and later in Oshogbo and much farther inland – a response to the political drama that had been spurned in the year 1958 on the death through road accident of Adegoke Adelabu – the embargo on the broadcast of the news, the street killings that followed and the political testimonial and magic of the funeral which was dramatised in the city centre.
And so, not even the challenging diversion occasionally to Oshogbo – rehearsing the trio of Kola Ogunmola, Duro Ladipo and later Oyin Adejobi could hold me back in Ibadan.
My three months in Syracuse – San Francisco and Hollywood in the closing month of 1960 had raised expectations which the domestic political developments in the Western Region between 1962 and 1964 considerably constrained.
And so I left Ibadan in March 1964 with a burden on my mind of a multi-media, disciplinary performance arts pavilion.
Demas Nwoko, wood worker, designer and dance director was to later pick up the strings at Mbari and establish base at the New Culture Studios on the hills, the other side of Premier Hotel, of which Prof. John Godwin, eminent architect described as an extraordinary complex covering a multitude of artistic functions. Not even the prospect of New Culture Studios could hold me back in Ibadan.
The Nigerian Arts Council
AT the Ajibulu-Moniya Gallery in Surulere where I work and live, there is a sculpture in wood by Erhabor Emokpae, a man mountain of a Nigerian artist, designer, sculptor and prime motivator of the first generation of volunteers of the Nigerian Arts Council. Growing Up, which is the title I have given this piece of sculpture, has been in great demand, but since it is the one memento left for me, which not even the ‘Golden Gong’ the festival Trophy and Symbol, which Erhabor also designed and crafted, will replace.
Among the collaborators who welcome me into Lagos in 1964 some 40 years ago – were Christopher Kolade, Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Ekpo Eyo, Ralph Opara, Yemi Lijadu, Nora Majekodunmi, Afi Ekpong and Erhabor Emokpae.
The Nigerian Arts Council that emerged was a volunteer, art concerned, spirited set of innovators who found premises at the old Niger House, courtesy of the United African Company.
Public activities included exhibitions of art and photographs, highlife and pop recitals and the foundations of what was to become the festival of the arts.
As a television producer in the midst of so varied a crop of talents and ideas, the arts was like a seamless robe – visual, performing, audio, video, film and multi disciplinary.
Soon after in 1965, to prove a point and pay my dues to the Nigerian Television Service, which has lured me, the first ever Festival of Television Drama was designed.
“This international event, the opening of which visiting American astronauts were present to witness, marked a significant identification by television operators with the rising theatre movement in Africa. Poems by Rubandi, Soyinka, Dennis Brutus, Lenrie Peters featured in an experimental television production of voices, drums and movement titled African Voices. And daily, all through the entire week, television premieres of plays by Clark, Soyinka, Ladipo, Ogunmola kept television audiences spell-bound.”
It was not long after that the challenge of the production of a full-length play came calling in the person of Klaus Stephen – journalist, writer and representative of German Bavarian Broadcasting Service in West Africa. His proposal to film the story – Taiwo Sango – his version of the Yoruba legend of Elesin Oba made famous later in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horsemen – was accepted.
The Nigerian Television Service collaborated with the Bavarian Television in the filming session located in the valleys of Idanre hills of this co-operative venture – which was transmitted in most of Europe and on Nigerian Television.
The lead performer included Christopher Kolade, who played Taiwo Sango and Elsie Olusola and a cast of dancers and musicians.
In a feature article written for the Interlink of December 1967, a U.S. Agency publication, recalled: “The production of the film Taiwo Sango in 1965 through collaboration between Bavarian and Nigeria Television was a landmark in the uneventful history of film making in Nigeria. The principal cast consisted of Nigerian actors and actresses. The producer was assisted by the writer. It was not an artistically brilliant production, but the filming lasted long enough to be a source of inspiration for the Nigerian participants. Without new material, the inspiration itself did not last and soon the participants left the experience of Taiwo Sango behind them and sank into the routine of media organisation.”
The performing artists – as change agents
THE performing arts have occupied a long time the centre of communications – the pivot of our existence, the spoken word, the magic of visuals, the dance, the song, the drama, the drums — all of these are inevitable components of the communication era, a new civilization.
The professional performing artist has yielded his services to those who have ideas and products to market. In many instances, those who have idea to market have invested in massive training in presentation techniques and take over their own presentation of their message of salvation.
The Nigerian successors to Billy Graham and Oral Roberts of this era have mastered the artistry and technique of the performing artist in communicating their message of salvation, often insistently.
Some of our performing artists have naturally enriched their popular repertoire with spirit-filled messages, post conversion and have become even more effective communication artists – Ebenezer Obey, Sunny Okosuns for instance.
You may well ask: Who comes first, the performing artist or the Evangelist…
But whenever we step on that stage – confronting our audience and/or the cameras, aren’t we all masquerades?
But the village square, the night market, the palace grounds should be the ultimate workshop of the performing artiste.
These are the places where the artistes can touch people and be touched – the ideal training ground for the masters.
In the political structure that we now operate, it is the Local Governments that should be prevailed upon to institute structures and platforms for the training and operations of performing artistes in our many varieties.
What is required is a complex of community theatre exhibition markets, community radio and television in every community where there’s palace or a church or mosque.
In my neighbourhood in Surulere, Lagos, there is a growing video-film market for producers of original plays. A few weeks ago, I walked up to them and our encounter was most reinvigorating. They dream, write plays, act and direct, produce and market their video films. They are performing artistes of this generation.
Not too far from there, in Ajegunle, are the successors and children of my younger colleagues – Segun Taiwo, who at the Ayota Community Theatre rehearse and perform in a modest stage next to the grave of their late initiator.
Many times, the performing arts have predicted and warned of impending horrors - Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forest and Hubert Ogunde’s Yoruba Ronu – but we ultimately reaped what we have sown.
Now, we have performing artistes in some of our palaces. From the cast of Village Headmaster alone, we now have the Alaiye Ode Remo, Oba Funso Adeolu, Oba Wole Amele of Aramoko and Oba Segun Akinbola of Ode Idanre.
As we gather here for this encounter, one of us, Oba-elect Gbenga Sonuga, is commencing traditional preparations to ascend the throne of his community as Fadesewa of Simawa, Makun, Sagamu Remo.
Historic and unforgettable developments in every nation have always been marked with creative, inspired works of art. The deficiencies that have characterised such developments in the 43-year history of post independence Nigeria afflicted the performing arts to the same degree, even if our political leaders cannot claim credit for all of these initiatives - and they more often ignore the warnings.
LET’S now take sometime to discuss film as film, video and the valiant attempts that have been made by the producers of this new media invaders in the arsenal of the performing artistes, but not before we recall the beginning of Village Headmaster and the role that the performing arts through film, video, and The Village Headmaster should be playing in order to convey meaning to life and resolve our perennial conflicts.
In the original text of the master story of Village Headmaster, there is a scene in which the headmaster, confronted with a rebellion and communal conflict in Oja village and we find him almost in tears intoning the following lines:
“Once upon the history of this village, not so long ago, the whole town turned against me, because I allowed three strangers who once lived in this village to come back and resettle and repossess their property. That was the year that saw the first public demonstration in this village with placards carried by one of your children whom God has blessed to go overseas to be a lawyer. Even my own child joined in that shameful demonstration.
“There was bitterness and plenty of curses, but we resolved the matter. I like fights and enjoy arguments. Where I come from, it is only a bastard who should come face to face with fight and turn his back. This is my village and it will take more than abuse and threats and curses and even death to make me abandon this village.
“One child died last night and one tongue wagged. ‘We have strangers among us’, he said and the whole village was on fire. I am that stranger, but do you see a stranger’s face on my face? I grew up in this village, took my first job in this village, married my first wife in this village, buried her in this village. I tell you I am no stranger here. What control has anybody over where he is born? This is my village. This is my school. This is my own house. These things that you can see, the market place, Bassey’s shop, these have not rejected me. And that church, it was I who preached the first sermon in that church.”
“All the children have now gone and we see the Headmaster break into a dirge-like song, obviously Christian, but in Yoruba language. His eyes are tearful and his singing fades into a halt with a choke: suddenly, we do not see him.”
But before Village Headmaster, there had been various attempts made to use the cinema as a media for the management of trafficking and prostitution across borders.
Once upon a time, Lebanese and Egyptian crew of film producers actually came to Nigeria and in collaboration with Nigerian colleagues produced two films now famously referred to as Son of Africa and Golden Women otherwise known as Women of Arabia.
It was not so much the storyline but the mode of production that raised the demonstration of film to new levels because both films were shot with the performer using the English language, but by the time the film producer got to Beirut, Nigerian performing artists were invited there to translate the text into major Nigerian languages and for the first time when the films were brought back to Nigeria, the media of the film became Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa and a dubbing technique that later on became the fad at that period.
We must also remember the pioneering work at about this same period of our own Eddie Ugbomah, movie producer, director and actor, who left us with a long list of productions including Dr. Oyenusi and Black President.
There are two other agencies of the Federal Government as I speak to you, which have continued to influence the contributions of the performing artists in their briefs.
The National Film Corporation has a long history from the colonial period and can claim to have established a tradition of film production that has refused to go under in spite of financial and bureaucratic impediments. It has just completed a successful run of its second Film Festival a few weeks back, which should serve as a reminder of the role of the corporation to train film producers and produce films, which can contribute decisively to national development.
We also have the National Film and Video Censors Board, which has intervened decisively in the now fully democratised video production discipline and has supported the production of good, quality film and video, like the Anthill Africana Film Festival last September. The last catalogue of the productions issued has thrown the board into the difficult task of ensuring and enforcing standards in an area the board unfortunately cannot show examples, because its brief does not include production.
In that catalogue are listed over 4,000 production categories of materials suitable for Cinema Halls, Video Rental Clubs, Video Production Studios and Video Viewing Centres. And financially, it has motivated the video film industry into a boom: to quote its latest report “from an enterprise of N250 million in the mid-nineties to the present estimated turnover of about N7 billion; the industry has contributed in no small measure to the growth of the nation’s economy.”
A review of the statues of both agencies is recommended to enable the Federal Government intervene decisively in the production of film and video for national development.
IT is the last 10 years that has witnessed a multi-media opening of opportunities for the performing arts, the range of which had blurred the old distinctions of the live theatre, film as film, video, television as channels of opportunities for the performing artists.
The International Centre for the Arts, Lagos (ICAL), which just marked its 10th anniversary, can point to the successful American premiere of the dance drama Ori, which later was played to audiences across Nigeria. It can also claim to have popularised the storytelling mode as a medium that has now become established in art circles.
ICAL’s production of the story of highlife with Segun Sofowote and Tunji Oyelana, first in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the early 90s became a popular repertoire of ICAL to other parts of Africa and Europe.
But it is in the area of policy orientation and training that ICAL has been able to influence the performing arts and the success not unrelated to the foundation work of Gbenga Sonuga as the Performing Arts specialist first at the New Africa Studios, Ibadan; and later as Director of the Lagos State Arts Council before he settled into ICAL.
Following a series of workshops that culminated in the March 2003 Chief Executive Seminar on Culture and Management in collaboration with ASCON in Badagry – ICAL recommended:
“That our leadership must pursue more vigorously the creation and sustenance of a collective sense of identity among our diverse peoples; and of a new spirit of patriotism and nationalism, unity and national integration, while recognising and respecting our ethnic and cultural diversities;
“That there is the need to inculcate in our leadership, a greater sense of honesty, integrity, probity, transparency, accountability, justice, fair play, equity, brotherhood, hard-work, and selfless service based on our indigenous ethical values; as well as eliminate all forms of corrupt practices and related vices, which, diminish our processes of growth and development and dent our national image.” Other recommendations include:
• a campaign to widen the use of Nigerian languages in broadcasting and legislative houses and schools;
• the promotion of a civilized, dependable culture of artist centred-copyright regime;
• the upgrading of the National Festival of the Arts of international status – to receive World Tourists;
• encouraging the resuscitation of the Society of Nigerian Broadcasters;
• the transfer of the National Theatre, Lagos, to a Confederation of Performing Artistes, a new apex organisation with roots at all Nigeria Local Government headquarters and state capitals.
And then suddenly, the highlife sounds of yesteryears are being brought to our attention in the series of Evergreen Hits Music Masters of our country. We have been reminded of the music of J.O. Araba, Ayinde Bakare and Tunde Nightingale in addition to the Nigerian-American returnee – Orlando Julius – all broadcasting delights.