By Pelu Awofeso
Abdullahi Useni plays the Gurmi, a traditional musical instrument in Nigeria’s northern region. “We call it the Hausa guitar and it’s made from just a stick and a calabash,” he says when we meet in the Garki Area of Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital. “But I also play the kalangu (talking drum) and I have all other types of instruments that my band uses at our performances.”
Abdullahi and his band perform as the Concept Music of Nigeria, which ID card hangs on their chest. He can’t recall exactly when he started to sing Hausa folk music but he can reference the period. “You know when Shehu Shagari was president?” he asks, and I nod. “I was too young then but that was when I started out in Kano.”
Alhaji Shagari was in power between 1979 and 1985. Give or take, Abdullahi must have been on the job for about 30 years. The Kano native (Gabasawa LGA) has come a long way since then, travelling around Nigeria and in Africa. “I have ben to Ghana, Benin Republic, Ivory Coast Cameroon, Niger Republic and a few other countries. In Nigeria, I have travelled far and wide—in the Southwest, South-East, name it.”
Many years as an itinerant musician has meant that Abdullahi has had to learn to entertain his listeners in languages other than his mother tongue of Hausa; it is, to use a marketing term, his unique selling point and the reason he is able to appeal to audiences who cut across different cultures.
“I can sing in Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, Igala, Gbagi, and some other Nigerian languages,” he says with a wide grin. “I travel often and I have been booked to perform at weddings, birthdays and burial ceremonies in places like Anambra, Abia, Enugu, Imo States and more. As a matter of fact, any occasion at all that requires an artiste I can be invited.”
But when he is not travelling to far-flung destination, Abdullahi performs on weekends at a relaxation garden in the Garki area; on occasions, he crashes wedding venues, where he serenates guests with a few members of his band. “I can sing slow tunes and I can easily switch fast tempo. Whatever style or form my listeners want, I give it to them,” he says at the marriage registry in Area 10, where we meet.
Gurmi music is one of the key identities of Hausa musical heritage. According to Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu, an authority on the subject, “standard traditional Hausa music is basically about the voice and praise-singing” that treats the listeners to “the beauty of the musical instrument and the creative genius of the player”.
Abdullahi and his band who have recorded two albums—‘Concept’ and ‘Authentic’—demonstrate these qualities without question. To his credit, he has also mentored dozens of younger Gurmi musicians like himself. “In fact, I have lost count of how many I have mentored—I have trained artistes in Jigawa, Kano, Sokoto, Zamfara, and Abuja even. They are in so many cities in the north.”
I am curious to know if, after three decades of singing, Abdullahi has made money from his art. His response is fast and affirmative. “Yes, I have. I have been able to marry, raise a family, built houses and invest in the basic things that makes one live comfortably.”