Perhaps, it was that short conversation last week between Biyi Bandele and myself in the thick of the First Lagos International Jazz Festival that has brought me to this conundrum. Otherwise, why would I all of a sudden be filled with the thought of the late Hubert Adedeji Ogunde, 18 years after his passage to higher service on April 4, 1990.
Last Sunday after a soak in the classic jazz menu flowing from the guitar-riddled jazz ensemble led by Bright Gain, I had strolled over to the corner where Makin Soyinka, Lemmy ‘Radio’, Jide Bello and Biyi Bandele were reveling. I hadn’t noticed Biyi minutes earlier when I saw the group trooped to the venue of the Inspiro-organised jazz fiesta at Studio 868 on Aboyade Cole Street, VI, Lagos. It must have been the missing dreadlocks, of course. Okay, I had been hinted earlier on Mama Pako’s blogsite that Biyi had indeed jettisoned the locks for a skin-scraped look – in protestation against certain iniquities in world affairs… it must be the tibetisation of fellow human beings by the soulless Chinese political leadership or the endless cycle of dehumanization in Darfur – to which the world has decided, no resolved, to be overtly, criminally silent or pretentiously – as in half-minded – bothered.
Ohhhh, I am digressing so much.
Anyway, I had joined up to the group; and after initial banters, Biyi who was in the country to run workshop for younger writers, as well as to do a tour reading of his latest work, ‘Burma Boys’ (published by Farafina), had pulled me a little to the corner…
“Jah, I have been thinking… what do you think we can do about our photographer friend, Hakeem?’
‘Oh Hakeem, sad story, very sad story.’
‘Oh yeah, sad. I was thinking that we could do some documentation of his works…’
‘Great idea. Really, it was the mum that frustrated an earlier attempt to take those works into preservation as a testimony to Hakeem’s legendary work around the art.’
“But where can one get the works?’
‘Well, I can’t guarantee the ones with the Mum, though his brother a lawyer, told me last year that some of the works can still be redeemed’.
‘Oh, great. Can we start working with him...’
‘Yes of course, he is very ready. As a matter of fact we were going to do something around the 10th anniversary of Hakeem’s death last year. But somehow it never came to be’.
‘Never too late anyway… oh yeah? You know I was one of the lat people to see him at the hospital then. I would go to see him at the hospital, and we would gist endlessly. ..’
Yeah I remember the at the Cromwell hospital, I recall that hospital recently when I had to stay in Cromwell vicinity.. his ghost was sopresent in my head that I could not sleep properly.’
‘My last visit to him at the hospital, I still remember vividly.. he was wrapped up with all this massive bandage after an operation, and the man was still managing to share jokes and talking about the future of his career’’
‘Yeah, that was Hakeem… do you know that shortly before he returned home only to die, he had given the sum of 1,200 pounds to Ambassador Olusola, towards the opening of a gallery for his photographs, some sort of monument to hios memory… but the problem with the family killed that dream.’
‘But some of the work must still be somewhere..’
“ Sure. Wasee Kareem, the CEO of ZMirage – the company that supplied the stage and lighting materials for this festival – has quite a collection. Maybe about 600 framed works, which Wasee collected from Hakeem shortly before he died.
‘Oh yes, why don’t we start from there.
Sure. Wasee had collected some of the works as his own contribution to the ‘Save Hakeem Shitta’ project that was launched in the heat of his illness then. He had done a beautiful display of those images at his former office at the Gateway Hotel, Sango Otta. We may be able to get him to get the works for whatever we decide to do’. I am sure he will be too glad to cooperate with us… Anybody who knew Hakeem will be ever too ready to help in any project that will help keep his memory alive’.
‘Hakeem was indeed an invaluable asset to the Nigerian art, especially the much work he did in the 80s through the 90s… those documentation….’
That was it. Biyi had reawaken something buried deep in my psyche: the debt I think I owe not just Hakeem but the entire art community to which I have spent my entire working life servicing within my limited resources and opportunities at my feet.
A process is already forming in my head about how to push the idea forward. And very soon, much very soon, much shal be heard about this process and project. It is a promise!!!!!
But then this is not about Hakeem… it is about Ogunde, right?
Yeah, that is my second debt. I have got to dream up something on Ogunde… not because it is fashionable to do that.. nope. It is because Ogunde, the way we his survivors – we… we are all Oginde’s theatre offspring, aren’t we?… even of his politics cast us out of his thatre kingdom as ‘awon alacada’ theatre artistes – have proceeded with his theatre estate, his memory may fade further into the abyss of the forgotten.
I have been asking myself: so what happened to the brilliant idea of the Hubert Ogunde Foundation Award – HOFA -- which one of his sons, a lawyer and his dutiful wife had headlined in the early 90s.
I think the next time I am chanced to be in the presence of the Ogun State governor, Gbenga Daniel, my only request to him shall be: ‘sir, it is not enough to name the performing hall of the Ogun State Council for Arts and Culture after a man, whose tenacious holding to a dream led to the flowering of a profession that today has produced thousands of Nigerian working class; and as well put the nation’s name on the global stage. Yes, I must remember to tel him that.
At this time, may I share a piece I had done in 2000 for the Millenium heroes project – ‘People In the News’ -- of the TheNews magazine on the legendariness of Hubert Adedeji Ogunde. This will at least serve to remind me of what I set out to write tonight: I am feeling like Ogunde….
Sage of the stage
He came in like any ordinary person; no star or unusual event heralded his arrival. When he exited 73 years later, his name was known world wide; the heavens sang in preparation to receive the grand artiste.
Ten years after his exit, one of his monumental creations, Ire Olokun resurfaced on stage in Lagos, during the week-long national and global celebrations to usher in the new millennium. The songs of the theatre doyen remain evergreen. His productions are far more authentic and didactic, more politically and culturally relevant and more socially committed and audience-friendly than pieces that were produced as recently as the first week of the year 2000.
By 4 April 2000, it will be 10 years since Hubert Adedeji Ogunde, revered as the doyen of Nigerian theatre, passed on to higher service, yet no other name surpasses his in Nigerian theatre. No other artiste-figure can contest headship of the art house.
1916: Ogunde did not start out as a nobody. He was the scion of a lineage of political leaders. His grandfather was the head of Ososa, his birthplace, a sprawling string of settlements in Ijebuland in the present Ogun State in western Nigeria. Ososa was one of the earliest towns in western Nigeria to embrace missionary activities and European education. Even at that, the practice of traditional religion was very strong (still so today) and little Ogunde was probably more grounded in the traditional customs than he ever was in Christianity.
“I was born into a family of idol worshippers”, he said. “We are used to singing, drumming all day long and all night long as well”. Besides, being the grandson of a village head and by extension the spiritual head of Ososa, he grew up close to his grandfather, who, as he recalled often presided over the traditional religious ceremonies. In addition, the young chap had a manifest talent for composing songs and creating imaginary scenes even in the middle of festive singing and dancing. He was born already infected with the bug of the performing arts.
Between 1924 and 1928, he was the lead performer in the Egun Alarinjo, the itinerant, as well as Daramojo Atete and Eko Oko masquerades. He would lead the tumultuous chanting, singing and dancing, that were hallmarks of these masquerades.
At St. John’s School, Ososa, where he began schooling in 1925, he was a little star twinkling brightly in the class of equally brilliant pupils.
His parents, Jeremiah Dehinbo and Eunice Owatusan, who had taken up Christianity, were not particularly worried about the predilection of their little boy for ‘entertainment’, as theatre activities were dubbed. He was brilliant in school and that was enough consolation. They could not stop him from performing with the masquerades anyway. He was protected by his grandfather, whom he said had the greatest influence on his life and career.
Ogunde joined St. Peter’s School, Faji in Lagos in 1928, and to his parents dismay, he got more steeped in performing arts. Lagos was one vast pool of opportunities and experiences. The European sailors and their brass bands, ballroom dances and dinner parties were the height of entertainment in the city, and an impressionable Ogunde took in as much as he could.
Schooling at St. Peter’s served to enhance his abilities in the performing arts. Even a short break form Lagos between 1931 and 1932, when he attended Wasimi African School, Ijebu-Ode, could not divert the starlet from his attraction – Lagos and the theatre world.
While teaching between 1935 and 1940, Ogunde was known more for his mastery of the organ than for his speed when writing on the classroom songs and stories. He organized them into a sort of drama society and they engaged in acting plays. According to reports, many of the pupils defied their parents to follow their teacher to his church. As Ogunde’s fame as a gifted organist grew, he was constantly in demand by other churches. It was said that he was no ordinary church organist. He would play folk tunes even to back famous Christian choruses and hymnal songs.
In 1941, however, more out of willingness to satisfy family expectations, Ogunde joined the Nigeria Police Force. It wasn’t a worrisome development to him. He had always been a service-oriented young man, conscious of the need to assist in putting the society on the path of sanity. He felt that the police force was a place where he could contribute to societal progress. Besides, the force workload and rules did not legislate against private practice – not against theatrical activities.
Between March and September 1941, he was at the Police Training School in Enugu, (then in the Eastern Region). In October, he was posted to Ibadan as a 3rd class constable. In 1943, he was transferred to the Force ‘C’ division of the force, in Ebute Metta, Lagos.
Returning to Lagos afforded Ogunde the opportunity to pick up his suspended theatre career, which the six months police training had somewhat interrupted. On 12 June 1944, he presented his first opera – Te Garden of Eden and The Throne of God at the Glover Memorial Hall, then the main venue for artistic programmes, and social events dominated by colonial officers.
While he received huge applauses for the great performance, which to fellow Nigerians was novel and to the European, unimaginable for a black man, he earned a warning from the police force. I 1945, when he presented Worse than Crime, he resigned his service and formed his a company of amateur performers called African Music Research Party.
‘Tiger’s Empire’, which launched the company and Ogunde into professional practice in March 1946 again earned him harassment from the police: even though he was no longer in the force. In spite of this adverse reaction, he presented in 1946, Darkness and Light; Mr. Devil’s Money (Ayinde); Herbert Macaulay and Human Parasite.
From this time onward, nothing could stop Ogunde! His troupe embarked on a tour of the old Western province, extending to Benin and Asaba. When he ventured up North, his troupe was banned in Jos for staging Strike and Hunger in October 1946. The artiste and radical however, still sought to register his message; he flooded the tin city with posters of the play, which highlighted the predicament of workers and their families in a corrupt system. He was fined 125 pounds for that effrontery.
By this time, Ogunde had gained a good measure of notoriety such that he had to take extra security measures at his performance venues. According to him, “truth is bitter; and worse when it is directed at the man who holds the power to punish you. As an artiste however, I saw myself as an opinion moulder, as speaker for the deprived and that was what I did, even though the authorities did not like it”.
Organizing the troupe was no easy task, especially in the areas of recruitment of artists and financing. This is what he said about his experience in 1943. “It was very difficult at the beginning “ he told a crowded press conference in 1986. “My first problem was casting – getting boys and girls on stage to come and perform was most difficult. Nobody wanted his son or daughter to become a beggar or street dancer, which was what they took artists to be. I had to devise a way. I married three or four of the women and they performed with me, so their parents had little chance of discouraging them”.
“But finance was my biggest problem. My savings when I left the police force was nine pounds, which was lot then! And that was after about eight years in service. It was from that little savings that I maintained my first group. But when we started to perform, we had a huge audience and fans who came to see our shows, so we were earning just enough to keep us going. What really sustained us though was the commitment of those artistes who were not particular about money as most artistes of today. The whole idea of theatre was new to them and they loved it; they liked the fame it brought them.”
Though it had a huge audience at home, the African Music Research Party was haunted by law enforcement agents. The troupe was becoming a security risk. It was at this time that Ogunde, the adventurous artist, ventured to take his company out of Nigeria.
In October 1946, the company took Strike and Hunger to Dahomey (now Benin Republic). It was the first time the company performed outside Nigeria. Ogunde discovered there was a huge market potential for his productions on the West Coast, which he was later to tour extensively.
With the growing profile of the company around the West Coast, the relentless adventure took a shot at Britain. When he and his lead actress, Miss Clementine Ogunbule, who later became Mrs. Adeshewa Ogunde, were refused passports by the British High Commission. A gale of protests swept through the land as thousands of fans condemned the inconsiderate action of the colonial officers as undue censorship. Ostensibly, this was the first test of the magnitude of Hubert Ogunde’s national status. With so much uproar, the authorities were forced to issue the couple passport and the two left Nigeria in March.
When he returned to Nigeria in October 1947, the dramatis t had been exposed to a more effective organizational structure for a theatre company. Thus, the African Music Research Party transformed to the Ogunde Theatre Company. The change of nomenclature was then perceived as a strategy to re-position the company for a new professional phase. The Pan-Africanist and patriotic disposition of the company.
Back home, the international fame garnered by the troupe my stified its status in the eyes of a people just stumbling on oil wealth. There was a huge demand to see the unofficial Nigerian cultural ambassadors, did not change, as Ogunde continued to use his drama to conscientize the society; rousing the people's consciousness and sanitizing the psyche of corrupt leadership.
He continued his exploration of the West Coast and took his company to the then Gold Coast in 1948 to stage King Solomon, which marked the first major setback of the company. A more politically conscious Gold Coast society, already familiar with Pan-Africanism and the political determinism ideology of Nkrumah, gave a cold reception to Ogunde's biblical story. He hurried back home with his troupe, disappointed but not defeated. Later the same year, he revised his strategies and stormed the Gold Coast with ‘Swing the Jazz’, and got them hooked to his authentic African concert party idea. He had the last laugh as they celebrated him.
Having conquered Ghana, Ogunde and his company faced French-speaking Ivory Coast, where they became lords of the theatre house, breaking language and culture barriers.
Later in the fifties, according to Professor Ebun Clark, an ardent documentarist of the Hubert Ogunde phenomenon, "the Ogunde Concert Party was founded, Ogunde modeled the style of this theatre on the Western variety theatres".
Professor Clark continues, "it is a measure of the man's originality that it is with this much misunderstood form that he created yet another revolution in Yoruba theatre, moving it away from musical form to that of speech. It was during this phase of his theatre that he gave his actors the free rein to speak their line rather than sing them." The theatre also became multilingual; exploring pidgin English as a means of reaching a wider audience.
An indeed innovative move in theatre, movement of the time, which also paraded Kola Ogunmola and Duro Ladipo among others, the new deal of the Ogunde Concert Party spurred a prolific creative enterprise in the troupe. In the new form, he produced ‘Towards Liberty’ (1947); ‘Swing the Jazz’; ‘Yours Forever (Morenike)’ (1948); ‘Half (S'eranko S'enia) (1949); and ‘Gold Coast Melody’ (1949).
The new form, however, exposed Ogunde more to the vagaries of censorship. He went to Kano in May 1950 to stage Bread and Bullet -- about his most biting satire. His company was banned, and he was arrested for sedition. Upon discharge, he was fined six pounds for putting up his posters in spite of the official sanction.
On the occasion of the seventh anniversary of his troupe in 1951, he staged My Darling Fatima, which, because of its mild political undertone, was perceived as a traditional phase of his career in terms of thematic focus.
From ‘Bread and Butter’ to ‘My Darling Fatima’, the Ogunde Concert Party had gradually shifted from plays with a political focus to social satire: getting more engaged with themes of every day living.
Some critics felt that his bitter encounter with the law in Jos the previous year, had cowed the activities of the great artiste. Ogunde replied that he was responding to the yearnings of his huge audience, who he said had had to succumb to the rot and immorality that were being imported from overseas by returnee Africans. His theatre was for the people, he asserted.
After ‘My Darling Fatima’ in 1951, he went on to produce other satirical pieces such as ‘Portmanteau Woman’ (1952); ‘Beggar's Love’ (1952); ‘Highway Eagle’ (1955); ‘Princess Jaja ‘(1953); ‘lle lwosan (Village Hospital)’ (1951) and ‘Olowo Ojiji (Delicate Millionaire)’ ( 1958).
In 1960, the Ogunde Concert Party seemed to have been jolted back to political themes, when Ogunde was commission. He wrote and produced ‘Songs of Unity’. Though the title sounded harmless, the concept was politically biting; an excoriation of the problems of the emerging nation, forewarning of the factors that could hinder the unity of Nigeria in future. It didn't find complete favour with the government, but it projected Ogunde nationally as the true artistic voice.
Moreover, ‘Songs of Unity’ set the artiste back on the political path. His next play, Yoruba Ronu, produced under the name Ogunde Theatre, was banned, and his company was forbidden from performing throughout tile Western Region by the Samuel Ladoke Akintola government. The play had analysed and caricatured certain political leaders, especially functionaries of the ruling party in the region; exposing their iniquities. Premier Akintola thus banned the company.
This did not deter Ogunde. He reacted by producing Otito Koro (Truth is bitter), which worsened his case. Nevertheless he produced Awo Mimo(Truth Is bitter) , which worsened his case. Nevertheless, he produced Awo Mimo, which engaged allegories and metaphors to criticise the insincerity of the leadership. The ban on Ogunde Theatre was lifted in 1966 by the new military regime headed in the region by Col. Adekunle Fajuyi. In 1967, the Ogunde Theatre was chosen by the Nigerian government to represent the country at the famous Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada. A glorious era of international fame had begun for the prophet despised at home by over zealous political leaders. At the expo, Ogunde was contracted by impressed scouts to make a detour through the United States of America, where he performed at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York City.
From this point on, the troupe became a regular sight on the international stage. Between 1968 and 1970, the troupe staged three plays in ‘London: Mama Eko’ (1968); ‘Obanta’ (1969); and ‘Oh Ogunde’ (1969); and ‘Ogun Pari’ in 1970 to celebrate the end of the Nigeria Civil War(1967-1979).
Back home, the international fame garnered by the troupe mystified its status in the eyes of a people just stumbling on oil wealth. There was a huge demand to see the unofficial Nigerian cultural ambassadors, the Ogunde Theatre. In 1970, upon return, the energy and resources of the company were excessively stretched to realise three plays at the Glover Hall Lagos —‘Ewe Nla’, ‘Iwe Gbemi’ and ‘Ayamno’.
A journalist with the Daily Times recalled that the vast Glover Hall was too small to accommodate the number of people that turned up from Lagos, Abeokuta, Enugu, Kano and parts of West Africa. The reporter noted in particular, the changes in Ogunde Theatre's technique of staging — there was profuse use of lighting effects and a more stylised form of acting, different from the realism that was the hallmark of previous presentations.
In 1971, the troupe returned to Glover Hall with ‘Onimoto’, one of its most popular pieces, which eventually sold thousands in musical album format. That same year, the troupe went to Obisesan Hall, Ibadan with ‘Kehin Sokun’, which featured the death by firing squad policy of the Nigerian government.
Ogunde's exposure to professional theatre management in the West as well as the growing influx of charlatans into the theatre production business, partly spurred by the new oil wealth and the profligacy of the elites' consumption pattern, led him to found the Union of Nigerian Dramatists and Playwrights. He was appointed the pioneer president. At inception, there were as many as l50 members.
The formation of the union was also to prepare the theatre producing community for the challenges of the impending National Festival of Arts, proposed by the Nigerian Art Society as a prelude to the proposed festival of black and African arts and a sequel to the first Negro Festival of Arts held in Dakar in 1966. As much as possible, Ogunde's vision helped to present a common theatre agenda to the government
Ogunde himself spent much of his time, especially between 1971 and 1976 engaging the organisers of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in media battle over what he saw as an attempt to undermine the professional integrity of the indigenous artistes. In 1975, he led a national protest by artistes against the organisers' invitation of Ipi Tombi, a dancing troupe from South Africa, to formally open the festival.
Deploying clout and resources of his office as president of the Union of Nigerian Dramatists and Playwrights, he canvassed that an indigenous Nigerian company should perform at the opening of the festival. When the government and FESTAC organisers were adamant, he was reported to have threatened staging a parallel festival of dance, music and drama that could dwarf the FEST AC opening ceremony.
In the euphoria of FESTAC in 1977, he produced ‘Nigeria, Igba lode’ and ‘Orisa Nla’ -- three highly entertaining, culturally rich works that were instantly acclaimed by critics as masterpieces. The government was eventually grateful for his immense contribution to the success of the global fiesta.
As Ogunde battled the FESTAC organisers, he was still equally active in his career, and came out with a monumental production, ‘Aiye’ — a piece loaded' with myth, fantasy and a profusion of magic realism, which changed the face of theatre production. Glover Hall was the venue of the performance witnessed by royalty and political leaders; including tourists from across the West Coast.
After Aiye, Ogunde slowed down or so it seems! His next production, Ekun Oniwogbe was in 1974, followed by Ekun Oniwogbe in 1975. Murtala Mohammed, a politically patriotic piece, was dedicated to the memory of the military Head of State, General Ramat Murtala Mohammed, who was killed in a coup . d'etat on February 13, 1976. It was also staged at the Glover Hall, followed by Oore Niwon in the same year at 1lorin.
Hubert Ogunde did not only counter the FESTAC organisers for their lack of respect for indigenous artistes in their programming, he also tack- led the management of the National Theatre in Lagos for indiscriminately increasing the cost of hiring facilities in the edifice. He held many public briefings and in the end succeeded in getting the hiring fee slashed. When he stage Igba L'ode in the national cultura1 edifice later, it was sweet victory for the indigenous troupes that had been prevented from using the facilities at of the theatre complex. It was however the first time Ogunde would stage a premiere of his own play at the theatre or at any other venue other than the Glover Memorial Hall.
Hubert Adedeji Ogunde extended the frontiers of theatre production when in 1976, he put his famous work, Aiye, on celluloid. Like all his innovations, Aiye the film, was an eye opener on the potential of the film medium. A large number of theatre practitioners took to the use of the medium. He went on to produce Jaiyesimi (1980); Aropin N'tenia (1982), his 1964 political drama script. He capped the film exploit with Ayanmo in 1989, said to be partly an allegorical autobiography.
Even after over 35 years of global acclaim and honour, which Ogunde had brought to his country, he was not formally recognised by the Nigerian government until 1983, when he was awarded Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He rejected it, to the bewilderment of the government. He cited personal reasons for the rejection, but observers said he was disenchanted with the corrupt tendencies of the government.
In 1985, however, the Obafemi Awolowo University, IIe-lfe awarded him an honourary Doctor of Letter.
The greatest national honour given to him was his appointment as the founding Consultant/Artistic Director of the National Troupe of Nigeria. Against widespread trepidation that the maverick, radical artiste would reject the appointment by a military government, Ogunde took up the onerous responsibility; traveled all over the country to sample over a thousand potential talents for the troupe. He later congregated an initial 46-member troupe called the Ososa Experiment, comprising mostly members of his own troupe and selected artistes from parts of the country, whom he took on tour of Burkina Faso and Morocco.
The Ososa Experiment was to prove to a doubting federal government that it was possible to constitute a National Troupe. The troupe was to have gone to the Commonwealth Festival in Auckland, but Nigeria boycotted the festival as a mark of protest against the apartheid situation in South Africa. After taking the troupe round the then 19 states of Nigeria, Ogunde disbanded the group and persuaded the government to send him on a nationwide tour to recruit members for a 120-member group, which he christened The National Troupe of Nigeria, and nursed, nurtured and groomed to international standard.
Ogunde sought to launch the troupe internationally when he contracted them to the cast and crew of Mr. Johnson, a Hollywood film project to which he had been appointed a Co-producer. He developed a heart problem while on the set in Jos. Millions of fans and admirers went into mourning. He died at 5.25a.m on Wednesday, 4 April 1990, at Cromwell Hospital in London.
And the Heavens wept.
And the face of Nigerian theatre was distended for ever!
A hollowness caused by the exit of the grand patriarch of the living stage.
But in the year 2000, ten years after his death.
Hubert Adedeji Ogunde remains an evergreen memory;
the towering lroko;
the grand force of the swirling theatre world of Africa.
A legend of the world living stage.
This is one artiste who shunned
success and instead went after greatness.
He was greatness itself.
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