The elders are many, and their corners spread from Lagos to the other major southern towns of Nigeria. They are the radical dreamers, the artists and musicians who built the cradle bed for the nation as it was returned from British hands; they ruled when gramophones, bicycles, bikes, and gaslights signified economic status. In Elder’s Corner, a new documentary by writer-director Siji Awoyinka, these unacknowledged architects of Nigeria’s socio-cultural space mourn their losses, reminisce about their greatness and re-enact their glories.
The film delves into hidden corridors of Nigeria to record living archives in urban and rural spaces. It acknowledges the failing institutions in Nigeria—a nation in danger of becoming a failed project of Britain, a place where memories are left to rot. This danger makes Awoyinka’s offering especially timely, and welcome. It greatly enriches the record of Nigeria’s halcyon years. Yet Elder’s Corner succeeds in stimulating a desire for much more than mere nostalgia; it provides an exciting point of departure, a brochure of references useful for scholarship and other discursive purposes.
Elder’s Corner emerges out of an unflinching Koolhaas gaze, as the camera pans over the decrepit part of Lagos, with its dark-brown rooftops and watery passages; soon we meet with Victor Uwaifo, seated in his dark glasses and jacket. Jimi Solanke appears in the studio, re-enacting a song from his heyday, building the mood. These elders are more than conveyors of traditional values and customs. They are theorists and philosophers, giving us the origin of Highlife music in the context of a nascent Nigerian culture; their narratives embody our epistemologies, sketched through metaphor, like the image of the ‘road’ that Solanke suggests for us. But Uwaifo’s words cut in too, scathing and condemnatory: ”It must be the devil’s work to be born in a country where neither soul nor talent is appreciated.”
Adesiji Bomi Olugbenga Olanrewaju Awoyinka is a lover of old arts and Nigerian classics. He spent part of his childhood in Nigeria but grew up in London, returning to Nigeria after twenty-three years. Adesiji is provoked to learn that Osita, his friend and fellow collector in New York, has been gathering up the treasures of the artists who reigned in the post-independence period, who have themselves been unable to get their hands on their own works, owing to the intricacies of contractual and intellectual property law; many apparently signed away their rights in exchange for small royalties, giving them little or no future access to their own master recordings. Or perhaps, as their relevance faded they themselves began to see less value in it. All the way through, as we follow Awoyinka around, the question of access to work begs for an answer.
This injustice prompted him to seek out the artists who are still living, and gather their stories. E.C. Arinze, who led the first national band for Nigeria, complains bitterly about the loss of his fiddlehead bass, expressing complete indifference to chronicling the rise and fall of his fame, and to the documentary itself. He was a master of Waltz, Running Waltz, and Quick Steps among other classics. But now, he is a forgotten nonagenarian, a man who was dealt an irreparable blow after the Biafra civil war. Mary Afi Usuah, who is first introduced to us through a monochrome portrait, was persuaded like the director to return and to pursue progress and contribute to the sociocultural life of Nigeria. The film allows us to experience the pain loaded in her revisiting of the past.
Fatai Rolling Dollars, Sam Odili, Ken Okulolo, Lijadu Sisters, Ebenezer Obey, Victor Olaiya, Chris Ajilo, Shina Ayinde, Paulson Kalu, Etu Rex, Bobby Benson, Emmanuel Ntia, Batile Alake, Dele Ojo, Candido Obajimi, Toni Allen, Godfrey Odili, Ahmed Abdallah and others round out the cast. The elders recount their tales with occasional interruptions from the narrator, interspersed with other archival materials alluding to the period of pre-independence in Nigeria.
Nonetheless, one worries about the omission of other elders in other corners. The film leaves a lot of faces out of the reel, and is partial towards some genres while forgetting others. For example, Apala, Sakara and Dadakuada could have received some honorable mention. The project is quite ambitious as it is, and could hardly help omitting some of the notable names.
For most of the elders, launching a career in music proved an economic suicide. They were perceived not as artists but as beggars, social outlaws and clogs in the wheels of progress in the newly independent Nigeria. Musical aspiration was a taboo, because it didn’t fit into the field of disciplines perceived as generating upward social mobility. And then, when we get to the phase of Lijadu Sisters, both of them address the gender question, maintaining that save for Batile Alake, the musical terrain in Nigeria was male-dominated. The immediate post-independence era was no different. Women were seen as competitors, not colleagues. But their interview allows us to reflect on the artists who were committed to the gender cause. Could one say the elders are pro-colonial, as they praise the past while being unaware that the present tragedies and trajectories were an imperial set-up? Undeniably there was a moment of flourishing during their time, which was soon terminated after the independence. The colonial framework upon which the country was established only laid the foundation for a further descent into a deplorable state of affairs post-independence.
In Nigeria the youths are expected to respect the elders, and curiosity is often frowned at. The Elder’s Corner challenges this view, bringing us into the role of witness with the director, prepared to interrogate the history and the arts of the elders, but the curiosity stops too soon. When he shockingly announces that “none of them have copies of their own recordings”, there is no further probe, to learn whether this was as a result of civil war, or a capitalist rip-off from corporations such as Decca, or some other cause. The film fails to build a vocabulary for the future, even as it posits a speculative investigation of what the future might become. The audience is left to imagine whether they are themselves the heirs to these lost traditions.
Ultimately, Elder’s Corner fulfils an urgent need. It does not close up the gap but opens it more widely, since so many artists are left out. It is a call to the scholars of digital humanities, inviting us to discover how rich cultural deposits can be created and made available globally. It is also a national moral nudge for the country, to reward the deserving artists who were figures of Nigeria’s global fame when the nation’s political and social milieus were still inchoate. More than anything, it is a prompt to remember.