Nigerian music enthusiasts may not yet know it, but they have a treasure trove in ‘Elders’ Corner’, a music documentary movie that premiered at the just concluded 2022 Africa International Film Festival. Directed by musician, Siji Awoyinka, it is a rich visual archival document from which successive generations of music lovers will benefit. It showcases the rise to prominence and the notable achievements of music icons, those popularly referred to now as ‘old school musicians.’
Awoyinka takes his audience through Nigerian music and how each genre has served as a historical signpost. He started in the pre-independence period after happening on a Fatai Rolling Dollars scratched album with a friend. From there, he started digging into his father’s music album collections.
Though he started filming about nine years ago, funding stalled him, and he had to make a lot of cuts from the original footage he got. Still, he tells a gripping audio-visual tale about the masters, including E.C. Arinze, Victor Olaiya, the Lijadu Sisters, Joni Hastrup, Victor Uwaifo, Jimi Solanke, Fela and several others.
The musician traces the emergence of Highlife and situates it within its socio-political contexts. He introduces Highlife as the soundtrack of the independence period, mirroring the optimism and upbeat nature of the Nigerian. But in 1967, a decline was recorded when the civil war paralysed social life, forcing Highlife musicians of Igbo extraction to leave Lagos.
Awoyinka drew insights from E.C Arinze, Jimi Solanke, The Oriental Brothers, Victor Uwaifo and others on how the prevailing situation in Nigeria impacted their music. The famous nightclub, Kakadu, is also showcased. For some artistes, the civil war killed their careers entirely. They lost their homes. They lost their families. And sadly, they lost their joy and confidence in Nigeria.
That hope was rekindled after the civil war, particularly during the oil boom era in the 70s. The musicians became sought after once again because social life was activated. Juju music developed. It was also the time of new voices, including the Lijadu Sisters, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and others. Opera singer Mary Afi Usuah’s story is also very moving. She is one of the returnee musicians for FESTAC. She left a flourishing music career and friends in Italy to return for the phenomenal festival but questions the nation’s loyalty to its citizens.
Unsurprisingly, the screening was well received, with the director sharing more insights in the following panel session. Responding to moderator Keziah Jones, Awoyinka explained that many musicians and footage were omitted from the final cut for different reasons. Elders’ Corner was meant to be in a series because of the depth and breadth of the story, but funding constrained them.
He further disclosed that the production took 11 years, and he almost walked away. “There was a time I walked away from the film because we raised some money to shoot, but when we began to edit the film, we ran out of money.”
Co-producer Ade Bantu also noted that shooting the documentary was not a piece of cake. “I wasn’t even sure that I’d make Nigeria my home. Siji was coming from the United States. When we met Fatai Rolling Dollars, I remember he had moved houses and lost some materials in the floods. I thought, ‘Wow, we’re losing our history. That was how we started. We couldn’t wait for outsiders to come and tell our stories. Every musician would lead us to another. That’s how we got so many people and started collecting stories. We were not even sure of where we were going with the story. Half of the cast that we interviewed are not even here.”
Assessing old and current music at the session, Solanke said musicians had gained more respect. He also held back from criticising the lyrics of contemporary musicians. “Today, artists are using the language that is common among themselves. They cannot use the same language that we used. When they write their history later, one will still refer to their language techniques,” he said.
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