Watching Soyinka II

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A wife in the forest

By the 1960s Westernization, loss of religious grounding, and other modern madnesses had disrupted much of the traditional lifeways of the Yorubas. This once mighty engine of cultural accomplishment was letting slippery agent-thieves into the towns and villages of Western Nigeria to scarf up with cash their wooden images of honor and worship, of king, clan and family. Many, but not all, were of museum quality. They flowed out to us in a terrible torrent, the rapids of change.

When these scoundrels come around to our houses at dinnertime with pillow cases stuffed with fine art and graven images, what do you do? Buy the best and save it, or let it go next door to an expatriate buyer with less taste and less guilt, to be lost forever, to show up later in a London antique shop or Akron yard sale?

Understand that under normal conditions these images, carved in Oroko, a soft white wood, would usually have a short lifespan. White ants (termites) had eaten away some of the head on my own ibeji twin doll and its feet were rotted away when I purchased it for a few bob. When a traditional religion breaks down, its art is left to molder. Or get sold to indirect grave robbers like me.

In my defense, when I became a serious collector it was known that I would alert government museums or other scholar-buyers of traditional images that an exceptional fine image was on the street so that they could move to purchase it. (Most of my collection I donated to the Federal Museum in Lagos. In exchange the curators gave me an export permit for several good pieces.) I understand since then, much of the material culture we saved has been looted, pilfered, and simply lost.

Beyond a confession, the point is that Nigerian Yorubas have had the wherewithal—2,000 years and the intellectual resources including a discerning creation myth and Olorun, a Supreme Being—to think through the complex issues of living, loving, grieving, and even death among twin children. Such artifacts as my ibeji twin doll, for example, do not come out of backward societies. Call such sophistication “an easy knowledge of the world.”

Now, of course one of the collectors also caught up in this malevolent trade was Wole Soyinka. I recant the word “collector.” In his case, the terms conservator, defender, deliverer, guardian, hero, preserver, protector, and rescuer cut to the difference between us.

I also am not sure of a “malevolent trade.” Perhaps “Janus-like” fits better. Janus, with two faces on opposite sides of his head, is the Roman god of doorways and passages. Janus also represents the transition between primitive life and civilization, between rural and urban existence—new beginnings. Boy, doesn’t that image work here?

Before arriving in Nigeria, I probably knew more about Africa than most of my Peace Corps brothers and sisters. I had studied its art and dance in particular. (Of course, before Peace Corps training at UCLA I had never heard of the mighty boundary Niger River.) But woe is me, my cultural lead didn’t mean squat when I got to Ibadan. While I could even carve a passable African mask, actual Yoruba art remained a mystery to me: too complex, too many themes, too fulsome.

So at first, I bought large simple ebony and mahogany images {mostly heads) carved for the tourist trade, fake Benin bronzes, adire indigo-dyed cloth, mats and baskets from the Middle Belt, and camel skin poufs from off the Sahel, all brought to me by my personal Hausa trader, old Mr. Quality who arriving at dinner-time, would call out, “Mr. Quality here!” Attending him was a “small-boy” carrying on his head a large basket of wonders. But I was wildly bemused by all this. I knew what I was missing, but the Yoruba aesthetic was just beyond my reach.

This cultural conflict went on for six solid months. I was very angry at myself. How could this be? I had been a drama major and dancer. Huh? Then wham, bam, and thank you, ma’m, Yoruba country arrived in my heart. One night at the Paradise Hotel’s club, I finally figured out the highlife beat and how you subtly shifted your weight from one leg to another, how you presented yourself on the dance floor while relating physically to your partner possibly yards away. How you could dance to one song for typically 20 minutes and never break a sweat. Oriwo! Wo! Wo! Thank you, Eddie Okonta! (I eventually became a founding member of his fan club (no. 17) and once bailed him out of jail on some trumped up political charge, but that’s another story.)

And sure enough, about the same time my music came together, with the help of friends, the traders, and Peace Corps staff more Nigeria-senior than myself, without warning I GOT Yoruba carving and then learned to parse out the real from the knock-off. Quickly trading off my tourist mahogany and ebony art for better works, I started really collecting. It wasn’t long before my eye was quite good.

Besides Wole, involved in the traffic was the aforementioned Africanist scholar Uli Bier, U. S. State Department staff, University faculty, and even Dennis Williams, director of the University’s Institute for African Studies, which had its own collection of Yoruba art and artifacts. So, I was getting a small reputation as a responsible collector.

Now I must admit that I soon became addicted to the trade, spending all my money, etc., (not having a wife, I couldn’t lose her.) But within a year, given a work of some age, I could likely place an object’s provenance within fifty miles or so and tell you about its traditional purpose. Yea, I got good. But I had a problem. I didn’t know how to live in the same small University staff apartment with all this powerful, really powerful traditional art. Like the full ju-ju mask and shirt I bought from a man in the market who was wearing it. . . . It’s true. I did that. To my shame. After just three troubling weeks I took the whole outfit to Dennis Williams at the Institute, “Here, take this. I can’t have it around anymore. I did wrong!”

But living with the more legitimate material was also difficult. I didn’t know how to display it, on shelves, on the wall, how? One day talking with Wole about his collection at home, I asked if I could come out and see it. We made a date and I was Johnny–on-the-spot on my little Honda 50.

Wole lived in a deep forest away from the University in the best house in Ibadan: one of Ibadan’s last-remaining cast-iron framed Victorian colonial staff houses built up on 10-foot stilts away from the heat and damp and mosquitoes of the earth. With verandas, and wide, wide sheltering eaves, a classic Sadie Thompson tin roof, all wooden shutters and ventilation, these divine old homes had been prefabricated in Scotland in the late-1800’s and shipped out from there to Nigeria, in the “Bloody Bight of Benin, where few come out where many went in.” I wanted one like that. To this day, I have never seen any home place like it.

After a walk-around outside, we went in. And then I saw how you lived with powerful art: casually. You just laid it around the house, you put a fine carved Obatala—Mother of the Gods holding a chicken carved into a kola nut bowl—on the floor next to your chair. A divining platter you left on the table but didn’t use it for cheese. You hung a mask or cloth on the wall if it looked right. You left great traditional figures propped up all around. It was no big deal. But it was respectful. And you damn sure didn’t compromise anything good, placing it next to the second-rate.

Learning from Wole’s open and free style of domestic living—all comfortable in an organic atmosphere—freed me and my better-than-amateur collection from pretension. When I went home I just set my Yoruba pieces easily around the house, kind of like they were family. We are still living that way today.

Of course, the Soyinka collection was unbelievable in quality. To this day, I have never seen anything like it.

But there was something else. After a few minutes studying his masks, iron staffs, and dozens of Yoruba carved images, there was a stirring outside and then, a young and wonderfully beautiful Yoruba woman appeared, a vision of loveliness and character. She was, of course, Wole’s wife. While most anyone can collect great art, a man can only earn this kind of woman.

To this day, I have never seen anything like her.

The politics of Emergency at the Paradise Hotel

If asked to name the place I would rather be right now, it’s Ibadan. And then I will scope in on the Paradise Hotel, a convivial Lebanese-owned hotel, brothel, and open-air night club that often functioned as Ibadan’s agora—a public commercial, social, and political arena—of a city-state region that journalist Ben Lawrence has described as a “busy enigmatic, sprawling city swarming with brains and brawn, an experiment in international living and human understanding, in which then lived the most sophisticated and liberal intellectuals on the continent—that was Ibadan, which admitted men and women of smooth character and civilized tastes.”

For such smooth men and women, one night in 1962 it inevitably happened that a traveling correspondent for the ever-vigilant TIME magazine reported that he had spotted in front of Ibadan’s Paradise Hotel three of the really large bright-blue Chevrolet Suburban 8-passenger vans that had been assigned to early Peace Corps households. Well, as we say today, um, duh. Of course, on weekend nights local and traveling Volunteers were at the Paradise Hotel, eating goat shish cabob, drinking Star Beer, laughing, dancing the highlife (or learning to), holding forth, and generally being of “smooth character and civilized tastes.” Or working at it. But, in the adverse international publicity occasioned by our being busted at the Paradise, the big blue Chevy vans were taken away and replaced with Honda 50s—motorbikes that left less of an impression when parked in several ranks in front of the Paradise Hotel. Along with the cars of the social elite of the city as described above.

Now habitués of 1960s Ibadan night life will remember that there were several memorable night clubs available to us, including the Central Hotel, the Starlight Club[?], and the ________. Of course, I can’t leave out the hard-edged juju club, owned by Black _____.

Each of these clubs had a special character, a set of regular patrons, and its favorite highlife or juju dance band. Remember that there were also a dozen or so great dance bands touring Nigeria at any moment. There was the pioneer Bobby Benson Band, Victor Olaiya (“Omo Pupa”), the juju master I.K. Dairo (later MBE), Sunny Ade and His Unibadan Voices (later African Beats), the Casino Dance Band, Charles Iwegbue and His Archibogs, Chief Ebenezer Obey, Roy Chicago, Pastor Rex Lauson and the Mayor’s Dance Band, Tunde Western Nightingale, or as noted above, Ibadan’s favorite bandleader, Eddie Okonta and His Top Aces—Oriwo! Wo! Wo!

Adding to this scene—which is now recognized by fans and scholars as the apex of African popular music—every few months one of these touring big bands would suddenly show up at the venue of one of their rivals for an impromptu Battle of the Bands. How could life get any better than when day is done, you go down from Mokola Hill to the Paradise and listen to Eddie Okonta square off against Roy Chicago’s All Stars?

These highlife bands (the more hip mainstream sound) and juju bands (more bluesy-traditional) mostly played music from their home region, be it Twi, Yoruba, Igbo, Rivers, or Delta. And naturally, in the feisty Yoruba-based bands, there were mysterious distinctions between the music of Ondo and Ijebu and Ibadan and Illorin towns. Traditional juju was more guitar, choral, and drum-based, but the big touring highlife bands enjoyed electric guitars, trumpets, saxophones, several kinds of drums, shekare [sp?], tambourines, and lead singers. Highlife music was urban, influenced by American swing and jazz, but with an African rhythm locomotive strong. The stuff of modern Afro-Beat doesn’t touch highlife for sheer fun and musical magic. The individual highlife dance tunes might run for 15-20 minutes, with several internal movements where the beats change and new songs might even begin. Whatever, if you had come to terms with Ibadan—learned to love it— and you had learned to dance within your means—not foolishly—you could highlife your heart out.

Also, remember that in the early 1960s, Africa’s political fight of the century was taking place. Western Nigeria was then under an Official Emergency, a kind of curfew with many of its Yoruba political leaders like Bola Ige and [?] under house arrest or in jail under Federal laws allowing preventive detention.

From 1962 onwards, Nigerian Peace Corps Volunteers were not exempt from this bubbling political stewpot. With us, it took only a few months of living in a given region of Nigeria before Volunteers took on the political coloration and loyalties of its local people. It never failed. The learning curve was also helped along because each political party—which were largely ethnic and regional—had its own newspaper and that is what you read every day. So if you were teaching in Sokoto, you were conservative, admired the Sultan, believed the 1960 census which gave the North the entire government and you would have voted NPC. If you taught high school in the East, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was your man, you read his West African Pilot and you were centrist NCNC, and if you lived in Yoruba country, you were simply left-of-center Action Group and would have voted, if you could have, for Chief Obafemi Awolowo, founder of the first modern political party in Nigeria, all the way. Asked today my political affiliation I will still say Democratic Party and Action Group.

Such is the holding power of really good politics in the hands of masters—and Nigerian politicians of that time were amongst the best politicians anywhere. Indeed, everyday Nigerians were likely the most politically savvy citizens the world has ever known. To this point, there is research to the fact that Nigerians, at least in the 1970s, knew more about—and voiced opinions about—their political situation and their leaders, more than any people similarly surveyed by the researchers, anywhere in the world. Nigeria then was a kind of village. Ask any Nigerian anywhere about Awolowo and you received a sophisticated and smooth assessment, suitable for framing.

At first, baffled by the complex politics of 1962 Nigeria, I once asked my Fourth Form English Grammar students at Ahmadiyya Grammar School some leading questions about the fraternal strife between the Moslem regional premier, Chief S. L. Akintola (murdered in 1966), and his fellow Yoruba but political opponent, Chief Awolowo. Awo, as everyone called him, was then Federal Leader of the Opposition in Parliament; he later went to prison. “Students, how are the political struggles in Yorubaland similar to those in Julius Caesar? Are there parallels between Akintola and Awolowo and Cassius and Caesar?” This question turned the afternoon studies of Julius Caesar into an extraordinary political seminar, with teacher becoming student.

Indeed, with their larger-than-life Elizabethan roistering and whanging, Nigerian politics were also, at their best, great theater. Listen to Awolowo speaking at his famous 1963 Treasonable Felony conspiracy trial:

“Look here, Dr. Maja. I am a pepper that no one can chew without tears. You have said grave lies against me. You will suffer for it. You have sworn in the name of God, but you are giving evidence in the name of Satan…. Woe betide you.”

Awo! Awo! Awo! Later, I was chanting that with several thousand others at a political rally in Ibadan. Obviously, I received more than one serious talking-to by Murray Frank, my Peace Corps regional director. Decades later, I learned that Murray had already had to field a Department of State Telegram which explained that Secretary of State Dean Rusk hadn’t had a ready response when confronted by an angry Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who, throwing an Agency photograph on Rusk’s desk, demanded to know why a Peace Corps Volunteer named Tom Hebert was marching on the US Consulate in Ibadan in a student-led Anti-Apartheid demonstration.

Moving on, one night in late 1963 I was at the Paradise with friends and was dancing to a fine Yoruba band. But everyone there was on edge because an onerous Federal decree had come down from Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa relating to our Action Group heroes who were in jail or worse. We even feared that the Paradise itself would be raided that night by the National Police. Adding to the unease, the Action Group newspaper, The Daily Express, had been suspended for a couple weeks and so the Yorubas were even more uncertain as to their political future in a country then, as now, totally dominated by the Moslem north and always, then and now, on the edge of great war.

As I noted above, highlife dance numbers contain several musical movements. With Yoruba bands at a certain point, the tuneful music ends and Yoruba drumming kicks in, with two “talking drums,” taking over. Here is the University of Michigan School of Music describing them:

“Talking drums are part of a family of hourglass shaped pressure drums; in the Yoruba language of west Africa, these include “gan gan” (the smallest member of this drum family) or “dun dun” (the largest of the talking drums.) The drum heads at either end of the drum's wooden body are made from hide, which are wrapped around a wooden hoop. Leather cords or thongs run the length of the drum's body and are wrapped around both hoops; when you squeeze these cords under your arm, the drum heads tighten, changing the instrument's pitch.

“One of the unique features of the instruments is their ability to closely imitate the rhythms and intonations of spoken language. In the hands of skilled performers, they can reproduce the sounds of proverbs or praise songs through a specialized “drum language”—their dialogue can be easily understood by a knowledgeable Yoruba audience. Drums have often symbolized the power of a traditional political leader, and skilled drummers have held considerable status in these west African communities.”

That night, towards the curfew hour of eleven o’clock, a hundred or so people were dancing in a lively fashion to the music when this band turned to its talking drums. Now, one doesn’t dance to the talking drum. You stop and listen. If the drummers are good you “dash” them a few shillings or a pound note pasted to their sweating forehead.

But this night, things were all different. Of course, when the drums began to talk all dancing stopped. But then, the dancers swept forward to the bandstand. I had no idea what was going on. Pushed forward, I found myself standing next to Wole. Learning over, I urgently asked what was happening, what the drums were saying. “Shhh! This is important. Ask me later.”

I didn’t. I knew I was over my head. But six months later I would have asked Soyinka.

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