By Femi Akintunde-Johnson
I have always loved the media and the arts. As a young man growing up in Ebute-Metta, Lagos, it was inevitable that you were exposed to artistic influences of the 70’s and 80’s. I remember “truanting” around the Noble Street (Yaba, Lagos) home of the late doyen of theatre, Hubert Ogunde…just to watch his group’s rehearsals and banters…in my childlike admiration, I was made for the theatre.
Down Brickfield Road, where I lived for about 10 years of my adolescent years, also lived music maestro, Sonny Okosuns… Then, I was filled with a tremendous passion to hug a guitar, and lead a band. I even gathered some street friends to bring alive our dreams to be superstars. Somehow, the band never got off the ground.
Then, the “FESTAC 77” came to town, and took the lead off my creative marbles, more or less. I wanted to perform motley of artistic genres: Ipi Tombi and other mesmerizing dance troupes suggested I should be a dancer… At least many of them looked like me – tall, wiry and energetic.
Sundry crafts and pan-African motifs revealed my deep lying artistic gifts… Of course, I used to serenade awed adults and envious mates with my pencil and crayon drawings of American western film stars and Indian filmic heroes…even earning few kobos from appreciative neighbours and indulgent strangers.
I actually had made up my mind to study Theatre Arts in the university – after touting the idea of reading law. My teenage friend, Orii (Sunday Oribamishe, now late) and I had become some sort of fixtures at the National Arts Theatre (Abe Igi) hunting for acting opportunities. It was there I met and sustained a thoroughly bohemian and interesting relationship with friends who shared my craze for the theatre and the written words (we were easily infatuated with the bombastic and the obscurantist). In between the hiatus created by seasonal tussles with almighty JAMB after secondary school and gaining admission into the university, I formed a remarkable “musketeering unit” with Wale Obadeyi, aka Walejay (now MD of MaxiMargin Communications Ltd. PostScript: he died last year) and Muyiwa Kayode (current CEO of USP Brand Mgt). Between late 1981 and early 1983, our peregrinations (one of our favourite words) usually spanned the National Arts Theatre (where UK-returning star actor, Lari Williams was struggling to knock us into some recognisable artistic shape); to the Theatre Annex where Bassey Effiong’s Anansa Playhouse was holding brutal auditions and rehearsals; to the then NTA 7 station (Tejuoso, Lagos) where young producer, Kunle Ajala was whetting our acting thirst with rehearsals for sundry TV drama series; to the Guardian, ThisWeek offices where our star writers were building their reputations in serious journalism. We virtually had crushes (the intellectual type, that is) on great journalists like Sonala Olumhense, Tunji Lardner, Lanre Idowu, Taiwo Obe, Ben Tomoloju, and few others. They graciously listened to and encouraged our dreams and exertions; tried to read and ‘edit’ our bellicose and bombastic articles, poems and pure vituperation… That was how we learnt about “stringing”, “freelancing”…running here and there to contribute to the greatest journals of the day. And when any of our articles got into print, which were far in between, we went delirious…I still have a copy of my poems published in Times International (a news magazine publication of Daily Times) around 1982! In the frenetic search for relevance and identity, I stumbled on co-travellers like Segun Aina (now Arinze, whose voice was larger than his body); Francis Onwochie (who would never accept that since he looked the youngest, he should be running errands for us); his older sister, Josephine; Mike Odiachi (now late), and some others I cannot now recollect.
However, a chat at the male restroom of the National Assembly Service Commission (Race Course), with a very senior colleague, the dashing and handsome Femi Oyewoh, convinced me that it would make sense to study English Language and acquire a canopy of knowledge which could also accommodate my first love, Theatre Arts. Less than two years later, I found myself in the English Department of University of Jos. It was love at first sight. I met great scholars like Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike (famous novelist, now a monarch), Dr. Memudu (HOD), Mr. Ngwaba, etc. That was some 28 years ago…(now 36 years).
Fast forward to 1987 when I landed at the NYSC camp of Ode-Aye, Ondo State. It was in Akure, Ondo’s capital city that I met Akin Ibisagba, a double degree holder in Drama and English Literature from University of Ilorin (now a branch manager at Fidelity Bank, Lagos – PS: he died few years ago). Akin and I formed a successful creative and artistic “collabo” that produced ‘The Clarion Call’, a staged musico-drama which won the Zonal and National drama competitions for all NYSC state drama troupes. Akin was the director and co-writer; I was the main actor, chief dancer and co-writer (how – and why – I wangled myself into those roles will take a full chapter). We presented the final show at the Hall 2 (my second home five years earlier) of the National Arts Theatre with federal ministers, permanent secretaries and other dignitaries in attendance.
I remember the then Group Captain Bayo Lawal (a military officer who was in charge of Sports and Youth Development ministry), Prof. Olikoye Ramsome Kuti (Health) and his lovely wife; super permanent secretary (and thespian), Mrs. Francesca Emmanuel; then NYSC director-general, Brig. Edet Akpan, among others. Our ebullient state chief inspector, Chief Banjo Akinnigbagbe was visibly swollen with obvious pride at the superlative command performance we put up that day in 1987. I sang and danced so hard that I lost my voice, and use of most of my limbs for three days! That performance fetched us (Akin and I) the State Governor’s Award…it confirmed my long-suffering belief that I could make it as an actor…in another life!
We also organised the first Miss NYSC Ondo State, in a great climax, and with great support from an ebullient NYSC staff, Gbayode Somuyiwa (fondly called Show, now a director at ThisDay newspapers). My experiences in Ondo State can fill another book…that service year (not the heinous maelstrom it has now been turned to) was pivotal in my single-minded attraction to the entertainment entrails of Nigeria. Then, in September 1988, barely a month after our NYSC adventure ended, by the grace of God, I took a note from Ben Tomoloju (former Deputy Editor of The Guardian) to Punch’s long-standing and dashing daily editor, Demola Osinubi (now MD – PS: currently GMD). That was after missing a chance to get into The Guardian… I started work in The Punch that same week… And there, I simply flew… And thus began my ponderous and sometimes meddlesome interventions in Nigerian entertainment.
Before you go deep into my recollections, I wish to salute those that have gone ahead of me, whom I have a grunting regard for…I used to enjoy the write-ups of Chinaka Fynecountry… and I was delirious when I met him in the early 90’s while doing business with the then fast-fading Daily Times…he was like a demi-god at Lagos Weekend…for my generation then.
I have always admired the quiet dignity and dogged professionalism of Ladi Ayodeji, many years ahead of me as the anchor of Punch’s flagship entertainment pages (Saturday Highlife, SH), now I suspect it’s referred to as Life & Beats…how times fly). Even after Punch, Ayodeji refused to lie low… he flagged off Beats, running on the streets for many years.
Perhaps the most influential in my prominence in entertainment reporting was Azuka Jebose-Molokwu, who is six months older than me, but carried himself around me like a very senior brother. Azuka’s ebullience, his swanky, peripatetic lifestyle struck a chord with some moorings in me, and we hit it off spectacularly. I had always been an Arts person… And that was what I was at home with at the Features department of Punch – where I shared office space with good writers like Dele Adeosun, Joe Dudun, Tunde Kolawole, Jude Arijaje, Azu Ishiekwene, Peju Odelola, Patience Akpan, Mercy Ette (last two are now UK/US-based lecturers). Three smashing babes ruled the ‘hood’ at that point in time: Toyin Olafunmiloye, Iretunde Willoughby and Joy Ofulie. I also remember the enigmatic “horoscopist”, Joshua ‘Astro’ Adeyemo. Our boss was the radical Bola Bolawole. There were other great colleagues scattered across different departments in The Punch – Uncle Ben, late Jide Kutelu(?), Pa Ajumobi, lithe Linda, Funke Aboderin (Madam Library), Moses Ebong, Oga Chris Mammah, Victor Ifijie, Fidel Otuya, Lawal Ighienagbon, Bankole Falade, Saka (Paso Alhaji) Jimoh, Joshua Ogunsemi, Remi Ibitola, Uncle T (Tunde Aboderin) and so many more.
But Azuka was a different breed; he sapped the notorious adulation and fretful attention his presence and writings engendered, especially his column’s gossip strip, Whispers. 1988 was giddy…and then by the second month in 1989, Azuka simply vanished…to the United States of America… And no prize for guessing right who was asked to take over the great SH pages – less than four months as a bona-fide Puncher… and as they say in movies…the rest is history.
[Disclaimer: First written in 2011. Postcripts are efforts to “up-the-dates”]