ThePingOfPong

Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

Why No One Laughs When Qudus Dances

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I have attended enough events to believe that for the Nigerian audience, laughter is the preferred response to a failed or strange performance. Not boos, not insults, not at first. This holds even for some comic shows, where it helps to understand the difference between laughing with and laughing at. Mostly this laughter begins with an individual chuckle that, if encouraged by a companion, spirals into a fit. Faced with ineptitude or inscrutability and seeking release, others join in.

It could be a commandment handed us pre-life: Any work failing to earn its time, due to novelty or incompetence, will be mocked. After that we decide to either endure the performer or throw her out.

Considering how much of the dancer Qudus Onikeku’s work is novel to a Nigerian audience raised on ‘cultural dance’ and now caught between the frenetic movements of twerking and the swagger of the shoki, it’s surprising no one laughs when the man dances. So that a recent comment from a lady who saw his last show bears repeating.

“After Qudus’s performance, I went home and wanted to kill myself.”

II

At ‘We Almost Forgot’, the show that inspired this suicidal pearl of criticism, I stood watching and taking notes.

Oriental music blared from a spot offstage. A girl, kung-fu gesturing with deltoids pronounced, appeared. At the end she seemed out of breath. The beat turned foreboding. Behind her a group of five came out. Qudus, head honcho, among them.

They screamed, overwhelming the music. Later Qudus strutted alone, like Hamlet about to burst into a monologue. The music morphed into discordance as Qudus attempted to telegraph the aural trauma through movement. Female dancers surrounded him, arms behind their bodies, faces grimacing.

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Another male comes onstage. Qudus fell over him. A little homo-erotic. A group hug of both male and female. Back and forth and side to side they move. A woman stood away from the hugging group. She will be the audience’s guide.

“Why do people remember?” asked the non-dancing woman. The others watch on, their ultra-expressive faces moving from curiosity to blankness. “We almost forgot what life’s about,” said the narrator. The sound has turned threatening. The movements on stage are frenetic, they look un-choreographed but you bet they are not. If only for how much they appear to not touch each other. Qudus’s eyes appear to be covered by a transparent screen.

Like his very best performances this one looked like there wasn’t much that is directly meaningful. The words, which are meant to convey the great and mundane devastation of loss, arrive without much context.

“I miss the shelling, the power cuts…I miss…my friends.”

“In the midst of all this, you’re cooking.”

“I can’t fit in but I can’t go to my previous life.”

“If I were to sum up life here in one word, it’s humiliation.”

“We lost 38 members four family in person.”

Our narrator spoke from memory. A feat of recall. A feat that works within the work in how it captures the persistence of memory.

The scene shifted. There’s a struggle between a male and female who have now appeared on stage; the former rejecting, the other relentless. The soundtrack becomes a dirge. Then there’s a struggle between two males; and a murder. Three girls gathered the corpse in their arms. They swayed.

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In my notes I write: How come no one is laughing even if there’s a Lagos crowd now gathered?

Perhaps because the monologues are especially good. One monologue has a mother looking for her handsome son John. John with the sweet brown eyes and rosy cheeks: “Has anybody seen John?” The monologues appear to signal phases in the story. Even as it wasn’t a clear story but several stories.

It was excellent stage craft. How many things seem to be happening at once and yet a lot of it is comprehensible. The best thing is how the dance-play wasn’t looking for applause. No pauses. The work was all-absorbing. The silence of the crowd was the better applause. The dance played to the gallery by not playing to the gallery. It conveyed trauma by dance. It’s a feat of brutal narration. It is why someone will consider suicide afterwards.

III

For something I think can be risible to a Nigerian audience, the performance kept its audience silent. It’s not a great stage at the Freedom Park venue but with the bodies, the brown leaves on the floor, the sack cloth adorning the walls, the lights—especially the light—the atmosphere was compelling. What happened offstage rivaled what was onstage: the dance kept its audience, drawing a standing ovation at its conclusion. I had a thought: this was no more than the dance deserved. It was no more than the show deserved. So intense was the experience that we almost forget to clap. Then we remembered.

I had seen Qudus perform before within his QDance Centre.

That evening he set books on the floor. “My name is Qudus…Tonight we are going to witness dance, music, poetry,” he said, stepping on the books, an annoying act, even as I understood the heavy-legged symbolism of standing on giants. “This is not a show…concert or performance. This is an experience that can only happen now. [But] what is now?”

Along with the occasional absence of rhythm to his dance, Qudus has a knack for philosophising. Both are features of his style; both can be frustrating:

“Movement, is a superior form of thinking.”

“My job as a dancer is to make you remember.”

“We are trying to let something happen not make something happen.”

Light music from guitar and cymbal in a corner of the room poured forth and the man responded with a sinuous movement of his left arm. Studious concentration on sweaty face. He moved a rod and brass bowl aside, and asked his dancers to stand. They formed a circle and Qudus danced within. Another dancer replaced him. Not quite as forceful physically or as concentrated psychically. And another and another. A man holding a flute started to sing. Most of the dancers seemed to be performing of their own idiom. The music got louder and chants flowed from the circle of dancers.

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The music calmed again, the intensity reduced as the dancers started to stroll and then sat. It was time for a response but we onlookers were unsure.

“Forget all those shit I just said,” Qudus said later.

I concurred.

He spoke about the difficulties of dancing in Nigeria. “Yes, you dance but what do you really do for a living?” This question he said comes from “the guys who really do know I dance.”

Someone asked what he calls his dance: “Me, myself I don’t know what it is.”

“Would you call it contemporary dance?”

“I won’t call it contemporary dance.”

“I’ll call it pure,” said the actor Wole Ojo.

“The problem is that it connects it to pure water,” replied Qudus.

The problem for Qudus is that contemporary dance began to be a style, which he doesn’t agree with, conflicted as he is with the meaning of the word “contemporary”: with time.

He explained: “If I’m moving with time, I must connect with the past…Urban dance is only about the present…Traditional dance is about the past.” The definitions and divisions aren’t very clear but it appears what he would like is a word combining these temporal considerations with a frisson of spirituality.

“Is there anybody who would like to read something,” he asked finally.

A lady offered.

“In the beginning, there was a road,” came the words. It is the start of Ben Okri’s Famished Road. She repeated the words as someone played a wind instrument. A man stood trying to find something to dance to within the words of the novel, his left hand engaged in a tic and then some more activity—a peculiarly Qudus styling. Qudus himself gestured towards a drum set in the corner. The percussive sounds increased. Qudus had become a conductor. Somehow he had made words from that book, the flute and the dance into something musical.

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The reading stopped and the music, a wondrous thing, went on solo. Some of the dancers were catching the holy ghost, hands waving, face contorted, jumping in one spot. A girl dancing collapsed to the floor and another dancer, male, stepped out to pick her. It was drama, it was dance, it was something else. It ended. And then Qudus spoke again. Something about the inability of his audience to understand. The text, he said provided context, a context that was not needed for the power of the dance.

“I’m not interested in narrative,” he said, adding that, “If I jump ten time on stage, you’re also jumping.” The aim is to make the audience as exhausted as he is.

To explain the apparent chaos of the proceedings, he said, “I don’t believe in giving my dance to somebody.” This explains his dissatisfaction with dances consisting entirely of choreography. If there is no choreography, there is no mistake. It smacked of the Nigerian impatience with order but if you can make it look as artful as Qudus then perhaps you get a pass.

A poet stood to recite “a poem written to be forgotten.” She finished and the music increased, a female dancer was wailing now in the middle of the wooden floor.

Once I saw a documentary where it was declared that “art redeems everything with style.” Here it was the conversion of words from the poet about child-rape into something poignant and I want to say beautiful but not the conventional beauty. By which I mean the poetry and accompanying dance occupied a different dimension from what we usually mean when we say pleasure.

A guy who seemed to be a krump dancer came off, another, with a different variation to Qudus came on, thrashing about. I was struck by the spatial awareness of the dancers, how out of controll they appeared and how aware of the boundaries created by their spectators, the books, the band, and their colleagues.

IV

They finished with Qudus and the thrasher staring intently at some place in the air. I’ve always thought that the problem writers face in Nigeria is complex because of the education needed to access writing, and from that the cultural education needed for literary writing isn’t very well developed. According to Qudus this is a similar problem for dancers. Not fully, I believe. There’s something elemental about dance. If you can get past a need to laugh, it can very much become something to be engaged by.

Outside of the window of the QDance centre where this took place, a few persons watched the goings on within, most of them different from the moneyed, well-dressed people inside. They laughed at Qudus’s ass shaking as the kora man Tunde Jegede played a tune. It was the night’s first indication of contemporary pop dance in that a rhythm was more palpable. I recalled that outside of this, I had seen Qudus do a particularly frenetic form of shoki at Freedom Park.

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The men finished and shook hands, two people engaging with marginal sections of popular forms of art. A Yoruba folk song rented the air and then some more dancing as Qudus, short, stocky, with hair defying order, began to sing.

He danced and threw the mic to another dancer, who screamed and danced, with Qudus joining in, shadowing him, doing enough to avoid hitting him. A plumper dancer took centre stage. Some more shadowing. It seemed a little like casting out a demon, and then a purple pants lady. She went around shouting in people’s faces, drawing some energy from the sitting dancers. Some more shadowing and then a brief shoki, which I was happy to see.

The mic ended up in the hands of a lady with a short gown who did some moves, adjusting her gown. Mic got to Segun Adefila, dancer and leader of Crown Troupe. He did his thing. And then a lady seemingly joined of her volition. Another joined.

I clutched my phone closer. No one was going to draw me into this session. And then the mic got to me. I gestured my reluctance and the mic got to a white man. He did something akin to a dance and then it was over a short while later. The books disappeared. The dance disappeared. The feeling remained. The show begged to be transmuted into text. “You lose understanding, and then you understand better,” Qudus said.

He was right. I was moved. But I couldn’t understand what had happened. And then I did. I think.

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Revisiting Chigozie Obioma via John Updike’s Bech

Part of the fascination of novels is how much of real life can be packed into them. Part of the magic is how they can seem to be prescient across boundaries, across time. Take Henry Bech, the writer-avatar of the late John Updike. A womanising, grumpy curmudgeon, Bech has quite the appetite for trouble.

Lessons in literary tact can be gleaned from Bech

Bech teaches literary tact

Late in his life—but not late enough as his lover has just conceived—he is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Updike uses this set-up to talk about a prize he himself never won. Bech is unbelieving. He is, however, told helpfully that no one including the voters expected him to win. As Bech sees it, ‘they were voting against themselves’ and so he won.

Cover for Obioma's The Fishermen

The Fishermen cover

The incident is close somewhat to an episode recounted in Norman Mailer’s Prisoner of Sex. Mailer is informed by a reporter over a phone call that he has just won the Nobel. He starts to go through how he is to face authors who many argue should have won, mainly Vladimir Nabokov. He later thinks he shouldn’t have bothered because it was an error.

Back to Bech. One of his laments interests me. ‘His winning the Prize had unleashed a deluge of letters that battered him like hostile winds,’ writes Updike. ‘Envy and resentment poured toward him out of the American vastness…’

For Obioma, Africa has been unkind he has said. His dispassionate letter reads in part:

“I have been appalled by interactions with Africans. I have received so many nasty mails, some so ridiculous that I had to disable the direct author contact link on my website. Various other “African writers” have engaged me in ways that approximate to hatred, some form of angst about what they believe is an unfair auspicious reception of my book. This has come from Africans—the very people I call my own. These smear campaigns, these vicious commentaries, these mean messages. I am not surprised, though. Where other people succeed in propping others up and basking in the success of the other, the African rejoices—or feels elevated—in tearing others down. It is why, from North to South, East to West, what you have is a continent failed states. Every one thinks for themselves, hence, that sense of community, of bettering yourself by raising others, is non-existent.”

What would Bech do?

When Bech gets around to Sweden for his Nobel lecture, he agonises about not having a suitable speech. He then gets his infant daughter to say hi and wave bye. This, you’d imagine, is what Obioma should have done. But in doing something fairly ridiculous like posting a rant dissing a continent on a blog he proved to be human, too real—not as tactful as a toddling, drooling fictional infant and her granddad.

At least Obioma has a usable excuse: those characters were written into being by a master.

The Small Miracles of Jesse Jagz

Sad songs are so rare on the contemporary music scene that in the last half decade one could count on one hand and still have digits left. The peak of musical melancholy is perhaps Timi Dakolo’s “There’s A Cry” off his debut album. That was back in 2011.

In 2013, the twin highlights of Jesse Jagz’s sophomore JagzNation, “Burning Bush” and “Sativa”, are aberrations on the pop single scene.

Jesse Jagz JAGZNATION

Besides sharing a titular allusion to cannabis, both songs are unified in reaching into the depth of melancholia for their effect; the latter features a background humming and a chorus delivered by the underrated, underused, Lindsey whose musical chemistry with Jesse Jagz is still intact following their collaboration on Jagz of all Tradez.

While the album may gratify patient listeners who wade through the man’s potpourri of patois and pidgin, it would surely confound deejays who’ll frequently find it difficult locating a song that segues smoothly into or from a song like say, the delightfully frank “Sex and Scotch”. The rhythmic patterns of JagzNation are that unusual.

Jesse’s words are often clear, with a memorable line occurring very early on the album’s intro: “Witness the way that Jarga rhyme, like Jesus turning water into wine.”

Cocky? Yes. Blasphemous? Perhaps. But like most of the album, beautiful and sure.

First published sometime in 2013 by Metropole Magazine.

ALBUM REVIEW: MI RETURNS AS THE CHAIRMAN

One evening early October, I spent a few hours with MI. Africa’s rapper #1—as he called himself on his sophomore—played his then unreleased album for the benefit of outsiders for perhaps the first time.

The Chairman cover I

Clad in ripped jeans and an X on white Rorschach patterned t-shirt, the rapper known by his high school teacher as Jude Abaga described how much of a collaborative effort The Chairman is. To be sure, when I asked about specific producers on certain songs, MI recited a few names—L-3, Sarz, Pheelz, himself—trailed off, and said simply: the team. A team certainly makes it unto the album. Over on twitter, MI released a list of acknowledgments.

The Chairman is a concept album with every song polar paired. At 17 tracks all told, one song is inevitably unpaired. MI solves this by having this lonely song literally titled The Middle. The back cover lists a song on the left and its opposite on the right: so you have Monkey and Human Being, Mine and Yours, Brothers and Enemies, etc. The Middle lies at the centre as does MI’s digitally touched face:

The Chairman tracklisting

The idea of a thing and its opposite runs from cover art through track titles to MI’s verses. You, however, do not need to know this to enjoy the album. As MI offered by way of introduction, “for the cerebral, every song is a mirror image.”

Brilliant but doomed to be uneven as albums generally are, The Chairman is a remarkable piece of crowd pleasing music, aiming to please with its variousness. What follows are my initial thoughts on the 15 tracks MI played during those hours.

The Chairman alt cover

1) Intro: The Chairman begins with a galvanic sigh. A teacher speaks to pupils: “All of you students are poor. You have nothing and you know it.” The response? “Okay sir, thank you sir.” 3 dissenting students are summoned and forced to recant their ambitions after hot slaps. One of them named Jude refuses. “I’m going to be the biggest star.” Another slap and then, “the idiocy of you is amazing to me.”

Acted intros are tricky. The novelty dies off and the intros become a staple for the skip button. Plus the enactment isn’t quite as funny as on Prelude, the introductory skit on MI2—and even that one got tiresome.

2) Monkey: Comedian Chigurl anchors this comic sequel to Flavor’s Number 1. Based on Igbo praise songs, and with lines like “Madam na only me waka come” and “My foundation is not Mary Kay,” MI is a long way from his elite English speaking days on Talk About It. In the studio MI tapped his feet—as will you.

3) Rich: A disco tune starts and then breaks off leading into a Yoruba chorus. When MI sings “we will all be rich” on the chorus, it is neither optimism nor wishful thinking—it is epiphany. After the song ends with a Pentecostal rant, Toni Kan asked, for this song did you miss Brymo?

The response? He laughed briefly and said, “Next song.” He played track 8. As you’d see he wasn’t evading. Here’s something he said:

“This celebrity-ship shit is not worth it because they give you things that you can’t keep for things that you shouldn’t lose.”

 

4) Mine: Back when Wizkid really was a kid, MI featured him on Fast Money Fast Cars—he returns home here. A good song but less effective than Wizkid’s turn on Jesse Jagz’ Bad Girl, Mine emphasises that it has been a while since Wizkid has been good on his own. MI drops a clichéd line: “We need a referee, let’s make this official.” On Fast Money Fast Cars, MI gave a hand to an unknown singer, On Mine, he is arguably cashing off that formerly unknown singer’s fame.

5) Shekpe: Untouched by populism at the time, this is the kind of song that could never make it into Talk About It. With the working class revolution propagated by Olamide and Reminisce, MI has had to unlearn his elite stance. He aptly gets Reminisce to contribute a verse and Sarz to produce—the chemistry between these two powers the song.

An ode to the pleasures of cheap alcohol, the ‘10 green bottles standing on a wall’ rhyme receives a slurry, slangy update. Expect to hear the new version of that ancient rhyme in beer parlours around the country.

6) Another Man: When MI talks politics, he gives it a human face. On My Belle My Head he discussed the plight of the poor via mimicry; on Wild Wild West, he personified Jos, the town of his youth. On Another Man he extends empathy to soldiers. MI proves to be a rapper of his time.

Read full review here.

 

Editor’s Note: This review was written weeks before MI’s The Chairman dropped on October 30. Since the meeting described here the man has tweaked a few tracks. Thepingofpong shall revisit the album.

LAGOS, LAGOS

I was unprepared for Lagos. Lokoja, town of my childhood, led me to believe the world was a gentle place where to enter a bus was to stand by the roadside, wave a lethargic arm and walk idly in, conductor, driver, passengers waiting, adjusting their schedules on the fly, according to the whims of this person, who, transformed into a passenger, took upon the qualities of the other passengers and did as they did, promoting the land’s endemic inertia. The cast of the Lagos bus—conductor, driver, passenger, and oddly, for a Lokoja boy, area boy—was in haste. Often it was hard to tell if these strangers were in haste to meet a schedule or merely to escape fuggy buses were accents and odours collide daily.

Lagos, created in ‘67, is the older state, and were these places personified, one might expect a genteel maturity, but Lagos has no time for self-respect. And by the time the nation’s capital was moved in ‘91 to Abuja from Lagos, its character was fixed and all hopes of a steady functioning state, without the hassle, without the hustle, was irreparably lost. The presence of a democracy and the diplomatic baggage that system of government carries may have imparted on the city an equanimity it now will never have.

This was the state I met the place all those years ago in 2001, two years after civilians were in power again, and the difference between the new capital and the old one could be seen and, only hours in, felt.

Abuja, the new capital, where I lived briefly before coming to Lagos, was serene, clean—two adjectives entirely unknown to good ‘ol Lagos. And when the Lagos government took to the streets, via posters, to tell its residents to clean up, stop littering the roads and sidewalks, it adopted a rhetoric that, save for its grammar, wasn’t far out of the vocabulary of the loathed and soon to be extinct area boy:

“YOU WILL NOT DEFACE YOURSELF. SO DO NOT DEFACE LAGOS.”

It seemed to me reading this poster at a bus stop under the Town Planning flyover, somewhere on the Mainland, that the Lagos state government wasn’t much different from the state’s violent miscreants. They were same as I came to see—a tropical re-creation of that scene in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where man turns to pig, pig to man, neither pig nor man distinguishable.

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