ThePingOfPong

Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

Tag: review

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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RAPID REVIEWS: OMAWUMI’S LASSO OF TRUTH, IYANYA’S DESIRE

Editor’s Note: This appeared in Abuja’s Metropole Magazine Issue 04

Omawumi-Lasso-Of-Truth-Artwork

At this time with female musicians hovering with short ephemeral singles or irrelevant music, the baton has been handed to Omawumi. On her sophomore, Lasso of Truth– her debut was Wonder Woman, and the reference to DC Comics’ female superhero continues- she appears to have confused the baton for an oversized lollipop, indulging her voice and often prancing on the tracks licking absentmindedly instead of running with it.

Though pleasant, the novelty of album opener If You Ask Me is gone. She famously explored an illicit pregnancy comically on the song and the album continues to address Themes: Africa is praised on The African Way, she gives her offspring advice on The Best You Can Be with overt echoes of Avril Lavigne’s I’m With You, discusses politics on What A Bang Bang which almost reduces Tuface to a backup singer, and urges everyone to take life easy on the impressive, mellow Jeje Laiye which has the appeal of restraining her earthy voice. The reggae tune I Go Go is another highlight and she’s completely believable when she sings, “I may be liking the way you liking me…but you no go fit to contain me” amping the sass on the entertaining Warn Yourself with a verse from Wizkid who gets to play his age and then put in his place: “You wan climb tree when old men dey point from afar/take your time o”.

Although Lasso of Truth is uneven, it has the advantage of compactness- at 45mins it is of ideal length. Lasso may have approached the sublime if Omawumi had realized the significance of what she has been handed and didn’t waste time sucking on that darn baton.

Desire

Same cannot be said of the sophomore effort from another talent-show-alumnus, Iyanya, who has no illusions and names his album Desire proceeding to give an entire album of dance tracks with often crass lyrics. Iyanya sticks to the lyric sheet and whatever break from dance monotony on the album is down to the flexibility of the producers, D’Tunes- who produced all three released singles- being the most prominent.

In the middle of the relentless cacophony Desire has a roughly 7-minute oasis comprising I Gat It and Somebody- the latter features Tiwa Savage delivering a verse with breathy vocals caressing rather than attacking the makossa beat so the song recreates a leisurely mating ritual- he suasive, persuasive; she pliant, complaisant; both radiant. It offers a glimpse of what might have been if Kukere and Ur Waist weren’t so commercially successful.

 

NOT TOO FAR BEYOND

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2face fails to soar

How do you convince listeners you are an International Artist? Ask 2face.

Few years ago, he had that fiasco with the R.Kelly ‘collaboration.’ Till today, no one really knows the truth behind that song but we all agree something was not right. On his new LP, Away & Beyond, 2face tries again; the album opener has Huma Lara, an Indian singer. We don’t know her. We don’t care. Meaning, we don’t care enough to probe. So, Mr Idibia wins! He has a foreigner on a track (she is not exactly R.Kelly but she will serve, since her presence is mainly symbolic) and no one will go asking stupid questions.

Or does he? Competition is rife. D’banj and the Igbo twins, Psquare, have bigger stars on their side these days and lesser known Duncan Mighty has a song with an Indian (or an Indian sample.)

If the collaboration angle is controversial, then there is another trick: the release of an International Edition. For now though, we have Away & Beyond in the Ordinary Version. It is ordinary, because the present album never reaches the heights of the man’s initial efforts- the pioneering, game changing Face 2 Face and the reassuring Grass to Grace. And that might be putting it lightly.

The question is, has the Jos born 2face reached a plateau phase? Or is he merely cheating his fans? 2010’s Unstoppable was a failure until the International Edition was released. Is that the plan once again? We wait.

For now, Away & Beyond is a very average album with a few songs standing out. Omo T’osan and Rainbow are good love songs but when you are 2face, the stakes are higher- not only are you expected to outdo others, but also outdo yourself. We have seen this before: Michael Jackson, whose later albums, though commercially successful were dismal compared to the mammoth Thriller. So, though the aforementioned love songs are some of the best on radio today, they are do not come close to African Queen.

Yes, pop music can be cruel.

Ultimately, even without that baggage, Away & Beyond will struggle to be considered a masterwork. Split in two, it is mainly concerned with dancing (obviously buoyed by the success of Implication) and love. The social consciousness that had formed the backbone of his better albums only make cameos here, this is strange as now is the time for such music. It is only in In Your Eyes that a hint of the earlier 2face comes to the fore when he says, “Politicians dem looting…/Christians and Muslims praying for one loving/I see no bombing.” Weak lines and they come out as afterthoughts.

All of this may be pardonable as long as 2face does not bore listeners, which in this age of short attention spans means a tightly packed effort. Sadly, at more than a dozen tracks, about 60 minutes of playtime and consisting of duds, most listeners will struggle to stifle a yawn.

Or at the very least, get reacquainted with the skip button.

MAYBE MARRIED. MAYBE SINGLE. DEFINITELY BAD.

A Reel Waste

 

A few of us had hoped that with the fascination Nollywood now has with cinemas, filmmaking in the country will get better.

The now showing, Married But Living Single, is reason to believe that our hopes have been dashed. After the artistic duds that have been Two Brides and a Baby and Maami, the Nollywood rollercoaster has hit a fresh low- at the very least, Two Brides was watchable till just before its last sequence, while the latter film had few scenes of quality. With, the film under review, it is plausible that a viewer’s time is taken up by violent spasms of cringes brought on by the abject entity on display.

Any one of the aspects of the film is cringeworthy- the picture, the ‘words on marble’ script (apparently it is based on a ‘motivational’ book), the bad acting, the clueless soundtrack.

Married But Living Single is the story of Kate, played by a shocked-to-not-be-acting-Jenifa Funke Akindele, a female advertising employee who gives her all to her company at the detriment of her family. She comes home late, stays up working into the night and hasn’t taken a leave in two years- in short she is the consummate pawn in the age of capitalism. Except she is female and that makes all the difference, especially in a film like this with an African Male Manifesto. Her husband (an idle Benjamin Johnson who is becoming a serial underwhelming actor) frowns but loves her too much- the script tells us, there is no chemistry anywhere on display- to be anything but a whiner. (Yes, you guessed it: he is married but living single.) That is, until in Nicholas Sparks style, he is diagnosed with cancer and his wife refuses to accompany him to India for the operation. Not buying it? Join the queue.

To justify the running time of nearly 120 minutes, there are subplots that are needless diversions. There is some corporate espionage and in the worst sequence of a film with several, there is a glaring anti-battery message; apparently a man beating his wife at the slightest provocation is too subtle, so a character says, “The government must put a stop to battery! The society cannot go on like this!” and when the battered wife dies, another ‘gem’ of dialogue is uttered, “I hope all the wife beaters will learn a lesson from this.”

Help! I thought this was cinema- I didn’t realize we were going to picket government offices.

Sadly, even the regularly reliable Funke Akindele, as Kate, cannot save this accident of a film, stripped of the showiness and aggression of her alter ego, Suliat, and laden with extra-long, uber artificial eyelashes, along with others with nothing to lose, she calmly sinks with the pseudo-sophisticated preachy script.

The newfangled fad of placing products on the screen is silly, but it is a boon here: wiser it is, to admire the products on the bottom left than to stomach the mediocrity occupying the rest of the big screen.

Little mercies!

TANGO WITH ME: The Hand may be Hollywood’s but that Voice…

This is an old review- the film Tango With Me was released early 2011.

Where’s the chemistry?

They say the movie, Tango with Me has been in production since 2009. That information is an oddity and cheering news for an industry that considers haste a virtue, so perhaps the time ‘wasted’ would rid the movie of the flaws that bedevil the industry, the idea being the considerable time spent would leave sufficient time for postproduction where flaws are cut leaving a taut picture for the big screen.

They got that right. Technically, the movie is fine, its beauty amplified by the 35mm camera used; the crew evidently proud of their work take a chunk of time in the opening credits seemingly screaming, there’s division of labour! The director is not the producer is not the DoP is not the scriptwriter! The message is loud and clear, only partly for the audience but mainly for the rest of Nollywood, a visual cri de coeur: this is how it is done; this is how it should be done.

Here’s hoping it would meet open ears.

It is in this department that the film itself soars, apparently because the crew pay obeisance to the almighty 35mm, the picture so crisp there is a conceited need to do several close-ups of the pretty actors on display. The actors themselves are airbrushed to visual perfection- no one strand of hair is out of place even in anguish, even in bed. However, like most apparently flawless objects, the camera draws so much attention to itself that one is tempted to lean in and find cracks. And there are cracks.

Right at the beginning, the use of fading as transition device soon turns abrupt so that the effect is jarring, which rather than emphasise the scenes only suggests an inability to successfully close a scene.

So far, there is no mention of the story in this review and that is because the movie too puts the story on the back burner. Quite simply, the camera is the star, then the airbrushed stars, then the story. But then, what is the story?

Briefly: Despite an electric meet-cute a couple, Lola and Uzor (played by Genevieve Nnaji and a stolid Benjamin Johnson,) manages to be celibate till the wedding night when an act of violence pushes the marriage to the brink causing friends, family and a boss to intrude thus complicating a delicate situation. What do they do? They do a decidedly un-Nigerian thing, they go to a shrink a la Hollywood (though to reinforce the Nigerianness the movie calls him a marriage counsellor) who guides the uneasy couple through the tortuous paths of a troubled marriage. That is all that can be said as it is not possible to discuss the movie without a spoiler, a needless concealment as barely halfway through the film the big secret is revealed.

This is problematic, not just for the reviewer but for the movie itself and then the audience. The former’s problem is obvious; for the movie, the decision is disingenuous, since this kind of suspense is for thrillers not for dramas, so that it fails to be entirely suspenseful once the secret is out and then fails acutely to be a portrayal or keen analysis of a troubled marriage; then the viewer is short-changed as hardly has he settled into the movie when the ‘twist’ hid in all synopses and especially the trailer is revealed and he realizes that the denouement is far away. A case of bad marketing… but if it gets the cinema full, then perhaps it worked?

Perhaps. But it is an aggregation of things like this that undermine the artistic efforts of director Mahmoud Balogun. For an attraction as instant as theirs, it is curious how they avoided the bed before marriage, the lame attempt by Lola to explain it away notwithstanding; other than the need for a pretty face to stand beside Nnaji what exactly qualified Benjamin Johnson for this role? While he may have pulled off co-hosting Project Fame on the tube, the man’s qualities do not carry on the big screen and the chemistry between the leads is near nonexistent- probably why they succeeded at celibacy.

When Mark Zuckerberg was asked about The Social Network, he said, perhaps with a smile, “It’s surprising what they got right…” so too with Tango, where they got Cyril Stober to play himself casting news, though the gory pictures accompanying the news would never make it into the real NTA news bulletin. This is certainly a leaf borrowed from Hollywood’s playbook (alongside its relentless Mtn product placement). The effort to get it right is worthy of applause. But the trouble with levelling fierce praise at fares such as this is the tendency to dip into hyperbole as already some are chanting that this is the movie to revolutionize Nollywood.

Maybe technically. But then, it isn’t the first movie to use celluloid, Kelani, Amata, Afolayan have dallied with it. So there is bad news: this is not it.

At best it is a false dawn. Certainly Nollywood can do worse than learn a novel narrative device, some technique, fancy camera handling and its present equipment could do with some updating, still there is not too much to learn in terms of story and plot devices. Why? Well, because a lot of the usual Nollywood suspects are here.

Firstly, like everything in the movie, the song(s) are polished till shine but again it is style over substance as the movie is guilty of turning the soundtrack into little more than the script with some melody. This lyrical over-simplification ruins what is a fine musical production. There is however a delightful use of a Fela song.

Secondly, incredulity: without giving too much away, it is hard to believe that highbrows like the couple would err in not seeking medical help after the events in the pivotal scene. And it becomes silly when Lola takes a decision that would irk all but the most unreasonable of feminists.

Again, the supporting characters are not developed enough to stand up to the leads except for Joke Silva (as Lola’s mother) who overacts initially but manages to settle down to deliver a subtle performance in later scenes; her husband (played by Ahmed Yerima) steals the only scene he had space after catapulting himself into an inappropriate, illogical but strangely winning dance- from where the movie forcibly derives its title. Even in the face of all that is wrong, much like the daughter, the audience might just smile.

Then, in aiming for Hollywood, Balogun decides to rake up issues that are not particularly contentious in Nigeria: the abortion (“It’s my body”, says Lola), adoption debate is not one to provoke passionate argument here- most people know where they stand on these issues and it is highly unlikely that this movie would cause a reassessment. Whatever it is, it is not a movie to stir a debate. Most likely, the audience would leave the cinema same way they came; the issues so couched in the attractive 35mm wrapper that the said issues wouldn’t even come up on the drive home. And if while in the cinema, you feel somewhat alienated from the couple’s plight, don’t blame yourself, the people here are too well-spoken, too rich, too airbrushed and too silly to be everyday people.

Perhaps as overcompensation for the Americanization of the issues, director Balogun renders a stereotypical Nigerian view of a successful career woman: Uzor’s boss (competently portrayed by Tina Mba) is a twice divorcee who speaks longingly about love and companionship, while clearly after forbidden sex. It may seem pro-feminist to have a female supporting character going after what she wants strongly, but it really is veiled chauvinism.

Finally, there is an unmistakable flaw that fingers the movie as standard Nollywood fare. But first, some praise.

The script has some clever dialogue, even when it feels intended for stage rather than screen and the screenplay squeezes in a double entendre. There is also a remarkable scene where Uzor washes his hands, ostensibly as a postprandial ritual but the accompanying dialogue tells of a deeper implication.

That flaw referred to earlier, is its preachiness, that feature of lazy scriptwriting that makes employs God as a deus ex machina and has seen dozens of Nollywood movies end in a church. In latter scenes in Tango, every bit character contributes their bit, nearly turning the movie into a near two hour sermon, the type where the congregation has to stifle a yawn out of politeness; thankfully the cinema hall does not thrive on political correctness. It gets to a head when a lecherous character mouths her brand of holiness because it is okay to be Mouth Zion Film Ministries, but when one pays for a ticket to a movie directed by a director with a name as ambiguous Mahmoud Balogun, chances are, one expects an artistic experience rather than a homily; not that they are mutually exclusive but historically both seldom jell.

So the film’s fairytale denouement and its need to put in a Message sees it bogged down in Nollywood mire. In fact, when the end credits roll and you see to whom the movie is dedicated, you may sigh: “No wonder.”

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