GOTYE’S “SMOKE AND MIRRORS” IS THE PUREST YORUBA SONG YOU’LL EVER HEAR

Let’s get this out of the way first. Mobisola, my good friend, was born today. Happy birthday! I’ll have you know she kicked my biro into a gutter the first time we met in person. Who does that? Coming in those circumstances, it was as impudent as a Carlos Vela chip, and Jesus Christ knows how much I love Vela’s chips. Completely woke. She’s a beautiful young lady, and one of the smartest and funniest girls I know. You should hear her giggle at one of my famous pieces of humorousness.

Don’t go scouring my Twitter and Facebook for her though. As the great Barney Stinson would say, “Dibs.”

“Smoke and Mirrors” is one song that follows me around, through device thefts and device transitions. It’s one of the first names on the team sheet, one of Mourinho’s untouchables. (One lesson from Mourinho’s current travails is that success demands a certain level of humility.)

My first encounter with “Smoke and Mirrors” was in the few episodes I watched of the hit TV show, Suits, where it was a soundtrack. There’s nothing wrong with Suits, mind – I wouldn’t even know if anything were wrong with it. It’s just that only extraordinary TV manages to fully involve me. In fact, half the time, I have to make superhuman efforts to meet extraordinary halfway. I am that lazy.

“Smoke and Mirrors” has about it an unmistakable Yoruba aesthetic, what with its embodiment of paradox and its profusion of percussion.

Disregard the fact of its lyrics. Regard the rhythm of them instead. The life-force of Yoruba mythology and history rattles inside this song. Sango’s fiery anguish, Gbonka’s triumph, the lifting of the palm wine fog after Ogun’s indiscriminate rout, Obatala’s tarnishment, the mercurial essence of the Abiku, Oya’s turbulence, that lonely first rooster colonizing void with earth, Moremi’s sacrifice, Esu’s dazzle, Afonja’s ambition, Gaa’s tyranny, Fabunmi’s revolutionary doggedness, Awolowo’s Sisyphean travails, the astrality of they who fly by night.

Oluronbi. Olosunta. Elesin Oba. Abiola. Akintola. The Ooni’s Abobaku. Fajuyi. Funmilayo, the mother of Fela.

Dirges. War songs. Praise songs. Panegyrics. Incantations.

Your personal mythology.

You. You the rich man’s scion who scoffs at the weight of his father’s wealth. You who vanquishes a mountain of beans and in celebration drains a sea of the white man’s wine. You.

The extent of you.

Like the ocean, “Smoke and Mirrors” houses them all.

I can picture a troupe of dancers, Yoruba in all ramifications, the ladies enticing in iros originating from just above their bosoms and terminating some way above the knee, the men large in their billowy soros and roomy dansikis.

I can picture the women doing that famously Yoruba shuffle, shuffle, push – we all see them at these things we insist on calling cultural dances, however much culture has moved on from that epoch. I can picture some men twirling like airplanes in distress, the ends of their dansikis held out from their bodies, others tumbling as if fresh from mounting she-who-must-not-be-mounted.

Shuffle, shuffle, push.

I can even include in that picture, a dramatic flourish, of women in conflict: one woman’s rapid clapping – one leg raised briefly behind her – signalling disgust at another woman, who can be anything from a husband-snatcher to a barren woman to the woman who did not have the male child. Of women in anguish, head-tie off and flailing with the hysteria of her hands, her hair dishevelled, her breasts leaping, her feet attempting, in vain, to stamp some empathy into a stoically oblivious Mother Earth.

My father would be completely at home with this song, with his restive Oyo feet, his hands curtailing the slippery arms of an agbada every now and then, his expressive Oyo face – bare of the identifying cicatrices and incapable of hiding a thought, the natural bodily gymnastics of the classic Oyo man.

It is the second Yoruba song – that I have heard – that fuses “then” and “now” into a clear vision of the future. The first was Infinity’s Olori Oko, but this one is the most advanced of the species, the homo sapiens of significant Yoruba music. If Soyinka’s “The Fourth Stage” could be transfigured into a song as Soyinka transfigured the mythic depths of the Yoruba worldview into the essay, “Smoke and Mirrors” would be it.

It is one song I carry around with me, literally and figuratively.

Shuffle shuffle, push.

GO TO EBOLA, THOU POLITICIAN

It is said that it was once said to represent folly, eyes that cry tears only after a beheading has left a head severed from what was once a composite whole. Some eight months after the index case of this new Ebola outbreak occurred in Guinea, Nigerian authorities began to run helter-skelter. They began to run helter-skelter after, only after, mind you, Patrick Sawyer inexplicably Ebola-bombed Nigeria. Held with the military authorities’ inexplicably proud pledge to buy weaponry for soldiers well after the scourge of Boko Haram is under way, you realize grimly that we live in Absurdia.

This other thing is said too, I have heard: better to leave things late than leave them altogether. And so curiously the tears seem to be working; the tears, coupled with that peculiar Nigerian luck and toughness. Somehow the head has hopped back onto the body from which a beheading had separated it, and even more curious, it is suturing itself back into place. This too, has begun to pass.

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A film review in three sentences

A preamble

As the credits rolled in the background, Lukas Foerster prompted us to try something new. Lukas had landed in Nigeria the previous day, and was 2018’s facilitator of Goethe Institut’s Film Journalism Workshop.

We had just watched Rage, the Nelson Aduaka film that had precipitated quite some storm in British film circles about two decades earlier. Yes, it would be a fascinating exercise to assay in three sentences a film we spent more than an hour responding to. But how, for instance, might Olu Yomi, filmmaker and Guardian columnist, be expected to condense all that volubility into three sentences?

What Lukas did not foresee were my paragraph-length sentences.

The next day, we watched Western, a ponderous 2017 that maybe I would only watch at a film criticism workshop. And just as well since it elicited quite the response from me. All that effort put into studying the theory of drama and look where it would come to serve me. I mean, I name-checked Aristotle whilst still managing to sidestep tragedy, verisimilitude or catharsis.

I reproduce both responses below.

It’s the economy, stupid

A still from Rage| Credit: HKW

After Pin, Rages sole spot of colour, attacks Rage’s mentor, Marcus, over unpaid debt, the eponymous protagonist loses his permanent air of menace, seemingly reconciles the contending arms of his double consciousness, transcends his alienation, finally grows into the man Marcus assumes him to be, cuts the record of his dreams and all too suddenly, Look Back in Anger lapses into Look Back in Gratitude*—cue disorientation.

* Look Back in Gratitude is Bose Afolayan’s attempt at foisting a Damascene encounter upon John Osborne’s Look Back in AngerAfolayan, lecturer of Literature at the University of Lagos, is a devout Christian. Since Christian optimism cannot brook the untrammeled bleakness that permeates Osborne’s tour de force, Afolayan strikes it blind, and sends it stumbling to an elusive Ananias.

Even if it mirrors Aduaka’s own journey from North Peckham to the London Film School, this turn of events in fiction, the familiar comforts of a rushed, unqualified triumph in the face of bleakness, flies too close to bathetic territory—and tracer fire lights up the night sky.

If one is able to look past Rage’s transgressive preoccupation with the dynamics of the racial identity (all three central characters are something other than we might ordinarily assume them to be), perhaps one might be able to recognize what role class plays in the gathering of Rage’s clouds: T is a comfortable trust fund baby, not B. Rabbit, and Rage’s air of menace looks more a question of “having” than of racial identity, especially when juxtaposed against G’s ability, owing to his family’s standing, to flow fluidly between chaos and refinement.

The comings and goings of Meinhardt

A still from Western | Credit: TIFF

Perhaps in consonance with that Aristotelian imperative to narrative completeness, director Valesca Grisebach often circles back the small gestures with which she drives Western, a compelling, complicated personal and political drama of modern-day domination and resistance.

Between Western’s opening and closing sequences appears an important corroboration of Grisebach’s investment in pursuing the unity of action. Vyara, a native of the Bulgarian outpost in which Western is set, suffers humiliation at the hands of Vincent, the leader of the German workers, when her hat falls into the river. Rather than give it back politely, Vincent holds the hat hostage, teasing Vyara, briefly grabbing and holding her head in the water before eventually releasing the hat.

Grisebach sutures this circle of imperial humiliation shut, when, as the film grinds assuredly towards its end credits, Vincent struggles in that very same river to retrieve a German flag which a small group of Bulgarians have held captive, an uncanny echo of the drama surrounding Vyara’s hat.

When Western opens, Meinhardt, the film’s subtly intense protagonist, emerges alone on to an expansive scene against a background of raucous off-screen voices that are soon revealed to belong his new colleagues. This emergence, coupled with his immediately subsequent refusal to participate in the crass bonhomie of working class brotherhood, signals the film’s intention to set Meinhardt apart as fiercely, ruggedly individual.

The film ends as it begins. Gone is the surefootedness of before but Meinhardt emerges alone, again, onto an expansive scene. This time the lonely path he beats towards another raucous off-screen gathering soon revealed to be a Bulgarian party is ponderous, suggesting a chastening.

While he seemed determined to set himself apart from the gathering of his fellow German workers, it is the Bulgarians who seem to set him apart this time, an apartness made more poignant with the camera’s deliberate foregrounding of Meinhardt and with the context of his previous success in pursuing rapprochement with their hosts. Posited as fiercely individual, this end-time Meinhardt craves community.

Despite the lack of embrace, Meinhardt still dances to the Bulgarians’ party music, willfully inoculating himself into a moment he is now quite clearly apart from.  It is rather ironic then that Meinhardt’s Germanness means he is implicitly a part of the German attitude he has tried hard to exclude himself from.

At the personal level, Meinhardt’s double alienation demands that we at least expand our consideration of him. Is Meinhardt, and not those surrounding him, the failure? Or, less controversially, is his failure only another in Western’s pantheon of failures?

One only needs to cast a glance over at the present reality of Grisebach’s country to realise how difficult these questions are. Mrs. Merkel’s imminent ouster as German chancellor traces directly to two 2015 days, when, like Meinhardt, she stuck fingers in her ears and traipsed down the road less travelled.

THE US DESERVES ITS OWN GIANT: A NIGERIAN’S CASE FOR DONALD TRUMP

Patrice Lumumba | Image credit: okayafrica.com

Long before I read these fantastic pieces by George Monbiot in The Guardian and Andy Kroll in The Atlantic, I had tweeted that Donald Trump was simultaneously an embodiment and the most eloquent critique of the American self-image.

In plain, Emmanuellan English, Trump is America’s real face, the face it tries to hide under layers of makeup.

America is still largely racist and misogynist. Its rich pays little to no tax compared to its poor. Charles and David Koch may as well be Chris Uba or other shadowy godfathers of Nigerian politics, the unseen hands that manipulate affairs. America is dysfunctional in alarming ways yet holds herself—and is held—up as an example to the world. And confronted with the man in the mirror, (establishment) America rails against itself.

Being the focal point and departure lounge of world neoliberalism, I am of course always interested in any event or string of events that serve to undermine this dastardly centre. I would much have preferred that this were Sanders, but in the absence of Sanders, I’ll take Trump, whose anti-establishment rhetoric is fascinating, particularly for bystanders this way who are not blinded to the real state of things in the world. That conservatives and liberals alike are rallying to Clinton’s cause should tell you something. This elite—the corporate elite—recognises the “revolutionary” potential of a Trump presidency, because they have made up the world into a zero-sum game. Of course, my fear is that we’ve been here before, where rhetoric and actions are mismatched. Read Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” from back in 2008, for instance. (Please disregard Obama’s attempt to equate white fear with black anguish and focus on the economic critique of the speech.)

Romney’s 47% comment killed him, and in a sane world, Clinton’s hemispheric world-without-borders would cause a great deal of consternation, because what it means is that she sees the world simply as a market, and politically, as divided into spheres of influence the US most impose itself upon, which again feeds back to the idea of the world as simply a market. Yes, Trump is this and that and doesn’t pay that and this. But as the man has said, he’d be an immensely stupid businessman not to exploit weaknesses in policy. You want to stop him? Plug the gaps. Make it difficult for him to practice voodoo accounting or economics. Trump’s message seems to be glocalization, and I’m very much interested in this, as against globalization. Citizens of perpetually underdeveloped countries should be interested too.

I agree with much of Monbiot’s and Kroll’s analyses up to the point that it identifies Trump as the quintessential America. I obviously disagree with their disavowal of Trump. If I were American and valued the notion of appearing to be some sort of a bumbling leader of some free world, maybe a Clinton presidency would make sense. But I am a Nigerian, and the policies pursued by those whom Clinton has fronted for is one of the major reasons why Nigeria (and Africa, by implication) is where it is. It is the reason why even in the US there is significant discontent. Profits are rising; wages have flatlined or dropped, because liberalization of labour. I am certainly appalled—it feels me with trepidation—that a Nigerian government functionary can wake up tomorrow and say: Look, they do it in America.

When people like Fashola say good education is expensive, and use that idea to justify hiking school fees in public institutions to obscene levels, they are looking at America for inspiration, where students leave college with debts that can—and does—cripple them for the rest of their lives. Imagine that. When Bernie Sanders says college should be tuition-free, I am of course interested, because only then do our so-called leaders and intellectuals here begin to see the possibility of building a truly socially responsible society. They have done it in America, and thus illogic becomes logic. But never before they do it in America.

Obviously, Trump is a different kettle of fish from Sanders but I’d really love to see a more economically nationalistic America. This perpetually outward-facing globalization (an economic liberalization in practice) we all trumpet has not done anyone except corporations much good, and will do us no good in the long term. The Guardian, a self-acclaimed leftist paper first inveighed against Sanders, the first credible leftist candidate in the US in a long time. It has spent the last couple of months singularly inveighing against Trump. This morning, it has gleefully described Mrs Clinton as having an internationalist outlook, as if we do not understand the euphemism, as if it is not a leftist paper. It has also disabled comments on most of its political stories, because the stories are obviously studies in outright bias, and anyone who reads The Guardian knows that slightly burnt bottom part is the sweetest jollof rice.

And beyond the economics of it, that the worst of its species can ascend to its presidency is certainly a tantalising prospect. When I think of what pain US meddlesomeness has inflicted upon the world; when a Lumumba gets murdered in favour of a psychopathic Barra Boum Boum Tuboum Gbazo Tse Tse Khoro diDzo (that’s WS’s caricature of Mobutu in A Play of Giants); when the democratically elected government of sovereign nations are undermined because anti idiotic internationalism; this moment holds such great comedy potential. The US, I think, deserves its own giant.

REREADING CHIMAMANDA’S AMERICANAH

“Fearless. A towering achievement…From the place of Africans in the race politics in America, to love across continents, AMERICANAH dares to bring us a world of a confident and self-made woman making her way in these complicated times. This is the Africa of our future. Sublime, powerful and the most political of Chimamanda’s novels. She continues to blaze the way forward.” – Binyavanga Wainana

What is the Africa of our future? Americanah, or confident and self-made women making their way in the world? Are the Africans of the future then a flight of transcontinental birds? Or is it that Africa of the present is void of confident and self-made women who make their ways in these complicated times?  Save a thought then for that African of the Present, the one who will never leave the embrace of her village, of her municipality, of her province, of her country (or even when she leaves is back before she can assume a double-, triple-edged identity), and yet makes her way in a complicated world. Save a thought for her in the face of the New African, whose head has touched the clouds, whose feet are worldly-wise, whose mind dances to a medley of tunes. Save a thought for her, for she will only be n when n+1 is the vogue. Save a thought for her. And save a thought for Binyavanga, and his personal Africa.

The blurb, however, does not make the novel.

I have nothing to say about my first reading of the novel. I barely recall it.

But,

Have you ever read a Mills & Boon romance? Or a Harlequin one? Have you ever watched a Nollywood romance? If you have, you must realize that historically, the romance (in the boy-girl sense) has been the genre of the underdog.

The romance is typically structured by the odds stacked against the realization of the romantic ideal. There are odds of class, race, creed and commonsense. Royalty may not fraternise with the commonality. Single men and women with children make problematic partners, as do Ijeshas and Ijebus. Bad boys and girls are too dangerous for good boys and girls, who are in turn too prosaic for bad boys and girls. In the romance, strong forces must be overcome, and the underdog emerges at the other end, triumphant.

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