Lemi Ghariokwu: ‘I Was Fela’s Youngest Best Friend’

Lemi Ghariokwu in his studio in Lagos

Lemi Ghariokwu in his studio in Lagos

Before he turned  20, Lemi Ghariokwu, the artist who designed 26 jacket covers for Afrobeat creator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s music, knew he was ‘gonna make it in Art’. The year (1974) his first collage graced Fela’s ‘Alagbon Close’ album, Ghariokwu recalls, “It was a hit cover. I became an instant star and I was just 19.”  That was largely because the illustration on the album was reviewed by the local media.

The following year, with the backing of his mom and a candid, brotherly advice from Fela, the gifted Ghariokwu decided against pursuing a course in Arts at the University. Instead, he set out to collect as many relevant books on the subject, pored over them passionately and got inspired by their varied content.

His first purchase, a hard-cover book titled ‘Picture History of World Art’ (by Nathaniel Harris), stirred up his creativity on end. A line drawing by Mattisse spawned a new image in the young Ghariokwu’s mind, which he drew in black in on the opposite page. He bought more books and he was soon drinking from the fountain of creative greats like: Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso, Rembrandt, and lots more creative geniuses.

It was actually in the first few pages of his first purchase that he wrote two prophetic paragraphs in black ink, an agenda-setting of sorts: it was a soul-searching entry, a clear-headed assessment of his understanding of purpose and destiny, and why every human being on earth owe it to themselves to discover their own reason(s) for being, their life’s trajectory.

“There is a billion ways of making headway in life. It’s either early in your lifetime, later or never…I don’t believe in mediocrity. I believe solely in the best thing…for anything worth doing at all is worth doing better,” one portion reads.

At the time, he believed had found his, and he was even so cocksure that, sooner or later, he would ‘make it in Art—and make it, I will’.

So for four straight years, Ghariokwu worked closely with Fela and was even a regular face at the late musician’s four weekly shows at Kalakuta/Afrika Shrine: Ladies’ Nite (Tuesday); Yabis Nite (Friday); Comprehensive Show (Saturday), Sunday Jump.  At the time, he had stopped attending church services (he was raised a Roman Catholic, confirmed as Michael) and so it was not too hard for him to fit into the creative maelstrom that Fela birthed. For a 20-year old, the exposure must have been an eyeful.

“I thank my stars that I was able to hold my head; it was a total weird experience, a different world entirely,” Ghariokwu says, going down memory lane in his studio in Lagos. “Here I was in the midst of these crazy, weird, creative genius, iconoclast, traditionalist, revolutionary and egalitarian world. I preserved myself. I didn’t go through all the craziness, the madness. If I had been lost in that euphoria, I may not be here today because I know what has happened to some people who didn’t get their bearings right.”

What followed his unexpected big break into stardom was even more successes, which spanned the good part of three decades (1974-1992), and continues till date. “My claim to fame is the works I did for Fela,” he told a Swedish documentary team in England in 2009 during an exhibition of some of his works.  “I helped to brand Fela—as a product, as an enigma, as a revolutionary, as a creative genius, an egalitarian, all the lifestyle.”

It’s clear that Ghariokwu idolizes Fela, in much the same way that several thousands of the late artiste’s fans worldwide do. And he is not passive about it. At the slightest opportunity, Ghariokwu heartily shares his life story and his self-taught skill at art the same way he speaks about Fela, whom he refers to as a ‘warrior and soldier’.

Already, he has been commissioned by the Kuti Family to curate the art section of the new Kalakuta Museum, projected to cost N58million; it is sponsored wholly by the Lagos State Government and schedule to open in October 2012. When fully renovated, the facility, which was Fela’s home until he died in August 1997, will also have a restaurant, a five-room boutique hotel, a tea/coffe shop, an internet café, and a souvenir shop.

There is more: “Fela’s room is going to be left he left it at death, his personal effects and all. We are going to create a room that will have at least 1,000 pictures of Fela, because he was well photographed globally. The stairwell from the third-floor down will carry a ‘Fela Story’, his lifelines. There will be a room also for the women behind Fela. The mother, Sandra Isidore and the 27 women he married in a day, and so on,” Ghariokwu explains.

All this, coming on the heels of the hugely successful Fela! (on Broadway), the musical, which earned 11 Tony Award nominations in 2011 and has toured the world. Ghariokwu’s face brightens when he tells me he has seen the show no less than 35 times, in New York and London.

“When I saw the show for the first time, I was crying. So were [Fela’s children] Yeni, Femi and Seun,” he says, his voice mellow. “I am very happy to be alive right now that Fela’s legacy is blossoming. It is the role I was destined to play; and it is a role I am still playing. It is destiny fulfilled. I am still alive; before I die I will still do my best to help institutionalize Fela Kuti,” Ghariokwu says.

So what memories of Fela has he preserved in his mind? He wastes no time to reel out a tale he has told a thousand times about his first ever meeting with Fela, wearing just briefs. “It was that day when he saw the [first] portrait I did of him and he exclaimed ‘wow, gaddem!’ And don’t we all remember Abami Eda in his briefs?

“I was surprised to find that Nigeria produces so much rich music”–Toshi Endo

QnA with Toshi Endo (Japanese lecturer and Fela Scholar)

Prof. Toshiya Endo

Prof. Toshiya Endo

It’s amazing that a Japanese academic is so knowledgeable in African music. How did it all begin?

In the 1970s my interest was in American folk and pop music, the singer-writer kind of music. But then all of a sudden some great music started to come from the developing world, which had a huge impact on me. That was Bob Marley. What he sang about was reality, different from the songs American used to do. So I was stunned that the kind of music could come from the peripheral of the world, Jamaica. Needless to say that I was impressed by this fact, so I looked for other music in a similar context, and I came across music from Africa, especially in Nigeria. I discovered Fela Kuti/ Afrobeat, Sunny Ade/Juju music. I was surprised that such rich music was produced in Nigeria. More and more, I went deeply into Nigerian music.

You didn’t just limit your interest to listening and enjoying the songs; you actually created a blog, a very rich discography of African music. What was the motivation for that?

African music was difficult to find in Japan. It is also difficult to get vinyl records of music made in Nigeria. The only way for me to do it was to contact record shops in London. There was a particular one called the Stern’s Radio (at the time), which was exclusively into Nigerian music. I used the mail order system of the record shop to get Nigerian music. I did that over time and my collection increased year after year. Still my collection was very limited, and as things would happen I had the opportunity to visit Nigeria in the 1980s and I collected a lot of music. Still they weren’t enough, so I collected more and more. Then I thought it was important to collected these information and make them accessible to the public, to everybody. So I decided to start a website, the discography that you referred to, at the onset of internet in the 1990s. In the beginning, I just gathered information from my personal collection and uploaded them on the site; but then many people all over the world contacted me and started to tell me what was missing, and some even helped to fill in the gaps. The database expanded and has been expanding ever since.

As they say, music is a universal language. But when you listen to African music that you have, are you able to understand the message in the songs?

To tell the truth, I don’t understand the African language and I don’t understand the message in the music, but I try to learn what the message is because I am also very interested in what the message really is. I understand that juju music has this kind of message, same for Fuji, same for Afrobeat and so on. But then you must know that music is not just about the lyrics: it is a total entity, a combination of sound, beats and, of course, lyrics. This, I think, is sufficient for me to understand the groove.

You have visited the New African Shrine, built by Femi, Fela’s son. What did you feel being in the hall?

When I came to Nigeria in the 1980s, I wanted to see a live performance by Fela but at that time he was in Italy, so I couldn’t and it was painful for me. Then he passed away and I had no chance to see his live shows. But now, I know that his children are doing very well in music and transforming Afrobeat in their own way, and they have provided a venue for live performance. This is very impressive and I was very happy to be there to see how popular the place is.

In collecting all of this music across Africa, it’s like a service to humanity and to Africa in particular. Is it that Africa is unable to preserve its own unique heritage by itself?

This is a pity. There is so much treasure of African culture and much nice music were produced in the past 30-40 years and they are all in vinyl records and most of them have been lost in Nigeria but kept in countries in Europe and Asia (Japan). Basically, nothing remains here. It is really a pity. I realize that nobody in Nigeria cares about the value of this important heritage. But this is understandable for me, in a sense, because young people are interested in other things and most are not interested in collecting mere records, when there is need for survival and the governments need to invest in infrastructure. We are just collectors and outsiders. Sad that a lot of treasure is lost in Africa, but all the same we can share the value of African heritage.

What do you do with your actual collection in Japan—are you planning for an exhibition some day?

For example most of Fela’s recordings are virtually non-existent in Nigeria and only a few of these can be found elsewhere in the world. So I collected those recordings from many collectors everywhere I could find them abroad, I edited them and the list is updated. I released a set of three CDs of his music; I am doing this as some form of payback for Fela’s fans with the help of record collectors all over the world, and several collectors are doing same with different kinds of global music.

You went vinyl hunting in Lagos. Which records did you get?

This time I got some of Fela’s recordings. Though I have most of them already but some of the jackets are not in good condition. Jackets are also important for Vinyl and I found some in that record shop in Lagos. I was very happy but they were very expensive. It’s okay. I preserve these records and sometimes later, I return same to the public by scanning them onto the site and re-issuing them in CD formats. I am indeed happy to do this.

Will I be right to say that you have more interest in Fela and Afrobeat than in other genres of Afrobeat?

No, no, no. I love all the music equally. I love Afrobeat, Juju, Fuji, Sakara, Apala, waka and highlife—I love all the Yoruba and Ibo music. Thya all have special attraction for me.

You have just recently been to Kinsasha. What was it like in that part of Africa?

Kinshasa is rich in Rumba-Rock music, a huge category of African music which can compete fairly well with Nigerian and West African music like the Senegalese music. Rumba-Rock stems from Cuban music imported to then Zaire long time ago. That brand of music has been transformed by the likes of Papa Wemba and some others. So it has a long history, just like Nigerian music which had its beginnings in what has been called ‘Palm wine music’. Rumba music has excellent in vocal harmony with guitar and percussion instruments. In Yoruba music, we have nice talking drums and beats. Each musical genre has its own character and attractiveness. It will be difficult to say one is better than the other; I enjoy both genres. Sometime ago many Congolese musicians left their country because of all the strife and fled abroad to France and Europe in very large number. Now, they are all coming back and they are very active in music. I saw many concerts and many live performances, and I enjoyed them very much.

Fela’s Cross

“This country is bad!” cries Tony, one of the main characters in Cornel-Best Onyekaba’s punchy play, Fela: Son of Kuti. A moment later, he laments: “Our Republic is over. Kalakuta has been razed to the ground…Kalakuta is gone forever.”

Time check: what’s unfolding before our eyes inside the National theatre is a playwright’s re-imagining of what might have transpired among Fela’s band members on the morning of 18 February 1977, a day after the Nigerian military attacked and sacked the Kalakuta Republic, where Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, then 39, lived with dozens of dependents and his aged mother, the political activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.

As soldiers marched on the premises, Tony and some of Fela’s band boys and backup singers fled to the nearest safe shelter they could find, from where they played back the mind bending brutality of the previous day; hungry and bruised, they agonized over their misfortune, collective loss and the uncertain future that stared them in the face. To make matters worse, their breadwinner’s whereabouts unknown and the one place they could confidently call ‘home’ now existed only in their memory.

Through the characters’ dialogue, occasionally punctuated by pidgin (the Republic’s language of choice), the audience were transported four decades back in time and space to witness one of Fela’s many run-ins with the law, a tense episode that would reshape the story and evolution of  the Afrobeat movement.

From Tonia, the teenager Fela found and removed from the vicious Ojuelegba area, we learn that the soldiers’ assault was merciless; they shot tear gas in every direction and pumped the building with bullets. Apparently acting on instructions from the authorities, the ‘Zombies’ (as Fela would later refer to them in a song) were on a mission to kill, steal and destroy–literally.

“Before anybody know wetin dey happen, two officers push mama (Fela’s mother) out from window,” reveals Iyabo, another backup singer.

As they debated why Kalakuta was meted with such cruelty, another crisis broke out, and this time it had nothing to do with guns and batons: the band began to relive the good times of the pre-Afrobeat years, when Fela played highlife-cum-Jazz music for its entertainment value only, not as a weapon against the junta.

“Don’t pretend you don’t know how Abami Eda brought this whole tragedy upon us,” Tony throws the first stone. “When we were koola Lobitos, we just dey play our Jazz and highlife dey go; we dey make big money like our oga’s master, Victor Olaiya. When we sign, people go dey spray us money—everybody like us that time well well.”

Of course, some of the other band members thought he was talking rubbish and they challenged him accordingly. “Just one day and you have denied Abami Eda more than three times,” Niyi lashes out, wracked by the pangs of a broken left leg. “If you have always felt this way about his ideologies, why did you remain in the band all these years? You should have declared your position and go your separate way. Instead you stayed back and constituted yourself into a rebel within a rebellion.”

While the in-fighting lasts, it is soon revealed that there have been moles in Kalakuta all along who leaked details of Fela’s every move to a government that was hell-bent on shutting Fela up for good.

Fela: The Son of Kuti is a gem of a play, one that needs to tour Nigeria and the world; it is a play that should be seen by Every Nigerian alive, young and old. The playwright provides uncommon insight into the side of Fela less well known to the public, one far removed from the ‘bad boy’ persona perpetually projected in the media of his time. It gives a glimpse into the circumstances that inspired some of his hit songs; it shows the “Black President” as a good-humored, humane character who was ultra-sensitive to the predicament of the masses. Perhaps, Fela was the only musician of his generation who welcomed societal rejects and castaways into his commune and invested his resources to make them better than he met them.

“It is only a perpetually damned fool that will spend a night with Abami Eda without undergoing a mental revolution,” another back-up singer Iyabo says as the argument for and against their leader raged. “Yes, I dropped out from school but Fela has filled up the missing gaps and today I can boldly challenge any professor of history on any aspect of ancient and contemporary African history.”

The Abami Eda was that good.

Cast and Crew of "Fela: The Son of Kuti" on the stage of the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos

Cast and Crew of “Fela: The Son of Kuti” on the stage of the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos

Fela, Preacher and Priest

Originally posted on waka-about:

Fela's tomb at Kalakuta (Photo by Africa-Related ©)

By Majemite Jaboro

On October 15 2011, the Chief Priest Fela Anukulapo Kuti would have been 73 years old, if he had been alive. However, Last August I visited the Kalakuta Republic, the famous white two-storey building on Gbemisola Street (Ikeja), which was home to Fela and his family (and family by association), and was shocked by the state and appearance of the building.

The building looked like it was haunted, but it still bore signs of a glorious past. There was, of course, the pyramidal tomb where the Afrobeat creator lays buried after his death in 1997, fortunately well maintained. Gone was the poster of Fela’s album cover for Teacher Do Not Teach Me Nonsense, which used to be a permanent feature of the front wall of the building (beside the first floor balcony). It bothers me why this building should not already be a Museum of African, Political…

View original 1,195 more words

Fela, The Untold Story

Originally posted on waka-about:

waka-about October 2011 cover

By Pelu Awofeso

Benson Idonije, 75, crossed paths with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian creator of Afrobeat (who died on 2 August 1997, aged 58), in 1963 inside the studios of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC).
“On the day of our meeting,” the Jazz aficionado recalls, “he [Fela] came with an album of Jazz which he had recorded in London; I played it on my Jazz programme and from then on we became friends.” Shortly after that episode, the Fela Ransome Kuti United, a Jazz band, was formed with Idonije managing the ensemble. Several collaborations followed, and the bond between the two men grew even stronger, to the point of them having a shared pet name, Oyejo.

Says Idonije: “Fela was a great musician who, like Bob Marley, endeared himself to the youth…he lived the life of a genius; he was true to himself, bold, fearless.”

On October 16 (2010)…

View original 805 more words

The (Afrobeat) King is back!

journeysaroundnigeria:

@waka_about editorial (Oct. 2012; print edition), published just before #Felabration 2012.

Originally posted on waka-about:

waka-about cover (Oct 2012)

waka-about cover (Oct 2012)

Lemi Ghariokwu speaks of Fela in very adoring terms. The day I visit his studios on the Lagos Mainland for a chat, he takes me down memory lane to the year when he sketched his first portrait of Fela, when first met the late Afrobeat creator and his first commission to produce the artwork for Fela’s album jacket; he goes on to recount their subsequent working relationship, spanning the better part of three decades, and how glad he is that Fela is being celebrated the world over, 15 years after his death.

Beyond those memories, Ghariokwu doesn’t fail to admit Fela’s influence on his career path, which is largely responsible for what he has accomplished to date. “I learnt a lot from Fela. I learnt how to be bold and confident,” Ghariokwu says, seated on a three-seater sofa and facing an image of Fela (he titles…

View original 370 more words

Fela’s People (“Everybody say: ‘yeah, yeah'”)

journeysaroundnigeria:

@waka_about editorial (print edition), published just before #Felabration 2011.

Originally posted on waka-about:

A Brazilan fan happily showing off his ‘Fela’ t-shirt

Anyone (and everyone) who is familiar with Fela’s music will know the phrase above: the late Afrobeat creator connected with his fans with it, and his listeners adored him enough to do as he told them to. In a way, I felt ‘yeah, yeah’ when we wrapped up this edition: it’s taken a whole year of waiting and visualising to package a souvenir issue in honour of a man who has been described as Nigeria’s best ‘cultural ambassador’.

For 14 years the Kuti family have sustained the Fela heritage through FELABRATION, the annual carnival of scholarly conversations and stage performances in Otober at the New Afrika Shrine (Agidingbi) to coincide with his birthday (15th). And it is no surprise that the venue throbs with thousands of Fela followers from within and outside Nigeria.

Last year’s outing provided an opportunity for many…

View original 417 more words

10 Small Steps to Spark Nigeria’s Sickly Tourism Sector

Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, High Chief Edem Duke and Executive Director, Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), Ms. Sally Mbanefo

Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, High Chief Edem Duke and Executive Director, Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), Ms. Sally Mbanefo

Tourism in Nigeria has stagnated for as long as I can remember. In the last few decades every new government has promised (but failed) to breathe life into the sector, even when it is clear that tourism is a key driver of many economies in Africa and around the world. Annual budgets for the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation have clearly not improved the situation. As a result, what ought to be a multiple, even if seasonal, revenue generating industry for the state and federal governments, and a failsafe source of empowerment for Nigeria’s unemployed body of youths is in dire straits. Year in and year out, government officials tend to focus on the big picture, when in actual fact the solution lies in small steps; so here I propose 10 simple (and practical) steps Nigeria can take to ‘spark up’ the ‘sickly’ tourism sector.

1.’Think Local’ for starters:  Granted, tourism is driven by the  private sector (the active local hospitality industry is clear proof of that) but there is a lot the government needs to do and that is to invest more to restore and maintain the hundreds of national monuments and landmarks around the country. When this happens, Nigerians will take more interest in these attractions and be more disposed to visiting same without any reservations, which is currently the case. Nigerians surely love good home-grown stuff. Look at the music and movie industries. The average Nigerian on trips overseas would rather go in search of local foods than anything else.

2.Slash foreign trips: For a long time, federal and state officials have had the mistaken belief that all of the problems afflicting Nigeria’s tourism can (and will) be solved with a ‘magic wand’ of foreign trips. They feel once they see how things are done abroad, they can return to Nigeria and then go right ahead to transplant the formula on home soil and all shall be well. So they go to every international travel show with the added officialese of “seeking foreign investors.” Investors have other means of finding out where to invest, thank you very much. They don’t need sweet-talking government officials, except of course, they want to do some underhand deals. So, junk the jamboree and create the enabling environment and investors will flock.

3.Identify Nigeria’s Holiday Capitals: Lagos has had the longstanding reputation of being Nigeria’s commercial capital; and Abuja, by virtue of the Three Arms Zone, is the country’s administrative capital. That’s business and governance, which can be described as ‘work’, taken care of. In the same vein, we need de-facto cities in the six regions of Nigeria to be named our country’s “holiday capitals”, our playground, so to speak. The cities to be so named will combine physical beauty with ease of access and will require the federal government partnering with the state governments to develop hospitality and leisure facilities to the point where Nigerians can see them as their getaway destinations, places of refuge. Create incentives for the private sector to also throw in their investible cash. In no particular order, my six recommendations are: Osogbo (south-west), Enugu (south-east), Uyo (south-south), Jos (north-central), Katsina (north-west), and Yola (north-east).

4.Stimulate beach Economy: By virtue of the Atlantic Ocean, Nigeria has hundreds of kilometres of coastline, which stretch into beaches. Sadly, those beaches are packed with filth and some are even environmentally hazardous owing to shipwrecks. Take a trip to Ghana and see how they have turned beaches into playgrounds and revenue yielders. A Nigerian arrived from London recently after several years of sojourn and headed for Bar Beach on Victoria Island. He almost fainted at what he saw. . Nigeria’s domestic tourism will get a significant lift if we can ensure more attractive stretch of beachfront.

Nigerians love the outdoors and beach outings are common leisure pursuits. With the beaches cleaned up, Nigerians would flock there, not only during festive periods but also to relax, and everything connected with “beach economy”—beach wears, picnic stuff, photography, etc. will grow. The West has fashioned the bikini as a standard beach wear. To a reasonable extent, South America and the Caribbean Islands also have homegrown substitutes. A subtle way to promote the Nigerian brand identity (among other options) is to create a variety of outfits suitable for beach outings, something other than bikinis, t-shits and three-quarter shorts. And I see a great deal of potential for this in our brilliant variety of indigenous fabrics.

5.Raise and Train tour guides: At the last count, I have travelled to 30 states in Nigeria and in the process visited countless tourist attractions. Except for the self-empowered guides I have met in Badagry, at nowhere else on my trips – from Abeokuta to Bauchi and to Yenagoa – have I been shown around by independent local tourist guides. They have often been civil servants attached to the various state tourism boards and agencies. But the simple truth is that every Nigerian school leaver or graduate can be trained over a short period to be a tour guide and then assigned (or attached) to any of the tourist attractions in the country. What tourist guides need is a level of enterprise and thorough knowledge of the locality they are based in, and they are empowered for life.

6.Publish guidebooks: I was part of a team that researched and produced a standard tourist guide for Lagos State, which is soon going to be in circulation. It’s a handy companion for tourists; to decide for themselves where they’d love to visit while in the city. This is a good move but I dare say that there is need for more like this across the states, and the earlier governments realise this, the better the prospects for domestic tourism. Tourists need guidebooks when they plan or decide to visit a country new to them. They need to know everything from its geography to its ground rules; they need to know what’s hip and what is forbidden. But except for the uninspiring brochures issued by governments at all levels, Nigeria hardly has any guidebook in circulation now (NB: I have published three travel books to date, all of them self-funded). So every prospective visitor to the country depends mainly on the established guidebooks published overseas (The Rough Guide, Lonely Planet, Bradt, etc.).

7.Embrace Social Media: Countries serious about promoting their local tourism assets have identified that social media platforms are key to their marketing and promotions agendas. While Nigerians constitute the largest number of people online in Africa, Nigeria’s tourism promoters have not embraced this trend as yet, when many countries have done very well in this regard. There are many tourism promotion sites and blogs managed by Nigerians already; it will be great to have the government agencies liaise with them to take make the country’s tourism work.

8.Encourage Adventure Travel: This is best handled by either the private investors or local government councils. I was 24 and a corps member in Plateau State when I started to travel around Nigeria. First, I visited Gombe and then Borno States, where I spent roughly a week apiece; I have never forgotten my experiences in those states and I still long to return. I continue to travel within the country nearly two decades on, howbeit professionally. With Nigeria’s immense youthful population, the country’s lovely landscape ought to be an attraction to youths in their 20s and 30s keen on adventure travel. And I dare say that he NYSC year is an excellent ‘gap year’ for Nigerian youths to explore neighbouring cities, towns in the states they have been posted to serve.

9.Build budget hotels: To encourage the younger generation to travel extensively within the country means that cheap accommodation and hostels must be sufficient to cater to this demand. Also, when the masses travel, their hospitality requirements differ from the preferences business travellers, who prefer to lodge in exquisite hotels. Nigeria needs a lot more budget hotels for its leisure and adventure travellers; same for middle-class families going on vacation.

10.Produce short documentaries: Destination-specific documentaries will do a lot to boost tourism appreciation in and outside Nigeria—by locals and foreigners alike. There are a couple of attempts on television by individuals and private enterprises at the moment; but commendable as they are, collectively they have not even scratched the surface as yet. To stand a chance of going viral (today’s term for ‘widely watched’), the documentaries should be packaged in the format of the musical videos (short running times and catchy visuals). And in keeping with the current trends, these documentaries will travel farthest if they are published online and in versions compatible with mobile phones, where they can be shared easily.

Awofeso (@PeluAwofeso) is a travel journalist, blogger and publisher of waka-about, an arts and tourism focused magazine.

New Artistic Director named for MUSON Centre

Tunde Jegede (Photo by Sunara Begum)

Tunde Jegede (Photo by Sunara Begum)

Ahead of the 18th edition of the annual MUSON Festival, Tunde jegede has resumed as the new Artistic Director at the centre’s office in Onikan. A composer, multi-instrumentalist and musician par excellence, Jegede takes over from Mr. Thomas Kanitz, a German, who was noted for his exemplary service while at the Centre.

Jegede is assuming duties just as the MUSON Festival committee gets set to release the full programme of the festival. The 10-day MUSON Festival (Oct. 16-26, 2014) will, as usual, feature a potpourri of high quality artistic and cultural productions.

The Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) was formed in 1983 through the interaction and commitment of some friends who love and appreciate classical music. Sir. Mervyn Brown, then British High Commissioner in Nigeria and Lady Brown, along with other distinguished Nigerians— Akintola Williams, Louis Mbanefo, Ayo Rosiji, Rasheed Gbadamosi and Francesca Emanuel—thought it wise to stimulate the interest and awareness of Nigerians, especially in Lagos to the richness and elegance of classical music.

The motive was also to promote the understanding and enjoyment of classical music; to educate children and the youth in the performance and theory of music, encourage interaction between Nigerian and non-Nigerian musicians, encourage performance of serious music with emphasis on classical music, and as well provide facilities for realization of the objectives and raise funds from persons and organizations for the realization of the objectives.

JEGEDE: A Brief Profile

Born in 1972 to a Nigerian father and an Irish mother, Jegede had his education at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (1990-1992) and Purcell School of Music (1981-1999). His appreciation of African Diasporic culture was initiated and nurtured at the famous Keskidee Centre, Britain’s first Black Arts Centre. From an early age he was exposed to resident and visiting artists who worked in a multi-disciplinary mode such as Bob Marley, Walter Rodney, Edward Braithwaite, Angela Davis and Linton Kwesi Johnson. It was here, his path as an artist began.

Jegede’s apprenticeship in African music began in 1978 and was further developed in 1982 when he first went to the Gambia to study the ancient Griot tradition of West Africa, with Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, Master of the Kora (the Harp-Lute found in West Africa). The Jobarteh family are one of five principle musician families within this unique hereditary Oral tradition, which dates back to at least the 13th century.

His appreciation of Western Classical music began with his grandfather’s love of Bach and by observing his work as a church Organist. Tunde also studied Cello from the age of eight and over the years was taught by esteemed luminaries from the Classical world including: Alfia Bekova, Elma de Bruyne, Joan Dickson and Raphael Wallfisch at the Purcell School of music and later the Guildhall School of music.

In 1988 Tunde became fascinated with Jazz and worked and toured with ex-members of the Jazz Warriors founded by Courtney Pine & Cleveland Watkiss. He formed his own Jazz Ensemble, The Jazz Griots, with the sole purpose of exploring the connections between African and African Diasporic forms of music.

In 1991 he pioneered African Classical Music in the UK with the first ever-national tour of the African Classical Music Ensemble, which nurtured his burgeoning composer credentials. In 1995 a BBC TV documentary, ‘Africa I Remember’ was done on Jegede’s music and centred around his orchestral work. In this programme he performed new compositions alongside the London Sinfonietta, which was conducted by Markus Stenz.

Besides his outstanding achievements in music, he is also author of two books: The Silenced Voice (1987); and African Classical Music (1994) both published by Diabate Arts. He has numerous articles, journals, lectures and conferences of international accolades to his credit.

Beauty from Ashes

A ‘green’ museum aims to save the environment, one waste at a time. Story by Pelu Awofeso

The Recycler: Lanre Tejuoso standing in front of one of his installations at Aroko green Museum

The Recycler: Lanre Tejuoso standing in front of one of his installations at Aroko green Museum

Olanrewaju Tejuoso is sobbing as he talks about Restoration, one of many installations he has crafted from trash and is on display at the Aroko Green Museum in Abeokuta, capital of Ogun State. He has spent the past hour walking me through the exhibits, explaining the inspiration for and meaning of each when we get to this spot where Restoration is mounted.

In addition to all sorts of found items stitched one to the other, Restoration is pockmarked with holes. This moment is a trip down memory lane for the artist and the pain it arouses is written all over his face.

“The holes were created by termites. I discovered the damage when I began to put the pieces together,” he says, trying to hold back the tears. “I had spent a long time working on it and I could not imagine exhibiting such damaged work to an audience.” Though shaken by the experience, Tejuosho still willed himself to join the pieces together and he came off the episode learning a lesson: “If you want to show the world that you have passed through ups and down in life or that you have accomplished a lot, then you must have signs or scars to show. This is the message I want people to draw from looking at this piece. The termite holes, with their rough and irregular edges, are the scars in this case.”

 

'Restoration' (by Lanre Tejuoso)

‘Restoration’ (by Lanre Tejuoso)

'Local Market, Foreign Goods' (by Lanre Tejuoso)

‘Local Market, Foreign Goods’ (by Lanre Tejuoso)

On the day I visit, Tejuoso is wearing a native cap and a collarless indigo-dyed shirt (in blue and black hues) over a pair of faded blue three-quarter jeans, a style that I later find out is now almost uniquely his. He is introduced to me by fellow artist Olusegun Adeniyi, and a moment later we are in a taxi heading towards the museum; on our way, Tejuoso speaks about how he stumbled upon the building (in October 2012) which now houses his creative collection, the hard work of clearing the pile of rubbish inside and the days of scrubbing and scratching that went into transforming the place into the clean and airy space visitors see now.

“There was red mud and rags everywhere; even the terrazzo floor was all covered with grass,” he says gently, his voice almost strained, from guiding a dozen guests through the installations earlier. “But thankfully, over time, I have been helped by friends and supported financially by a local pastor who, to my joy, is a keen supporter of the arts.” Now a year old, the museum is stuffed with Tejuoso’s clever (and at times philosophical) art; from the smallish Those who dine with the Devil positioned delicately at the entrance—the doorways and window panes are bare—to the huge Megacity, which I instinctively assume to be a clear reference to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital.(“No, it is about any megacity in the world,” he clarifies later.)

Crusader for the environment

Tejuosho’s concern for the environment and his interest to preserve it began by chance in 2009 when, while riding in a taxi with a friend in the university town of Nsukka (south-east Nigeria) —where he then lived—he flung an empty sachet of water out of the window. He was immediately reprimanded by one of the car’s occupants, who educated him on the non-biodegradable nature of the nylon sachet. “That was the first time someone sat me down to lecture me on the environment,” he says.  “I never thought of having a museum on the environment. Now I have a passion for the environment and this museum grew out of that passion.”

That passion, and the delightful art in the museum, seeks to help enlighten people about how society can make a thing of beauty out of what are generally considered to be disposable. In totality, it is also about the economy, politics and so much more. “It is about humanitarian service, it is about the destitute among us, it is about the solid waste that are a danger to the environment and how they can be reformed into something more useful to the society,” he says.

But long before that fateful day in Nsukka, Tejuoso had been creating art with objects he picked up from refuse dumps. “I started working with waste sometime in 2000 when I was in the College of Education here in Abeokuta but I didn’t know anything about installation art or if they could have meaning. That was before I got into the university (He studied Fine Art/ Education), when I was influenced by the art of so many people I met.”

At the university, one of Tejuoso’s lecturers was the acclaimed installation artist El Anatsui, whom he describes as “a personal mentor”. In the early years, Tejuosho’s creations were based on the concept of rest and so he made use of sleeping-mats a lot and a good number of his works imitated Anatsui’s; but a decade on, Tejuoso’s art has matured with him and the works inside the Aroko Green Museum show an artist who is now comfortable in his own skin, conditioned by his multiple influences and who has developed a style that he can call his own. “The bar codes, which one finds on the packaging of many consumer goods nowadays, are what I am using for my designs now, because many of the materials I pick from the refuse dump are bar-coded,” he says.

Green Classroom

An installation by Lanre Tejuoso showing disused wraps of sweets, beverage and biscuits

An installation by Lanre Tejuoso showing disused wraps of sweets, beverage and biscuits

Tejuoso’s works are a confounding yet soothing mix of disused household items and discarded packaging of consumer products collected from Abeokuta’s refuse dumps and environs; if anything, the works show in colourful detail our present—and mouth-watering—consumption habits as Nigerians, a silent interaction between producer and consumer and, more critically, a collision of competing brands. There is everything here: from wraps of confectionary and noodles to airtime recharge cards and beverage cans. Awoko Green Museum might as well be a classroom to study consumption patterns and brand preferences.

The museum’s collection might be all engaging but they are no consolation for the versatile mind that is Tejuoso. They have taken all and every available inch of space available and the artist is thinking of expanding. After a half-hour travelling through Abeokuta’s dusty suburbs, I literally feel a breath of fresh air when I step into the museum, housed in a three-bedroom apartment in an abandoned building on the outskirts of town. Compared to the sunny weather and activity of the peasant population outside, the museum is cool, quiet and calming on the inside, the effect of the surrounding shrub.

“This is the only place I have for now and I am managing it. I have run out of space to add more works, so I am looking for a bigger place,” he says as he tells me the message behind the installation titled Inner Strength, a three-object piece placed side by side in much the same way that medallists do at the Olympics. It is a tribute to self-motivation and success. “What I am saying here in essence is that it is not our father’s assets that determine what we become in life, but what God has deposited in you and what you make of it,” he says, referencing Jamaican Usain Bolt’s astonishing achievements in global athletics in the last three years or so.

“Poverty of the mind”

Much of Tejuoso’s art, it appears, explores shared life experiences and serves as a check somewhat to our collective excesses, but he is also a public affairs commentator. In some of his works, Tejuoso speaks directly at African leaders: “They should please behave like mad people sometimes,” the artist says explaining the installation titled Eru Were. “If you have observed mad people you would have noticed that they guard their belongings jealously, though it is mostly junk. Can our leaders learn to do same with the people they govern, with the resources in their countries? As far as we know, they are not doing that.”

In yet another subtle installation titled Poverty of the Mind, Tejuosho addresses the corrupt tendencies of the continent’s leaders. It is a plate of coins placed on a blue cooler-box containing a stack of sweet wraps. “You see someone who has packed enough goody-goody into his pockets and yet still steals from the national treasury,” he says as we move to the next work. “The problem of the African nation is not that we don’t have money—we have enough; but the truth is that there is no amount of what you grab can make you better but the amount of lives you can impact in the society.”

Lanre Tejuoso with guests inside the Aroko Green Museum

Lanre Tejuoso with guests inside the Aroko Green Museum

 

Scriptural Art                                                                                                                                     

If he is not thinking of scripture to get inspiration for the next work, Tejuoso finds the push he needs to create by tapping into the stories of some of Nigeria’s world renowned creative spirits. For instance, he produced A Note from Kongi, few months after glimpsing the cover of Soyinka’s latest published play Alapata Apata. Tejuoso thought it was a mouthful, especially as the book title is not words in everyday use. “The title of the book changed everything about my conception about the man,” he says. “I thought he was completely Anglicised and didn’t think he understood or spoke any words of Yoruba.”

I am amused to learn that a good number of Tejuoso’s works have been inspired by verses of the Bible. In fact, his mat/rest series is based on Mathew 11: 28 (“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…”). Born into a Muslim family, the artist is now a Christian. “I love reading the Bible. I use scriptural reference for my art,” he says as we stand in front of Lonely Thoughts, a creation based on the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

There is yet another one symbolically titled Owo Ni keke Ihin Rere (Literal translation: money is the vehicle of the gospel), which consists of a worn Bible and 50 Naira note mounted on a bicycle that has lost its front wheel.

“Beyond the physical display those visitors see, I believe that what I do here is a divine calling that the creator has assigned me to do,” Tejuoso says. “What pastors do on the pulpit, I do at Aroko Green Museum.”