Writings of the general word's body

Monday, August 28, 2006

C-n-Adichie Book Launch

Right: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie signs copies of Half of a Yellow Sun - for her brother Chuks. He'd been tasked by many to help get autographed copies. His wife, Tinuke, looks on.

Update 7 September: Visit the Half of A Yellow Sun website...


Nwaka, sing the song
of birds blossoming
among sunflowers
sing a song to quiet
the shrills of restless crickets
Sing songs to light up
the bulbs of my tears
I’ve borne the waters of my gorge
Furious for an outlet
I’ve stared into many nights
searching for a single star
I’ve groped through scorched sands
In search of a glitter in a grain
I’ve seen the rage of broken waves
scurry like scorpions

Nwaka, sing songs to me
Sing songs of dark clouds
Slashed in lightning
Of rains roped in deserts
For I’ve witnessed the birth
of too many crippled dawns
in too many tortured nights.

© Unoma Azuah

  • Nights is taken from Night Songs by Unoma Nguemo Azuah, Oracle Books, Lagos (2001); Reproduced with permission.
  • More on Unoma Azuah

Half of a Yellow Sun

Launching Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun
By Molara Wood

Thursday, 17th of August, and I came out of Piccadilly Circus station in London’s West End, and headed for Waterstone’s bookshop. It was the venue for a discussion between two writers riding the crest of the wave of new Nigerian writing. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Purple Hibiscus, was to discuss her new novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, with Segun Afolabi, winner of the 2005 Caine Prize and author of A Life Elsewhere.

I entered into Waterstone’s and right from the ground floor, I passed disappointed book lovers heading out the door. One Nigerian lady took the trouble to explain to me that there was no more room in the audience, and that new arrivals were being turned away. Still, I took the lift up.

Fifth floor, and the lift could go no higher, but there was yet another flight of stairs to the sixth floor. There at last, I found I could only spy Afolabi and Adichie through the door’s glass panels. It was big enough a room, but it should have been bigger, had Waterstone’s accurately judged the level of interest. Two people were stationed at the door, their backs to it, so one could push in. People milled around outside, disappointment written on their faces. It is probably no exaggeration to say that those turned away, outnumbered those inside. I was one of the disappointed ones.

And I didn’t give up easily. “I’m not here just to look at their mouths,” I told the Waterstone’s representative. “I am going to write about this, so it’s important I get in because readers in Nigeria should be informed of this event.” It didn’t work. It was pointed out to me, ever so politely, that I arrived fifteen minutes later than the starting time anyway. “Yes, train delays,” I offered. Besides, the room was already so packed that if they let another person in, they would be in breach of health and safety regulations, I was told. Adichie’s publicist, Michelle, was inside, unaware of my sticky situation.

The bookshop’s representative admitted that they had not expected so many people to turn up for the event. Did I want to fill out a form to lodge a complaint? She asked. I declined, but told her: “Clearly, you underestimated the pulling power of the writers in that room.” With that, it was back down six floors for me, onto the ground floor and out into the street. It was just as well I attended the launch of Half of a Yellow Sun the evening before, I consoled myself.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel has been described in UK literary circles as “eagerly awaited.” They shall wait no more, with the launch of the book on Wednesday 16th August at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London. Hosting the event, was the Royal African Society, whose director, Richard Dowden, introduced the book on the night. Dowden read Purple Hibiscus and loved it so much that he told Adichie: “We will do your second book.” So this was the ‘do’.

In the room, a table was laid out with colourful, hardback copies of Half of a Yellow Sun - all 433 pages of it. Among artworks on the walls, a frame with an image identical to the boy’s face on the UK edition, stood out. Closer inspection revealed that it was in a fact a wood panel, already chipped at the edges, probably salvaged from a barber-shop in West Africa somewhere. It hinted at the source of inspiration for the cover design.

“Chimamanda will arrive fashionably late,” someone joked, while the guests filled their glasses and mingled, as civilised book people do. The novelist, fresh from appearances at the Edinburgh Book Festival where she met Ngugi wa Thiong’o for the first time - arrived soon after the 7pm start.

Giving his impression of the book at the launch, was Dr Kwandwo Osei-Nyame Jnr, lecturer of African Literature and Cultural Studies at SOAS (School of African and Oriental Studies, London). “What I find so interesting is that [the book] talks so much about the ordinary, bringing in the concept of the Nigerian nation state, with Biafra, and the attempt to create that.” He praised “the depth of characterisation - all these people who invent and reinvent themselves - you feel as if you are living the lives in the book.” The academic had not read Purple Hibiscus, “but after this brilliant book, I will read it.”

Osei-Nyame later shared more thoughts on Adichie’s book. “It takes us back to those years of Biafra - the historical memory - not in some crude, ideological way, but in a very simple and simultaneously complex narrative. Half of a Yellow Sun is a very important piece of work and the manner in which [Adichie] presents the writing, connects with a lot of conflict going on today. You can go outside Nigeria and put it in international context.”

Adichie’s editor, Mitzi Angel, also called Half of a Yellow Sun “a story about war in general, because she tells this story to ordinary lives. It could find a very big readership; it appeals to all sorts of people.” Angel informed, that Fourth Estate had discovered Purple Hibiscus “by accident.” The publisher’s US scout had sent a newsletter in which Adichie’s debut novel was mentioned in passing. They took notice and contacted the book’s American publisher. According to Angel, “We felt that there was a voice that needed to be noticed.” Similarly, Purple Hibiscus was entered into the Orange Prize because “we thought it was worthy of winning.”

Angel admitted that, when it comes to highly successful first books, there is always the fear that the second one might not be as good. With Adichie, such fears have evaporated, according to Angel, who reported that writers have told her (perhaps echoing what Achebe recently said of the young novelist said to be following in his footsteps): “This is a writer who has arrived fully formed.”

Though she signed autographs and chatted with fans all evening, Adichie spoke only briefly during the official presentations. “I think I’ll just say a few things because I might start to cry,” she said. The author revealed that Half of a Yellow Sun took four years to write, and thanked everyone for coming to share her joy.
  • Published in The Guardian, Lagos, Sunday 27th August 2006; images © MW

Found Blogs

And how about this one....

At the beginning there was a huge drop of milk

I reflected on these words this morning, surrounded by my books, the embodiment of my hopes, as well as the expression of what I want to grow beyond, a life where books and ideas are the most intimate companions. My bed is huddled in a corner and almost fenced in by piles of books. I gaze at them and they remind me about the sacrifices I am undergoing in being here in England, sacrifices occasioned by the opportunity to study here, but which has led to an upheaval in my life of such magnitude that its is clear that the distortions of reality represented by the description of the master of paradox of whom it is said that “He is so tall that only the tufts of his hair can be seen” are clearly at playBut within the arena circumscribed by these books, by this reversion to bachelorhood, I hope to realize dreams that till now have been aborted by untoward factors.


Kojo, a taxi driver in Ghana, picks up a British tourist, Cynthia who promises to invite him to England. He arrives at her doorstep 4 months later, full of dreams and intent on making it as a poet. It soon begins to dawn on him that the grass may not be greener... and people are not what they seem...

A Goat's Tail is the debut film from writer/director Julius Amedume. It premieres @ The Prince Charles Cinema, Leicester Square, London, on Friday 1st September.

Other Films in London this season...

* Sisters In Law - a documentary about female law officers in the Muslim village of Kumba, Cameroon, is @ the ICA until August 31st.

* RagTag - directed by Adaora Nwandu and starring Danny Parsons & Damola Adelaja - is screened on 10th September.

Chinwe Roy

Ancestral Footsteps & Other Works
is at
The Cinema Gallery, Aldeburgh, Suffolk
The exhibition opened on August 25th and displays until the 31st
  • The Nigerian-born Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy, is based in Suffolk, England, and makes much of her work in oils, etchings, monotypes, pastels and sculptures. She is widely exhibited, and featured prominently in Celebrate! Nigerian Art for the Commonwealth, an exhibition shown at the CHOGM conference in Abuja, Nigeria, in December 2003. Chukwuogo-Roy's most famous work is a painting of Queen Elizabeth II; it will appear on UK postage stamps in 9 countries this year, to commemorate the monarch's 80th birthday.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

8th Lagos Book & Art Fest

FROM Thursday, September 14, through Sunday, 17, 2006, the Committee For Relevant Art (CORA), will host its 8th Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) on the open lawns of the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos.

A statement from CORA indicates that all exhibitors are expected at the venue on Thursday, September 14, and to set up their wares for the formal opening the following day.

Specifically, the first day, (Thursday, September 14) will host the second edition of the Lagos Comics & Cartoons Carnival & Exhibition with the theme, Literature and the Niger Delta Conflict beginning from 4p.m. The venue is the Agip Hall, MUSON Centre. Speakers are James Marriot, co-author of The Next Gulf and Oronto Douglas, co-author, Where Vultures Feast.

There will be reading excerpts by Nimo Bassey, author, We Thought It Was Oil, Kaine Agary, author, Yellow Yellow, E.C. Osondu, author For Ken For Nigeria.

On Friday, which is the formal opening ceremony, exhibition opens at 8a.m. with children workshops, and keynote by Rasheed Gbadamosi, economist, playwright, former chairman of NIDB. The theme is Book and the National Consensus. It holds at the festival ground (National Museum, Onikan).

At 12noon, there is going to be a roundtable on What Do Women Write? (The Female Narrative Voice in Nigerian Fiction). It will feature books and speakers such as Crossroads by Peju Alatishe; Splendid by Mobolaji Adenubi; No Sense of Limits by Aracelli Aipoh; The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi. Moderator is Omowunmi Segun.

At 4p.m. is a workshop on reporting the arts. Speaker is Gerd Meuer, former African Correspondent, German Public Radio, ARD. Participants are arts and culture journalists. Venue is festival ground (Courtyard). In collaboration with Goethe Institut, Lagos, at 6p.m. is film show. The title is The Edukators directed by Hans Weingartner, Germany, 2004. Venue: Goethe Institut, Lagos.

Day two is feast of celebration. At 8a.m, exhibition opens. At 9a.m: Children Workshops/Comics & Cartoons carnival continues. 10am: Lecture on Book in My Life by Prof. Pat Utomi.

At 1p.m. at the festival groug is "Feasting the 2006 People", with celebration of the landmark birthdays of the members of the arts and culture family. Short tributes by associates of the celebrants, highlighting their contributions to the development of the arts and culture sector of the economy. Steve Rhodes at 80, Mats Da Silva at 70, Benson Idonije at 70, Biodun Jeyifo at 60, Femi Osofisan at 60, Tarzan at 50. At the Bandstand is Fatai Rolling Dollar.

Seminar and roundtable on Is African Literature More Abroad than at Home? is secheduled for 3p.m. Speaker is Gerd Meuer, with Prof. Manthias Diawara of New York University, USA as discussant. At 5p.m., Moremi Rsv, a play written by Ayo Arigbabu will be performed by the Crown Troupe of Africa. At 7p.m. is film show, Go for Zucker! directed by Dani Levy in Germany, 2004 at the Goethe Institut, Lagos.

Day three is Wrap Up. Exhibition opens as usual. At 12 noon, Children Workshop/Comics & Cartoons carnival continues till 1p.m. "Festival Bouquet on 15 years of CORA: An Appraisal", with Odia Ofeimun and Bisi Sylva speaking. At 1.45p.m. is Family Blues, a stage adaptation of the soap opera by "Just For You Media Outreach."

Art Stampede comes up at 2p.m. Theme is :20 Years After The Nobel Prize. Issues to be examined include Impact on Nigeria Literature by Prof Biodun Jeyifo; Impact on African Literature by Prof Manthias Diawara; Impact on Global Cultural Discourse by Gerd Meuer; and Impact on African New Cinema Culture, by Awam Amkpa. Venue is Festival Ground.

CORA is a club of arts enthusiasts who are keen on improving the literary appreciation of the average Nigerian as well as increase the literacy rate in the country through non-governmental, informal intervention.

Since inception in 1999, LABAF has become a culture picnic primed to attract families and a public that seeks entertainment. All the last seven editions have been filled with fun and thrills, with a full band performing, galleries displaying art, theatre performances, and a series of art, craft, textile, dancing workshops focused on kids happening all over the open field.

The festival features scores of book stands, symposiums on literature and book parties. There are at least four drama skits and full theatre productions on the festival grounds throughout the three-day duration of the festival.

The idea, reasoned the organisers, "is to make 'The Book' have mass appeal. Ours is not a Book Fair. It's the city's prime culture picnic, an arts festival with a high book content."
  • Culled from The Guardian, Lagos.
  • The 7th Lagos Book & Art Festival - a report

Monday, August 21, 2006

A Tale of Two Summits

G-8, St Petersburg

Here the well-fed
Wonder (between thunderous belches)
What to do with their wanton surplus
Giant knives in their hands

They descend on the global cake
Their wine is red
Their meat chocolate-brown
And tenderly done

Here the well-armed
Wrangle over how fast/soon
To end the world
Gunboats on every sea

Killer-jets in every sky
Private eye in every land
They decide who to let die
They decide who to let live

(The nuclear option/imperative
Is still dancing in the nude)

Here the powerful
Haggle hard over conclaves and colonies:
The birds in every air
The fishes in every ocean

The minerals beneath the earth
Are theirs to have and to hold
Their thirst drains the lakes
Their fury un-fins the fishes

The world’s Clever Creditors
Dangle debit chains
And IOU’s like terrorful writs

Mouthing mantras
About peace and progress
(Justice never makes it to the Grand Communiqué)
And promises made but never kept

Here in St. Petersburg
In their own image the Powerful Eight
Plot to shape the world
And History looks on, a Silent Witness…

Poor People’s summit; Gao

Batterings and bones
Sweat and tears
Here, a gathering
Of the Poor People’s Council

The Pundits brand them poor
But the streets insist they are "poored"
They who sow so much
And reap so little

The gold under their earth
The oil beneath their swamps
The trees in their forests
The peoples in their streets

All "raw material" for plants in other lands

Here, nights end on empty stomachs
Dawns arrive with a caravan of Want
The millet has lost its way to the mill
Rice fields cannot rise above the drought

Relentlessly fleeced for
The finery of colder climes
They survive from "aid" to AIDS
Their begging bowls ringing louder

Every passing seasons

Here in Gao
Irrigated by the lordly Niger
Empires once flourished
Timbuktu’s gold was plaything in royal households

Learning traded virtues with Commerce
The sun rose, robust, in the Mali sky…
Then came the Desert
Then came the Sea

Tragic chapters in History’s laughter

Here in Gao
Their skins so South
Their sighs so uncertain
The Paupered unleash a tune

That is loud
And harshly true
And all around are desert sands
And baobabs which defy the storm.

  • Mid-July 2006, two summits took place in different parts of the world: in St. Petersburg, Russia, the G-8 Summit of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries; in Gao, Mali, the Poor People’s Summit.

© Niyi Osundare, July 18, 2006

  • First published in The Guardian, Lagos, Nigeria on July 30, 2006.
  • Reproduced with permission.

Literary Wizard

Ngugi wa Thiong'o at the book reading of Wizard of the Crow on 10th August. The author considers England his second home, and was once a resident of Islington, North London. Here he is with his wife Njeeri, a day before the 2nd anniversary of the attack they suffered on return to Kenya. The author's young son, Thiong'o (who got to say a few words on the night, thanking the audience in an American accent for coming to honour his father) is next to Njeeri. Ngugi seemed to want to make the event a celebration of life and survival, bringing his family along to the event. Lucky for the audience, they got five Thiong'os for the price of one. Ngugi explained that his younger children had only been spared the attack because, as luck would have it, they had chosen to go and spend the night with a relative.

Ngugi autographs a copy of Wizard of the Crow for a reader lucky to be the first in line, a neverending queue for autographs at Congress Hall.

Thanking the blog reader who sent me the link to this piece on Ngugi...

"Moi used to say, 'I can forgive anybody but Ngugi'," says the 68-year-old novelist today at his home in Irvine, where he is a professor of English at the University of California. At just over five feet tall, with a ready giggle, he is hardly the portrait of a steely revolutionary. When Moi agreed to abide by term limits, and his hand-picked successor lost in the presidential elections, Wa Thiong'o realised that he had a chance to come home. It was good timing. Wa Thiong'o had just completed a six-volume satirical novel called Murogi wa Kagogo, a ribald satire of a fictional African dictator. It was also the longest novel ever written in his native Gikuyu language.
-read the article.

  • Images: taken @ Congress Centre, London, 10 August 2006; by MW

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

On Thursday 10th August, Ngugi wa Thiong'o kept a date with lovers of African literature, at a reading and discussion of his new novel, Wizard of the Crow. Here he is at Congress Centre, London.
  • My account of the evening is published today...

Wizard of the Crow: Ngugi Reads in London
By Molara Wood

On August 11 2004, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who had made a triumphant return to his country after 22 years in exile, was attacked by four men. One of Africa’s greatest writers, he was beaten and burned with cigarettes on his face; his wife Njeeri - was raped.

Ngugi (as he is popularly known) had told an interviewer beforehand: "In a spiritual sense, I have never left Kenya. Kenya and Africa are always in my mind. But I look forward to a physical reunion with… my beloved country." The novelist hoped to get in touch with the ‘everyday’; instead, he found what he later described as "a nightmare".

Almost two years to the day, 68-year-old Ngugi has made another return, this time to London - to read his new novel, Wizard of the Crow. He calls England his "second home"; he was very visible there in the 80’s, having left Kenya on exile in 1982. He co-directed his play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi at the Africa Centre, London, later leaving for the United States in 1989. Fittingly for a writer of Marxist leaning, the appearance was at Congress Centre - the UK home of the Trade Union Congress.

Many had bought copies of Wizard of the Crow at the door, and were already leafing through the work as they waited for Ngugi. In the audience was Sarah White who (along with the late John La Rose) is acknowledged in the 766-page book for an active role in the Kenyan struggle; Ngugi also thanked them on the night for campaigning for his release from prison during the late 70’s. Also in the audience were: Professor Biodun Jeyifo; and Caine winners Brian Chikwava (2004) and Segun Afolabi (2005).

Anchoring the event was a long-term friend of Ngugi’s. He spoke briefly about the author’s life and times, his books, awards and stellar academic positions (Ngugi is currently the Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature; and directs the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California), describing him as "one of the major essayists of our time". However, the essays are largely unpublished, and "it is as a writer that we know him."

Wizard of the Crow, though voluminous, was described as "extraordinarily readable", competing in size and scope with Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.

Ngugi read two passages. The first, features a black character suffering from white-ache. "Let me explain," Ngugi offered. "Some have headache, some have stomach ache, but this individual has white-ache." The second passage, about love, was timely, "especially as my wife has come." The audience turned to catch a glimpse and applaud as Njeeri wa Ngugi walked to her seat. Following were the couple’s three children. Things went quiet for the second passage, read by Ngugi in limpid and mesmerising tones.

"Art is for me a very important calling - not a means to politics, but politics is part of art," he declared in the discussion that followed, adding that, to him, art encompasses everything about being human. The politicians in Wizard of the Crow however, are all about power and have no appreciation for art.

The title derives from a standard reference in Kikuyu storytelling. "When I was young, we used to hear stories of sorcerers so powerful that a glance from them could make a bird drop from the sky." Ngugi’s earlier novels were moulded after the realism of the 19th century English novel, having been educated reading the likes of Jane Austen. Later novels are a departure. "Realism is good in giving a portrait of society, but it is also limiting. When I started writing in Gikuyu, I realised that the orature of African tradition is not limited in space or time."

Ngugi bade his farewell to the English language with the theoretical work, Decolonizing the Mind. His novels in Gikuyu include Devil on the Cross (translated into English by Ngugi himself) and Matigari (translated by Wangui wa Goro). The author self-translated Wizard of the Crow,
partly because "it is very long." He is also committed to the process "because I believe in translation. When I abandoned writing in English, I received a lot of criticism." However, "I wanted to show that to write in an African language does not mean the work is excluded from readers in other languages."

Translation allows him to have a dialogue with culture, as he negotiates between the mischievousness and tonality present in Gikuyu, but non-existent in English. In Gikuyu, "If two women meet and one is dressed well, they don’t compliment each other, instead they mock. ‘Ah, why are you dressed like that… are you going to a wedding… where do you think you are going?’ What they are really saying is: you look nice."

In Wizard of the Crow, Ngugi focuses more centrally on women than in his earlier work, with a female character through whom he addresses "the question of women’s power." Looking over to Njeeri in the audience, he encouraged her to take a bow, musing: "And I must say, having been married to a very strong woman…" it was imperative to take this approach in novel.

Ngugi reflected on the now infamous attack. "We got real power from what you call ‘divine intervention’ because we were able to resist them and that is why we are here today." Asked later about where he stands now spiritually, he replied: "I believe in the spirituality of human assistance." Wizard of the Crow is also a conversation between religions, touching on systems of belief including: African traditional religions, Eastern mysticism and Islam.

There was an "overwhelming reception" from ordinary Kenyans on the author’s return in 2004. "Even more overwhelming, was the reception after the attack… my wife, when she walks on the streets, people cross the road and tell her: ‘thank you for returning.’" When Njeeri went shopping with security men in tow after their ordeal, market women stopped the guards at the entrance, saying: "We will protect her here." According to Ngugi, his wife had "this wall of women, guiding her through the market." He concluded that: "Such overwhelming support outweighs the appalling attack on us by people opposed to what we stand for."

Wizard of the Crow is set in the fictional Republic of Aburiria. Ngugi avoided choosing a specific African country in order "to connect with the post-colonial dictator." The author suggested that despots like Pinochet, Aquino, Mobutu and Amin are "a creation of Western democracies", moulded as such - and "function as a part of the Cold War." The post-colonial dictator "embodies what Nkrumah called, ‘power without accountability.’"

The realism of Ngugi’s earlier novels would not suffice for such a dictator, who is often seen (thanks to propaganda) as "having born before the beginning of the world!" Wizard of the Crow is published in four volumes in Kenya. And in "a privileging of the oral", the book receives ‘oral reviews’ before any comment in print, so that "sales owe much to the oral reviewer."

The author wrote Weep Not Child, The River Between and The Black Hermit, while still an undergraduate at Makerere University. He also wrote a column (As I See It; as James Ngugi) for a newspaper, edited a journal, "and I still wrote my essays on time!" Ngugi likened this to similar achievements by Achebe and Soyinka during the same period. "This phenomenon is placed in the culture of the sixties," he believes.

Reminding that the end of the 50’s into the 60’s occasioned "the high noon of the anti-colonial movement, the independence of Ghana and Nigeria; labour movement in the Caribbean; civil rights in America… we were responding to that energy." Rather than any notions of genius, he credits the "youth and passion" of the 60’s for the literature that emerged from Africa at the time.

According to Ngugi’s discussant, that ‘youth and passion’ is still evident "in the mature writer of Wizard of the Crow."

  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o was at Congress Centre, London, on Thursday 10th August. Wizard of the Crow is published by Harvill Secker, UK.

pigeon paparazzi

Now and then, some hitch on the Victoria Line at Green Park Station means I have to get out of the London Underground and make the rest of my morning journey to work on foot. This means walking through Green Park, then past the throngs of tourists at Buckingham Palace (they're always there, hundreds of them, like they must have arrived at the Queen's gates at the crack of dawn). If it's a nice spring or summer's day, the walk through Green Park is quite pleasant. On Thursday 17th August, I started my walk through and found people already lounging in the park and... hundreds of pigeons seemed to be having a convention. I turned pigeon paparazzi.

Iberi on Fela

The Man, The Music, The Message

February 2nd 1988 was like any other day, and my uncle Tony’s hasty pace consciously told me to keep up with him as we walked towards Ikeja bus stop in the tropical Nigerian heat. For a minute I didn’t realise I had stopped in my tracks to listen to the sound booming from a music retail shop. I looked around the frenzied crowd scurrying past me in the typical Lagos craze and felt their pulse in the beat. 2:14pm and my first encounter with his music betrayed what was to come. Nine and a half years later I joined nearly a million people who thronged to the Tafawa Balewa Square for his funeral.

Fela Kuti as a music artist embodied different things to different people. For the vast majority of Nigerians, he stood tall as a social crusader who championed the fight against oppression, government excess and corruption. To the authorities, he was just a dissenter, a cannabis-smoking saxophonist who was to be vilified, hounded and imprisoned. To the rest of the world, he was more like the eccentric performer whose unyielding lyrics gave jazz a rebel face. Indeed, Fela’s life as a maverick resonated in the genius of his art - Afrobeat music so subliminal, so dissident and yet so persuasive.

Music publications across the globe have traded expansive reviews on his music and biographies have been authored; the message in his music remains stuff for engaging contemporary critics to interpret, while independent projects have been set up to archive the man’s extraordinary life and art. But so much more has been left unexplored in appreciating the essence of his music.

Born in October 15th 1938 in Abeokuta, South West Nigeria, Fela became a cult figure in Nigeria for challenging everything that was devoid of humanity, from successive military dictatorship of that dark era to championing the affirmation of traditional African culture. And he paid the price time and time again, severe beatings from soldiers (who also torched his house), several court appearances, frequent harassment and incarceration by the authorities became his lot. But the message in his music was not lost to all.

Influenced by trumpeters Miles Davies, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown and saxophonists Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Harold Land, he chose music as a weapon to instigate change in his society. Upon arriving back home from Trinity College of Music in England where he had finished his studies in 1963, Fela began to experiment with Highlife music, which was the craze in West Africa in the fifties and sixties, but highlife enthusiasts were at odds on what to do with his fusion of jazz into it.

About the same period in the late sixties, he along with his band Koola Lobitos took a music tour to the United States of America where he encountered the black revolutionary movement that had, at the time, brought activism into the arts as well. This reality was not lost on him as he began to reflect on the cultural impact his music could have on his own long suffering African people.

With a blend of music genres, Fela clearly drew upon highlife, jazz and rhythm and blues, but Africanized the foreign jazz and soul elements while deconstructing dance band highlife and grafted them all onto a traditional West African rhythmic template.*1

The result was Afrobeat: a style of composition that buttressed its busy, lengthy arrangements of interlocking polyrhythms and blazing horns with fervently nationalistic lyrics that railed against the rampant corruption in Nigeria's halls of power.*2

Choosing to sing in Pidgin, a broken down version of the English language, which is spoken by the vast West African underclass population, endeared him to more fans who had been cut off by earlier recordings in his native Yoruba tongue.

Michael E Veal in his biography of Fela highlights the impact it had on his compositions: “Pidgin enabled him to dart in and around the rhythm in a strongly jazz-inflected fashion, bending the stresses and accents of Standard English to the African syntax and tonalinflections. It also allowed him to integrate nonsense syllables which had a purely rhythmic value into his singing.”

Classics like the hypnotic Water No Get Enemy (1975), the seditious Zombie waxed in 1976, and the valiantly composed 1977 hit Sorrow, Tears and Blood are all ensconced in a discography that boasts of 77 recorded albums and several unreleased compositions.

Paul McCartney was so enthralled with Fela’s composition in one instance that he wanted to record with him on a visit to the Kalakuta, as his residence where he also performed was known. But Fela was quite suspicious of his motives and the proposition was put on ice.

However, it is so easy to take Fela for granted, and dismiss him as a hedonistic band leader who was short sighted in terms of courting a wider music audience like Bob Marley did, especially when the sound of Caribbean patois and the emerging African rhythm of roots reggae had prepared the Western public’s appreciation for African music.

The reply to the above mindset could be that at the time Africa needed a projectile from the music world and Fela shot straight to the head. His frown on Western imperialism resonated in every note from his saxophone and the theme of his music centered on castigating the authoritarianism that was prevalent in Africa following independence from colonial powers.

Fela was empowered by an awareness that sprung from traditional Africa where things were essentially ordered, he ridiculed Christianity and Islam (both very popular religions in Africa), and his idea of feminism was as unflattering as some of his best compositions. But he also wondered why his home country Nigeria was earning a fortune in foreign exchange from the exploration and sale of crude oil and yet was so underdeveloped, lacked basic infrastructure and its people desperately poor.

For him, the corrupt leaders and their western collaborators were to blame and his voice can still be heard harsh as ever in Authority Stealing, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, Beasts of No Nation, Army Arrangement, Why Blackman Dey Suffer, Shuffering and Shmiling.*3

His message was poignant and uncompromising; it reflected the relentlessness of the reality of his time. His impact was both whole and inspiring for Nigerian folks who endured -and still sadly endures- corrupt leadership, mismanagement and embezzlement of public funds. It is such a shame that the issues he sang about are still prevalent in Nigeria today.

Fela’s insight was spiritually rooted in traditional African mysticism and his legion of fans gave him the moniker Abami Eda which when translated roughly means “The weird one” in English. But he was comprehensible enough to himself and to the world regarding his muse for the composition and performance of song after song.

Smoking cannabis or Indian hemp as it is commonly referred to in Nigeria became a rally point of departure for his conservative fans who frowned on the negative influence it could have on impressionable minds, for them the legal implication and the social consideration of drug abuse should not be divorced from the significance of his art.

And on the premise of this understanding, the authorities justified its unbridled persecution of Fela for so many years. But getting high was not just for fun or to stimulate him while on stage as a music artist; Fela built a whole lifestyle on it and attributed some form of ritualistic symbolism to it.

Michael E. Veal again describes the experience in his account on Fela: “Marijuana was clearly crucial to Fela’s musical and social vision in a number of ways. Sonically, it was reflected in the loping, insistent patterns, whose hypnotic effect was similar to the Jamaican reggae of the same period (in the creation of which marijuana also played an integral role)”.

Fela passed away from AIDS related complications in August 2nd 1997, becoming one of the most celebrated personalities to succumb to that dreadful disease in his part of the world. The shock of his death was to reveal the sum of our collective burden: the angst of daily life.

This man made no pretence of perfection, he lived his life with apologises to no one. Fela was passionate, unpretentious, self-indulgent and above all unorthodox. He refused to be confined to the norm…he defined himself. A true renaissance man who did not only influence his family and friends but also every individual in the world today whose voice is fervent enough to be raised on behalf of some one else.

  1. Veal E. Michael, Fela: The Life and Times of an African Music Icon, p. 98.
  2. Loftus Johnny, Fela’s Children (Metro Times Detroit).
  3. Fela Discography.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Bunmi Oyinsan Reads

Glendora Readings
Bunmi Oyinsan

Born in Lagos and raised in Port Harcourt, Bunmi Oyinsan's first novel, Silhouette was adapted in a 26-episode serial on Nigerian television. She is the author of Fabulous Four and Halima both of which have been literature texts in Nigerian schools. She has also worked as a scriptwriter and film producer. Her works for television include Owuro Lojo, Golden Cage, We The People & Aditulaye-Toyosi.

Based in Canada, Bunmi Oyinsan appears at The Jazzhole, to discuss her new book, Three Women, as well as life, work, career as a writer, filmmaker and African literature, womanist and feminist literary conciousness as a whole.

Venue: Jazzhole, 18 Awolowo Road, Ikoyi Lagos
Date: Thursday 17 August 2006
Time: 5 - 7pm

Atta wins the WS

Writer Sefi Atta became the 1st winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, on Saturday 5th August 2006. Here, the mother of the US-based author, Mrs Iyabo Atta, receives the $20,000 prize on her behalf. Atta won for her novel, Everything Good Will Come. She was short-listed for this year's Caine Prize.

still on the nmas

Talk show host and one of the organisers of the NMA awards, Soni Irabor, poses (left) with Taka Kpanja, who I learned is the current Miss ECOWAS.

Above is veteran Nigerian musician, Sonny Okosun who, almost from a sense of responsibility, came onstage everytime an artiste won who was not present - to accept awards on their behalf. He did this for several singers of the younger generation, referring to one or two as "my son".

Okosun also received a Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, saying he was accepting for Fela "because he is alive; music never dies."

Another veteran, Sir Victor Uwaifo, got an award on the night for his evergreen song, Joromi.


Correspondents got together at the NMAs, Saturday 12 August. This line-up includes Ebun Olatoye of True Love Magazine (W. Africa); Nkiru Ogbuokin of the Washington Post; and for The Guardian, Tunde Oyedoyin and myself.

Steve Ayorinde (Above left & below) of The Punch Newspapers, Lagos, Nigeria is temporarily based in the UK and corresponds with his arts constituency back home. We decided to take a break from the usual press stuff, and follow the example of the music stars - to strike a pose.

L-R: Photographer Ade Omoloja, Olatoye, Wood & Oyedoyin.

nma awards

This is D'Banj (singer of Make I Tell You Di Koko) who last night won 'Artist of the Year' at the Nigeria Music Awards, held in London. He poses (below) with the hostess of the show.

Some of the night's winners:
P-Square (Get Squared) - Album of the Year
Oruka (Sunny Nneji) - Song of the Year
Paul Play Dairo - R'nB
Sammie Okposo - Gospel
Sunny Nneji - Highlife
Marvellous Benjy - Reggae
Yinka Aiyefele - Juju
Pasuma Wonder - Fuji
DJ Abass - Music Journalist
Ara - PMAN Artiste of the Year
Sir Victor Uwaifo (Joromi) - Evergreen
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti - Lifetime Achievement
Diya Ojo - UK Indigenous
JJC/419 Squad - UK Urban

Left: Lady drummer, Ara, with her award.


It wasn’t the lure of repealed taxes
that drew her to the movement,
it was the sight of hundreds of women
wielding cooking implements;
pestles raised skyward
in a declaration of war.
It was the power she felt
coursing through her body
as she joined the marches, chanting,
the look of respect in her husband’s eyes
when she returned home each night.
Spurred on by the kicks from within her swollen belly
this humble trader, weaver of cloth,
joined the assembly of women
surrounding the district officer’s house
waiting for their demands to be met.
Day after day, the African sun
fried scalp exposed between cornrows;
a little agony ignored for the cause.
The day came when the district officer had had enough;
the women intercepted on their way to his house
by a platoon of men who walked tall,
just like the women’s fathers,
but bore proof
of the absence of kinship
in barrel-curved hands.
She had never moved so fast in her life
but could not outpace the source of the whine,
gritted her teeth at the moment of the sting,
but kept on running.
When the burning continued,
she put her hand to her left shoulder,
laughed at the red, sticky liquid;
she had never felt so free.
But the baby wouldn’t wait.
She felt the hands supporting her,
then nothing at all.
The sound of the angry wail
drew another laugh from her.
She uttered her first words to her daughter:
“You were born to fight,”
and on that morning in 1929,
before her eyes shuttered,
the women smiled the wide smiles
of those who know sorrow
will yield to their grit.

© Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi

  • Eyewitness appeared in the Indiana Review, Volume 27, Number 2, Winter 2005. Reproduced with permission.

snails alive

This image of a solitary snail, is stylized from an original (see original pics below), taken by my 8-year-old earlier today. When you live in the London urban environment, sightings such as a few snails after rain, can be quite major, especially to a child. He ran in earlier today saying excitedly how he'd seen snails by a plant outside. So I gave him my camera and said: well go and snap them. Sure enough, he came back with images I thought were rather accomplished, for his age - especially as he took them with no supervision whatsoever. A budding nature photographer?

african showcase market

The African Showcase Market is an outdoor event with over 30 stalls displaying and selling products from the 4 corners of Africa. Here are scenes from the one held @ the Willesden Green Library, London, on Saturday 23 July.

Ola Mustapha (in blue, next to the performer) founded and co-ordinates the African Market Showcase in collaboration with London councils, to promote multiculturalism in the city.
- visit the website.


FELAversation: Talking Of Fela For Idonije

TWO Nigerians who have written the most definitive andrevealing books about the status, art and politics ofthe legendary creator of afrobeat music, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, will be on duty on Wednesday, August 23 at: The Cinema hall 11 of the National Theatre, Iganmu Lagos. Time is 1pm.

Professor Tejumola Olaniyan, the Loiuse Durham Mead Professor at the University of Wisconsin, USA, andauthor of Fela: Arrest The Music and Dr Sola Olorunyomi, of the English Department, University of Ibadan and author of Fela And the Imagined Continent,will be guests at the August edition of the monthly Arthouse Forum, organised by the Friends of the Arts,Lagos, FOAL on the platform of the Committee forRelevant Art, CORA.

The event is in honour of Benson Idonije, the veteran writer on music and broadcasting, who was 70 on June 17.

Idonije, who has written an average of three articles per week in The Guardian since 1996, was the very first manager of Fela Kuti when he returned to Nigeria in the 50s. In fact, Idonije recruited all the members of the then Koola Lobitos band including the current leader of the band and Fela’s longest serving sideman, the tenor saxophonist, Lekan Animasaun aka Baba Ani.

According to the FOAL, the Fela Conversation (FELAversation) is designed to celebrate the fact that"Nigerian intellectuals have, at last, responded to the challenges posed by their counterparts from the West and Europe on the issue of articulating the epochal contribution of one of Africa’s leading cultural icon, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti to world culture."Before now, the works that have served as references on Fela Kuti were those authored by scholars who were either impatient with thoroughly understanding the complexities of Fela’s politics and arts, or were propelled by mindset about Africa and its people in terms of capability to contribute to world of ideas even through music; or were just lazy in their approach to the research and the eventual writing."With Olaniyan’s Fela: Arrest The Music and Fela:The Imagined Continent, the authentic documentation of Fela’s iconoclasm is beginning to emerge. We areindeed proud of these two works and the authors."The event will be moderated by Femi Akintunde-Johnson, former Entertainment Editor of The Punch newspaper, who later went on to co-found FAME and Encomium magazines, and now publishes Treasure magazine.

Deacon Ayo Ositelu, a fomer editor of Sunday Punch, who did one of the most important interviews with Fela Kuti in 1994, will also reflect on the relationship between Fela and idonije, emphasising on how mutual collaboration between the artiste and the journalist can yield substantial dividend for the individual career of the two as well as the cultural heritage of the society. There will be a bandstand that will play lots of Fela’s number to aid the discussion."FELAversation is a musical exploration and picnic", says Chris Ihidero, FOAL’s programme officer. The event is supported by the management of the National Theatre of Nigeria.
-Press Release