Monday, December 29, 2008

A Song for my Acting Teacher

The road claimed a master of the stage. The shock of the violent death of my teacher, Femi Fatoba has become a deep wound on my heart... an endless stream of tears in my subconsciousness. It is harder to express it in words. Not because Fatoba, like every human, will not die but simply because he had to die the most undeserving death -- Road accident. And so the Road stole the dream in the broad daylight. I am still weeping in my the deep. Below is a tribute write up by MR SHAIBU HUSSEINI.

So Long... Agbari Ojukwu

So Long... Agbari Ojukwu
(As appeared in The Guardiian December 28, 2008)

IT was difficult for the popular Nollywood actor Segun Aina Padonu ( Segun Arinze) to speak on the renowned actor, celebrated poet and playwright, Dr. Femi Fatoba in the past. ‘Uncle Femi can’t be dead,’ he exclaimed repeatedly as this writer tried to get his reaction as soon as news filtered in that the Ekiti-born theatre don, who until his untimely demise after a road accident last Saturday on the East/West highway near Patani in Delta State taught theatre studies at the Niger Delta University, Bayelsa State. Segun had fond memories of the academic and star of such hit movies as The Return, Oduduwa and the Hollywood best seller, Mr. Johnson, who was later to combine farming with teaching even as he traversed all genres of the literary and performing arts. We were on location together for several months, when we shot Kingsley Ogoro’s The Return,” Segun recalled. “He was such a total artistes, whose contributions on set made the production worth the while. Uncle Femi, who was my teacher in Ibadan inspired, so many of us on set. We always looked forward to scenes involving him because there was so much to learn. If indeed he is gone, then Nigeria, and the continent as a whole has lost a big man of the tribe,” Segun remarked. But that’s just Segun on the unassuming teacher, who is popular as Uncle Femi. Reactions have continued to pour in from home and abroad for the jovial, down to earth and personable practical cum theory oriented practitioner an old boy of CMS Grammar School, Lagos. We reproduce here, and as Moviedom’s tribute to the star of most of Ladi Ladebo’s exploit on celluloid and a strong advocate for professionalism in moviedom, one of the early reactions contributed on the Arts Writers Organisation of Nigeria (AWON) site. It was penned by Jahman Anikulapo, one of Uncle Femi’s many students at the University of Ibadan, Editor of The Guardian Life and The Guardian on Sunday.

2008… Again.
Patani… Again
Death… Again
Artiste… Again

Sam Dede broke the news to me last night, and I just went numbed, so numbed that I detoured from the grand finale of the Naijazz concert that I was to attend. Just went home and wrapped myself up in sleep. On Saturday, when (at The Guardian) we got a copy on the death of three lecturers of Niger Delta State University, we had pestered the reporter to give the names of the affected lecturers, but he said their names were yet to be made known. It was as if I knew something ominous was in the air. As if, I knew I was affected in some way. Fatoba was my Drama Theory teacher, and later Practical Theatre coach at UI. He was nick-named Agbari Ojukwu for his trade mark clean-shaving head. I had serious disagreement with him on acting styles, but he was one of the most student-friendly lecturers in those star-studded days of the department. While our generation of actors pushed for instinctual, naturalistic style, the old Ibadan tradition of epic, declaratory acting was unyielding. And he, being an accomplished actor himself, was a defender of tradition. Later acting alongside the set of Ladi Ladebo’s films, we became quite close with all the differences sorted out. He had said as our teacher that all he was insisting on was that we first acquired the skills in fundamentals of acting, before evolving on our individual styles, which was what naturalism tended to push. He also spoke about his new venture: farming, and urged that whatever I do in life, I must think of having a farm. To him, farming beyond supplying your subsistence needs, helps to make you a better human being, because you learn how to nurture and not destroy things. That is a deep lesson I have never let out of my head.
Dr Fatoba wrote some of the most fascinating pidgin poems that I ever read; the other person is Frank Aig-Imokhuede. And in acting, his skill and delivery is winsome any day. Their generation, which also includes Dapo Adelugba, Sonny Oti, Sumbo Marinho, Femi Osofisan, Jimi Solanke, David Oteri, Tunji Oyelana, Chris Nwobi, Kalu Uka and by a stretch the Ife collectives of Peter Fatomilola, Kola Oyewo, Tunji Ojeyemi, Laide Adewale (late) and others, gave acting its good name, even if they did not rake fortune from it.
That that infamous Patani claimed such a valuable spirit is most painful. Patani Junction has long shown itself a death trap, but what have successive administration in Delta State done about it? Worship it with silence! But why 2008? Why: the graveyard is mouthful already with remains of the most adorable fruits plucked from the arts and culture community. 2008, May your very 31st be fast-forwarded. May you or your spirit never return to this path you have smeared
Last line from Moviedom: Good Night ‘Agbari Ojukwu’.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Alfredo Bini’s tale of darkness from the Sahel

In the ambience of the Azania Speaks conference that held November 17-19, the tall, gangling fellow with glasses firmly planted on his Hollywoodite face looked like just another character on the campus of the University of Udine; perhaps a student or a teacher in the school that was playing host to the conference on Spoken Word and Oral Literature in post-colonial Africa. However, many of the participants who could or must have given him such an inaccurate identity, had already encountered his work without putting the lean frame behind such a monumental piece. No one could have walked through the passage of the campus at Sala Conveni di Palazzo Antonini via Petracco 8 in the heart of Udine into the hall where the talking sessions held without encountering the work of Alfredo Bini.
It was a video cum slide show installation mounted in the passage, and which welcomed everyone to the arena of the conference. Frame after frame of deeply affective images streamed out of the TV screens signifying the artist’s recording of the tragedy that water politics has visited on the people in the Sahel landscape of Africa, particularly in Burkina Faso. The collection, which he recorded when he accompanied an ngo on a mission to the Burkina Faso chunk of he Sahel region, was presented under the theme Water and land in Sahel, the case of Burkina Faso.
Bini’s images are fascinating in the photographer’s choice of angle, in such a way that an otherwise innocuous scene is transformed into almost live rendition because of his point of emphasis. In every frame there is a dominant figure that foregrounds the tragic mood of the landscape. The artist also explore the relationship between light and shadow to create contrast and strike emphasis. The technique is so effective that the viewer is compelled to thus empathise with the artist’s POV by just gazing at the huge figure that often seems to dwarf other features in the frame, and by simply tracing the movement of the shade in the frame. The images signify the failure of critical thinking of African political elites as well as the rape and plunder that colonial powers or the so-called industrialised nations continue to visit on hapless continent and its helpless critical mass.
Even years after he undertook the journey that recorded the collection, Bini still spoke passionately about his experience. He said he could still not overcome the shock he had when he encountered the magnitude of poverty that the selfish, conniving political leaders of most African countries have put their people. “These people did not use their land to produce food, which they need, they sold the land to multinationals who use the land to produce sugarcane which cannot feed the people, and which they export to Europe with the people the owners of the land as the workers who earn small money per day. They have become tenants on their own land, and they have allowed foreigners to take over the land, who then employ them! They do not even have water, because they have given out the land”, he said over lunch in the course of the conference.
Here is Alfredo Bini’s full explanation of his project:
After president Sankara’s death and after the European interference reaffirmed, water and land are still two valuable resources for daily life. The uninterrupted exploitation carried out by multinationals is only making the problem worse.
Burkina Faso is a country located in Sahel area, a stripe of land in Africa between the Sahara and the tropical moist region – a boundary zone between two contrasting bio climate areas, marked out by a half-arid landscape. The meaning of the word Sahel, from Arabic ???? sahil, shore, border of the Sahara desert, is in fact side of the desert. For millenniums this territory has been affected by the climate. Rainy and arid periods shape the environment and condition its inhabitants, who today and in the past as well, have always been looking for the two most important resources for life: water and land. Agriculture and sheep farming, so the survival of entire villages, depend on the availability of these two elements.
In Sahel people are used to depend on out-of-control events and they developed during the times a great spirit of adaptability. People are shaped by the land and by the conditions they are living in. The more such elements are difficult, the more they develop a sort of meekness and respect toward what surrounds them. In Burkina Faso more than the half of the people is animist, following the ancient beliefs that natural element have a soul. Earth is considered as a god. In fact during sowing time propitiatory rites are dedicated to it and carried out with sorghum beer in order to get its benevolence. Fields, crops, cattle, people, everybody and everything depend on earth’s capacity to distribute wealth such as cereals, grazing lands, fruits. This is the reason why men try not to alienate its spirit. Rains, alternating with sun, perform their precious task and give the land water – indispensable element in order to keep the vegetative cycle. Water too is an element bound to popular beliefs and its eventual plenty or shortage is connected to the behaviour of the people all the year long. Crimes, offences, homicides are often seen as causes of scarce or late rains. The controversial political facts happened in Burkina Faso are often considered having a bad influence on rain time.
The Sahel and, more in detail, Burkina Faso, became famous at the beginning of the ‘70s when a rainfall lower than 75% of the still lacking local rain average caused a drought that had impressive repercussion on people’s life: inadequate yield of agriculture and disappearance of grazing lands with the following death of 70 – 80% of oxen. The faming in Sahel caused the death of one million people and at least 50 million people suffered heavy food shortage.

Burkina Faso was one of the most damaged countries. In 2005 and 2006 some events made believe a severe famine could occur again and also in this case some unfavourable conditions found their origin both in natural and human causes. In the whole area it has been scarce rainfalls for years, the consequence was lower crops yield and a following higher consumption of the limited food stocks. An invasion of locusts concentrated in Niger made the situation more and more critical endangering an area tried by scarce crops of the previous years. It was told that in Burkina Faso 80% of the population could hardly find sufficient food.
Such food crisis made again emerge one of the biggest problems of the Sahel’s countries, where the reduced availability of fertile lands magnifies the effect of the scarce rainfalls. The lack of growable land has not a natural cause only; it is also a consequence of the choices made by the colonial administration and later, because of the huge interests, kept by the most of government set up after independence.
In the past the growers grew thermophile cereals, such as millet and sorghum, that need little water. Together with rotation such cultures granted a good balance to the delicate land. During colonial period the most fertile lands were changed into plantations by the foreign companies that did not cultivate thermophile or xerophilous cultures, but they planted cotton and sugarcane, maize, peanuts – products for export that, besides impoverishing the land and bring to desertification in about thirty years, this is the case of cotton, they also lower the level of the underground water layers because they need a lot of water to grow.
It is easy to understand that the prevailing of this agricultural model, besides reducing the scarce cultivable lands, that in Burkina Faso are only a small part of the territory (14%), changed also the social structure of part of the population.
Today those who work in plantations earn from 0,4 to 0,7 ? /day – insufficient to grant an acceptable support and the purchase of indispensable articles. In some area before such economical model prevailed food provisions took place through barter that assure a minimal, but constant, production and spread of particular goods. Many growers after plantations were established could no more cultivate the best lands and moreover got an inadequate salary to support them, without goods to exchange and with a seriously compromised that does not allow even the cultivation of cereals needed for food.
At the moment this area of Africa has an underdeveloped agriculture, with a few means available, where the work is carried out almost exclusively manually on not much fertile lands, without the possibility to have sufficient food stocks. In such situation, as soon as unfavourable weather conditions reduce lands’ yield, food stock problems rise and many associations distributing help affirm that, in case of severe emergency, their efforts will not be sufficient to avoid famine, such as the one known in the 70s.
Thomas Sankara, during his premiership, tried to solve this situation. He tried to limit foreign companies’ influence in domestic politics trying to give farmers a more effective mentality for the management of their land. He was used to say “the land belongs to those who work it”. Further to this and other reforms Sankara was killed in 1987. In Burkina Faso everybody agree on saying the murder was supported by the French government and organised by Blaise Compaoré, Burkinabe president in charge. After Sankara’s death reformist activity regressed and nowadays, 20 years later, Burkina Faso meets again into the possibility of a catastrophic famine.

In this background during the years the interventions of humanitarian associations that realised development and help projects increased. The interventions were steered into children’s education, schools were built and teaching staff was trained and they tried to improve sanitary conditions thanks the opening of free drug dispensaries and sanitary education courses. In the same time professional training and local handicrafts production were supported and thanks to micro credit institution ethnic and local trade initiatives were born. The aim is to improve the quality of life of the people, making them financially self-sufficient and giving them cultural and social means allowing them to set themselves against the evil political choices of the government.

I was born in Pistoia, Tuscany, where I still live. I have always been attracted by the visual arts and their reproduction. I started off playing around with an old family Cannonet which I used on trips and holidays; as time passed, this passion developed, and with it came new commitments.
My first projects were based on landscape photography, which I gradually matched with travel and social report stories, which then became the principal focus of my work.
Initially I sought a faithful and descriptive representation of reality; later I began to create a more personal and interpretative vision of the subject, especially when I no longer feel the division between subject and myself, when the camera becomes a prosthesis of my body rather than an extraneous object I carry around with me. When this happens the subject perceives the sensation and becomes more spontaneous, taking no more notice of me.
I limit my equipment as far as possible in order to be as unobtrusive as possible; when I go on a shoot I take just one camera and a wide-angle lens. I make many of my landscape cuts with the tele, using the flash only as a filler, both in natural light and at night-time.
My work has been published in several European magazines and newspapers, displayed in Europe and in the United States, and are also shown at cultural events. In 2008, with a selection of images from my Burkina Faso project, I gained “Runner-Up” position in the “Travel Photo of the Year” competition, run in the UK by The Independent and Wanderlust Magazine. I won the Silver Award of Excellence in the “Biennial Juried Photography Show” held at the Edward Hopper House Museum on New York. I received the Bronze Award in the Orvieto Fotografia competition for the portrait and reportage categories. The “Water and Land in Sahel, the case of Burkina Faso” reportage gained second place in the International Photography Awards 2008 (NY) in the Editorial-Political category, and obtained two honorable mentions for the Environmental and Feature Story category, in the same contest.
I adore Asia, I find it a fantastic continent and an inexhaustible source of mental and photographic inspiration.

Azania Speaks in images

*Caught blackberrying... shuuuuooo

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Rhythms of Azania.... in The Guardian 7/12/08

(As published in the LIFE magazine of The Guardian of Sunday, December 7, 2008)

Azania Speaks, a conference on Spoken Word and Oral Literature in contemporary African literary discourse held between November 17 and 19, 2008 in Udine in the Northeastern part of Italy.
With the sub theme Visions of Patnership in Africa: The Art of the Spoken Word, the conference focused much of its deliberations on the power of oral poetry and storytelling; female voices in contemporary African oral poetry and contemporary African poetic production in connection to ancient African oral traditions. It was organised by the Faculty of Modern Languages of the University of Udine, under the leadership of the Dean, Prof Antonella Riem Natale as convener, backed by Dr Maria Bortoluzzi. The Doctoral research fellow, Raphael D’Abdon was coordinator of the conference with support of Laura Pecoraro and Piergiorgio Tresvan. Music was coordinated by the South African poet, Natalie Moletbasi while Tiziana Pers oversaw the Visual Arts segment.
Nduka Otiono, former Arts Editor of ThisDay newspaper and ex-Secretary General of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, gave the keynote in which he traced the origin of oral poetry and story telling performances in Africa, highlighting the current movement around countries on the continent.

. Otiono with Prof Itala Vivian, middle is Raphael, arrowhead of the conference secretariat

Speaking on Mind Grenades, Verbal Missiles: Spoken Wor(l)d and the Impoversihed Generation in Post Colonial Africa, Otiono, who is currently a Doctoral student at the University of Alberta, Canada, stressed on the development in Nigeria using the advent of such events as the now defunct Beautiful Nubia-initiated Word n’ Sound, British Council-sponsored Word and Picture, WAPI, the Culture Advocates caucus/Goethe Institut-driven WordSlam as well as Taruwa among others as example of the popularity that the form is gaining in the public performance space. He also noted that much of he content of the so-called Hip-Hop musical production in the country have their root in oral poetry performance. He however, paid tribute to the work of Sage Has.son (Rage) and Jumi Fola-Alade (Imole) – both of whom he said have focused their career on pushing the frontiers of the form. He also acknowledged the work of those regular features in WordSlam such as Awoko, Dagga Tolar, Edaoto and Cornerstone, naming them as artists who could be relied upon to continue to deepen public interest in the Spoken Word and Oral poetry act.
However, Otiono warned that except there is serious scholarship work trained at the work currently being produced, the potential gains of the Spoken Word form as a platform for free expression by the citizenry as well as a medium for advancing participatory democracy and good governance ideals may be missed. Sad enough, he observed that the Nigerian aged and seemingly un-dynamic academy culture does.
Exceptionally instructive, was Pierpaolo Martino’s (University of Bari) presentation titled Wi tired ah di degradation: Women’s dub poetry, in which he exposed the intrigues and politics of the sexes even in as neutral a genre as Poetry. He observed that much of the content of men’s dub poetry is full of condescending references to women, particularly summarizing women as simply objects of lascivious desires and libidinous fantasies. He said, however, that women themselves are beginning to respond although not as openly disrespectful of men – for instance, making uncomplimentary remarks about their genitalia – but in setting records straight by showing the men the straight face. They challenge men to change their tone and sing of more sensible subjects and behave responsibly. Intriguingly however, Martino said even as women wash up their sensuous personality to the vocation of dub poetry, they still have to rely on the ‘brawnish’ hard grind of male dub rhythms, which carries with it the atypical phallic aggression.

. The meeting of the continent: Ntsiki Mazwai, Nduka Otiono, Shailja Patel and Napo Mashaene; squatting is Jahman Anikulapo

The creative head of Culture Advocates Caucus, CAC, (conveners of the quarterly live poetry performances, WordSlam, also spoke on Popular Music and politics citing works of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, his contemporaries and the protégés of their type of music such as Lagbaja, Femi Kuti, Seyi Solagbade among others as well as the work of the so-referenced Ajegunle musicians and a few of the Hip hop and Afro-pop acts. Specifically on Spoken Word, he gave credit to Mode 9, whom he said is about the most eloquent of the form. He informed that the future of Spoken Word and Oral Poetry in popular musical idiom depends on the encouragement from the larger consuming public, who would at some point need to start demanding more meaningful and serious lyrical content from the Hip-hop singers and musicians. “For now, much of the music that is coming out from these chaps is flat, lack depth or worthy themes. The lewd and sleazy lyrics have become the norm, giving strength to the claim that philosophy and critical thinking have taken flight from the faculty of many of the current generation of artists”, he said.
There were other remarkable presentations including ‘The Brave New World of African Women Fighting Through Words’, by Prof. Itala Vivian from the University of Milan, who in conclusion urged for producers of cultural events on the continent to give more rooms to expression by women, especially through the arts. Prof Itala was indeed an inspirational presence at the conference; her knowledge of African literature is vast and she seems to have met virtually everybody who was important to the great cultural movement that produced the literature of the 60s through the 90s and beyond. She recalled with nostalgia her meeting with Ken Saro-Wiwa, especially, “the huge laughter from the smallish man… he was full of life and it was sad that the Nigerian government killed him so violently”, she said, recalling that she and a few friends had few hours after the writer, environmental activist was hanged in November 1995, organized a quick conference to draw world attention to the madness that had just transpired in Nigeria.

. Pierpaolo speaking on Women Dub poetry

“I remember that people from AGIP were invited and they came… making attempt in their presentation to show that unlike the other oil companies in Nigeria, they had been responsive to the needs of their host communities”.
Aside the various presentations, the conference was suffused with performances, mostly by the South
Africans, whose vibrant voices were led by the compulsive crowd teaser and thriller, the poet Natalia Moletbasi, who also played active role in the organization of the conference. The performers were no doubt drawn from the past work of the coordinator-in-chief of the conference, D’Abdon, who had done an earlier research: The Post-Apartheid South African Poetry. The star performer was Ntsiki Mazwai, whose cute act leans more towards dub poetry. The audience members were instruments in her fingers and she knows how to twiddle them to her will and rhythms – with music as a strong feature of her work. Napo Masheane, did not rely on music but her sensuality even while she invokes the spirit of the heroines of the motherland and talked about political issues was winsome. She drove the audience to passion with every of her rendition. There were other poets too, encouraged to perform in either Italian or their native languages. Sardanian Alberto Masala, whom Prof Vivian described as a very sensitive poet but who needs to organize his live acts, articulated the anxiety of his people, which he described as one of the fast disappearing tribes in the world. “my language is fading away, my people are disappearing”, he wailed.

. Tahar Lamri, the Algerian migrant poet in Italy, in performance

Lance Henson, however, whom Otiono critiqued as intensely sensitive is a poet in the natural fare of the griot of old, who engage nature to explain the foibles of man and living. His subjects are often the unexpected and his poem very short, such that just as the listener is warming up into the act, he has already finished his words leaving his voice and his evocative words lingering in the consciousness.

. A cross section of the audience

A brief screening of recordings from WordSlam also gave a hint of what is currently happening in Nigeria. It’s elaborate staging technique and often charged atmosphere coupled with the involvement of children, was applauded by many in the audience.
Perhaps the most affective lesson taken away from Azania Speaks was the performance possibilities that were exposed for the Short Story form. Shailja Patel, the Kenyan Word artist’s performance of excerpts from her published work, Migritude: An Epic Journey in Four Movements remained the most applauded presentation at the conference. On her stage, the cold word of the short story gained a narrative strength that is executed in intense dramatics and vocal colourings; her voices rose and dipped according to the cadencies of the characters of the historical facts she was narrating – she drove every of her conviction about the narration into the heart and heads of her audience. The silences in the room were an attestation to the veiled accord between her and her listeners.

. Lance Henson...

Sharing of Patel’s new wave of performance Short Story form was Tahar Lamri, the Algerian migrant artist who is based in Italy. Lamri’s reputation in the story telling vocation actually runs ahead of him. He has earned immense credit as a public performer, and this was what he proved with his presentation in Udine, in which he recapped the story of the decimation of Africa and its human and natural resources in his The Voices Pilgrimage. There was also Gabriella Ghermandi from Ethiopia presenting Queen of Pearls and flowers: A Story of Ethiopian patriots Resisting Italian Colonisation.
Azania Speaks is indeed a testimony to the power of the spoken word to help in quickening the democratic in post colonial Africa. As was observed at the conference, in a continent that has not managed to master the ideals of democratic governance, where despots and irresponsible leaders deliberately cripple participation of their people in national political debate, Spoken Word and Oral Literature could manifest as platform of free expression of the wills of the people.