Lagos Black Heritage Festival: From Imitation: Tune to Indigenous, Innovative Music

03 May 2014

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Veteran Actor Baba Wande

Adedayo Adejobi relishes the sights and sounds from the week-long Lagos Black Heritage Festival Week. He reports…

This year, the Lagos Black Heritage Festival takes a break from the norm –The Black Mediterranean Blue. While the festival policy of a thematic selection for each edition is not abandoned, it moves from the geographic outlook to the disciplinary –the discipline for this year being music. The reason is that so much is happening in the musical field, but there is a domination of European pop forms which nearly stifle the exploration of indigenous musical resources both in direct performance for audiences, and in their application to other disciplines –most notably in theatre and cinema/video.

With regards to the latter, when an arts connoisseur considers what passes for incidental or ‘mood’ music in much of the output of the ever-expanding African film industry, it becomes a classic case of visual assault compounded by aural aggravation.  A reverse track may yet be brought about by exposing film and video directors to possibilities from neglected music modes and variations within their own cultural environment.

According to Professor Wole Soyinka, “Traditional drama was no doubt founded on what was generally dubbed ‘folk opera’, a form that is largely dying out. Additionally  therefore, in an attempt to resuscitate this unique performance genre, so highly developed in other societies –see for instance, the heights to which it has been taken in countries like China –the Lagos Black Heritage Festival yields front stage this year to Music, its fortunes under technological enhancements and the proliferation of foreign music.” 

Music, we know plays a dominant role in social life. To this end, the festival used the event to also pay tributes to Elder Steve Rhodes whose struggling orchestra and chorale ensemble after his demise, won laurels in famous international competitions such as the Welsh Eisefod. The honour over the week, no doubt provided a homecoming for contemporary composers whose works have been enjoyed for decades by foreign audiences but remain totally unknown in their homeland.

The Musical Concert
Another highlight of the festival was a live musical concert tagged Olodumare by Wole Alade featuring the Steve Rhodes Ensemble, Eko Brass band and Footprints of David. In Olodumare, a musical odyssey, starting out in ancient Ife, Abeokuta and Ibadan, bastion of deep Yoruba culture –as founder of the Afro linkage ensemble, through the bustling city of Lagos and then on to Harlem, USA through the prestigious Berkeley College of Music, Boston, Massachusetts –Alade weaved intricate tales of spirituality and culture through haunting melodies and syncopation, interlocking as several roads on the musical journey evoked ageless rhythms from Africa to the Americas. The Steve Rhodes Orchestra played a blend of Jazz, blues, swing, high-life and contemporary music from arranged scores which are unique in their form. The Steve Rhodes Orchestra male voices consisting  of an accomplished 17-man orchestra, 21 female voices and musicians ranging from trumpets, trombones, saxophones, flugel horn, keyboards, bass guitar, guitar, drum kit, talking drum and a cell, all teamed up with Wole Alade to stage a thrilling performance of Olodumare.

Adagbe Drum
This is the runner-up to the Tallest Drum, one created by Femi Coker and carved by Remi Edwards. The drum made its debut last year at the Lagos Black Heritage Festival. In its showcase at the food court of the Freedom Park, it featured three Agere (masquerades on stilts) perform on it.  At this year’s edition, the runner-up to the Tallest Drum, the Adagbe Drum, which measures 10-feet in height and 5-feet in circumference, was showcased. Like its forerunner, the Adagbe drum is made of hardwood and sealed at the top-end with a deer’s skin. Constructed round its long and solid body are carved reliefs of various cultural and historical representations and interpretation. Like the Tallest Drum last year, the performance on Adagbe was done by three stilt dancers in a ceremonial and celebratory dance, while a folklorist chanted the cognomen of the monumental drum. Chronicling its meaning from the word Adagbe, is taken from the Yoruba sentence, “Ada itangbe”, which literally translates to ‘‘we tell our own story, we interpret our own history’’.
The drum is an attestation to the true history of the African continent, the irrepressible spirit of Africans and to immense contributions of people of African ancestry to global trends, innovations and civilization. 

The Play –Lanke Omu
Lanke Omu, the Palmwine Drinkard, is a stage play based on the opera by Kola Ogunmola –one of Nigeria’s versatile actors and renowned practitioner of the Yoruba folk-opera, adapted from Amos Tutuola’s novel, The Palmwine Drinkard. At birth, the drama was not only expressive of a dominant theatrical style which had become a force and a definitive icon  of Nigeria’s post-colonial –the Opera –it joined other Yoruba operatic experiments on the formal stage such as Oba Koso and Obaluaye to register the adaptive  and experimental spirit of the theatre practitioners of the age.  The performance edition of classic 51 years after its original invention could be aptly described as a re-invention. It is a resurrection of Kola Ogunmola’s genius as exemplified in the Yoruba libretto and also a re-discovery of a tradition that has been overtaken by the now pervasive non-operatic dramatic mode.

Tunde Awosanmi, the artistic director’s re-interpretation has kept faith with the original non-realism. Operas and Operettas are convenient hosts to dramatic sessions of the fantasia mode and that is the reason Lanke’s dream has suffered viewers the latitude journey as far as India and Brazil in search of palmwine tapper. Brazil, especially gives us the chance of culturally re-uniting with our kinsmen in the Diaspora in the spirit of a cardinal objective of the Lagos Black Heritage Festival. For a viewer at the Tunde Kelani-produced stage play, you can’t help but rely on some contemporary and popular Yoruba musical forms as vehicles of transition from scene to scene and establishment of certain locales. The drama’s rich and diverse imaginative landscape also accords the design an unlimited explorative leverage creating a fusion of realistic, non-realistic, symbolic and expressionistic graphic aura for the production through set, light and costume, while dance has been simply capitalized upon as the transitory capital of identity depiction of various locations of Lanke’s voyage in dreamland.

Like Lanke’s dream, the play took us through a journey of self-discovery and re-discovery. The audience therefore found an exciting but disturbing metaphor of our Nigeria in “Ilu Ika”.

The Vision of the Child
In the words of the festival consultant, Professor Wole Soyinka: ‘‘The race to the artistic decathlon is a side attraction of the festival designed as an interactive test to stretch youthful creativity even more than in previous editions. Instead of the uni-disciplinary interpretation of the given theme, participants expressed their vision both in painting and the Literary Arts. The journey began with the literary section- a poem, essay or short story of fixed length –on the chosen theme. Those who scaled through were invited to Freedom Park, provided with brushes, paint and easel and illustrated their literary presentation in the complimentary medium of painting. This 2014 theme could be regarded as a Mini Artistic Decathlon, tailored to the capabilities of the child. The competition staged showcased an intensive contest with a disciplinary repertory whose menu will change from edition to edition in the future.’’

The Play-Mammy Water’s Wedding
Mammy Water’s Wedding, by Bode Sowande, no doubt came from the sea. It tells the story of a child in Lagos who had the enjoyment of fantasies surrounding water house on Kakawa Street. The term, “enjoyment”, is used because almost every child that the playwright knew then believed that Da Rocha, the Afro Brazilian who made money and got rich from his community borehole water business, said to own the house had many mammy-water in an underground pool that minted money or him.  Adulthood no doubt later washed off the tall tale of mammy-water in Da Rocha’s water house, but he found enjoyment in the lore that indeed both in African and western metaphysics the earth is from water. In the light of the aforementioned, there are hybrids striding the two worlds, while the earth is a getaway to many other worlds. This pointedly inspired the fable of mammy-water’s wedding. The play tells of a young man based in Lagos, drowns in a rainstorm in spite of his being a good swimmer. He does not die but finds himself in a world below the sea, among mermaids, called mammy waters. The young man Akinla is enchanted by Tarella from the world below the sea. Tarella decides to help Akinla back to Lagos, but the barrier to their love is ‘the environment’.

To become human, Tarella was born to a rich Lagos business man called Adagunodo. She was called Okuntoro. Adagunodo’s trade is waste dumping into the sea, which set him on a collision course against the fated love between Okuntoro and Akinla.  The conflict between earth and water is greatly identified in the pollution generated by Adagunodo, and he suffered for it, as a moral for all his community. Akinla no doubt married Okuntoro, his kind and enchanting mammy water, as a token of faith that a healing bond can occur between earth and the sea, with Lagos being the better for it. Mammy water’s wedding is a tale of green balance that our world desperately needs.

To inject continuing relevance, and ancestral readiness to be pressed into contemporary service, the Ancestors had a surprise appearance for mortal beings in this year’s edition.  From ancestors to the living, the night of poets celebrated the lyric voices of the living, then further down to the next generation which is represented in the children’s carnival, while their viewpoint of the world they inhabit finds expression in Vision of the Child. Through the eyes and voice of 11-years-old Meshack Uzoukwu, a participant from Chrisland School, VGC, “the competitive exposition through brush and paint, poetry and prose which the theme law of impunity seeks out, and gives pride of attention to the often unheard questions, voice and aspirations of the creative minors through variegated colours, paintings and textures to locals and visitors alike who thronged the exhibition at the Freedom Park.’’

“Summatively” according to Jahman Anikulapo,‘‘this year’s Lagos Black Heritage Festival has opened the eyes and ears of aspiring musicians to the vastly unexplored possibilities of the musical forms right in their own backyards, as an option to the largely imitative trends currently pursued by a new generation of musicians. Innovative African music, it proposes, should not end with Afrobeat.’’

Tags: Life and Style, Life, Featured, Black Heritage

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