Sunday, May 29, 2011

Poems for Sunday

I couldn't decide on which of these two to put up, so I'm just going to throw them both on here.

One Art gets the most press out of Elizabeth Bishop's work, but this one is one of my favorites. It's an untitled poem for her lover Lilli, a woman who only had lesbian relationships after her husband's death, and their time in together in a small village in Brazil called Ouro Preto. I know less about the history of You Are Happy, but I love the imagery in both. You Are Happy especially makes you want to get out a sweater. Bishop's has an intimacy to it that suggests it had only one person in mind to ever read it, even though it was published in the New Yorker.

And, yes, I love a poem with a subtle innuendo.


Dear, my compass
Still points north
to wooden houses
and blue eyes

fairytales where
younger sons
bring home the goose

Love in hay-lofts,
Protestants, and
heavy drinkers
Springs are backward

But crab-apples
ripen to rubies,
cranberries to
drops of blood

and swans can paddle
icy water,
so hot the blood
in those webbed feet

-- Cold as it is,
we'd go to bed, dear,
early, but never to keep warm.

You Are Happy

The water turns
a long way down over the raw stone,
ice crusts around it

We walk separately
along the hill to the open
beach, unused
picnic tables, wind
shoving the brown waves, erosion, gravel
rasping on gravel.

In the ditch a deer
carcass, no head. Bird
running across the glaring
road against the low pink sun.

When you are this
cold you can think about
nothing but the cold, the images

hitting into your eyes
like needles, crystals, you are happy.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is Art a Desirable Goal?

Over at Bombastic Element, a really cool piece up on music in the work of African cinematic masters like Sissako and Absa. Of course, the term "African Cinema" is loosely applied here. Nothing of this applies to Nigerian film. From the piece he linked to from Beatriz Leal Riesco at Buala:

Since the early days of African cinema, music has formed part of a (self) conscious discourse concerning the problematic realities of Africa. Its use has rarely been gratuitous and goes far beyond the traditional—and much less experimental—Western customs of dramatic punctuation, of evocation of place, of establishing an emotional relationship with the spectator in which the image is almost always predominant, or as accompaniment to the never-ceasing rush of action that hardly leaves one time to think… In African cinema, music is stressed in terms of its cultural, poetic, and artistic functions in relation to oral tradition, with reference to such figures as the griot; it is used to critique the reductive commonplace of tradition versus modernity employed by partisans of a fabricated, purist, and ultimately nefarious—in its insistence on the notion of an “unadulterated essence”— “return to the roots”; it is blended into narration as an essential component and as a marker for critical moments; it works to evoke spaces where time slackens and opens up, giving way for ambiguity and reflection; and it mirrors the continuing urbanization of every aspect of African life, its constant contact with a West for which music is often a tool of domestication, of modernization, and of cultural imperialism.

This post got me thinking about the goals of art, if there need to goals at all, or even if art is a desirable end in itself. Music in Nigerian film, of course, is mostly a hodge-podge of often pop ballads, even jingles, that do little to heighten the mood, if not worsening the scene with sickening heights of melodrama. No high-mindedness preoccupies the filmmakers, and this often is enough for their audience.

It's not like Nigerian films cannot be studied; far from it. They tell you a lot about the collective mindset of country today, but one cannot study Nigerian cinema as a unique way that Nigerian filmmakers approach film in itself. To study an approach to film would imply that the idea of making a film was to produce art, not a product. Yes, there is a thin line between art and product (Art is often sold for profit, after all), but for my money, an art form is qualified as such because what drives the artist something beyond the material gain. An artist makes money, yes, but that's not entirely the point.

I was into books and creative writing long before I started watching film, so maybe my lenses are a bit tainted here and a "good" film should not be defined the same way "good" literature often is. Still, I wonder what it says about Nigerian film that we cannot study aspects of the filmmaking by many Nigerian directors the way we can work by Ousmane Sembene and the like, particularly since our industry is so huge and so well-received. I think the ability of a culture to create and present art, and for it to be appreciated and even find an audience from where it can make money is healthy, even desirable, in any society. I think a society should have a healthy appreciation for artistic expression, and have individuals capable of thinking outside their wallets. I don't even think that there needs to be a split between entertainment and art -- I have read a lot of books lately that blur that line (Lola Shoneyin's "The Secret Lives of Baba Segy's Wives" comes highly recommended). Increasingly, though, I wonder if this line of thinking just shows my own bias and nothing more.

I don't know for sure that "art" is the best goal, if it's even the most desirable goal. I think it is, but I can't give any cogent reason for that. All I know is that in Nigeria only a handful of our films can qualify as art, and precious few of our filmmakers are interested in making good art. I wish I had more than my knee-jerk aversion to this fact, but all I know is that I don't like it one bit.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Back in the Day, When I Was Young, I'm Not a Kid Anymore...

I have entirely too much time on my hands today, so I'm going old school Nigerian music on you guys.

I was going to do old school African music and throw in some Judith Sephuma, Miriam Makeba, etc, but I think I'll keep this narrow. There's some classic cuts here, but lots of awesome songs are being left out. There's no Oyeka, no Daddy Shokey, no Majek Fashek, no Zubi Enebeli. Maybe this post will have a sequel, but I'm not sure there needs to be a definitive list, do you?

Looking at Nigerian music then and Nigerian music now, there's some key differences. For one thing, raggae's influence on Nigerian music has definitely died down considerably. I wonder why that is. For another, there's been a marked change in theme. The preoccupation of such songs as "Obaro" (move forward, or something -- I don't speak the language) and "Ota Dehin Lehin Mi" (Enemy, get behind me), and "Walakolombo" (a promiscuous woman) are very Nigerian, but I'll argue that one sees them a lot less in music now than they do in Nigerian films. Even though it has not completely abandoned its political streak, Nigerian music nowadays is more preoccupied with themes one sees in American music: getting the girl, veiled sexual references, and rappers' braggadocio. Nigerian films, I think, are more derivative of Nigerian society, and therefore much closer to the Nigerian psyche than Nigerian music.

I wonder what will happen once we lose legends like King Sunny Ade, Lagbaja, and Obey. Today, one sees few people taking up high-life or high-life inspired music, all music derived from Nigeria, to be honest. I'd hate to see it die off in favor of this infatuation with all things American.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Wonga Coups and E-Revolutions

At the blog Africa Unchained (again, which probably means you should have it on your RSS feed!) is spotlighted S.O.S. Malabo, the web-based effort at a long-needed revolution to oust Theodore Obiang. This guy, mind you, is one of the least talked-about dictators on the continent who somehow manages to keep a country with the highest GDP per capita on the continent in poverty.

I remember taking an African Studies class in college and reading Wonga Coup. It's a book about some Brits' (including Margaret Thatcher's son) failed attempt at a coup in the oil-rich country, but more broadly about the miserable situation the country found itself in with former dictator and Obiang's uncle Macias Nguema. The chapter on him isn't titled “Mad Uncle Macias” for nothing – so virulent was he against standard education or health-care for fear that it was too “Western”, that he let his people go without either. The citizens are also now without access to basics like water and a sewage system, never mind human rights and a free press, according to the S.O.S. Malabo website.

This post was going to be about the role of Twitter and Facebook in revolutions (Suffice it to say that I think the success of revolutions usually rely on more analog factors), but I decided to make it about this book instead. I've been looking for a reason to put something on Wonga Coup at the blog. The story is a bit surreal; it sounds like something that couldn't actually happen in real life (Frederick Forsythe recognized this, no doubt, when he adapted it for a novel). But it did. I recommend you read it.

Image from

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Irritated Sigh Turned Blogpost on Lagos

I saw poster of “I See Lagos” a few weeks ago when I was visiting family, but, thanks to Emeka Okafor's blog Africa Unchained, I now know what it is.


It's weird how you can always tell when a government is doing something that bears paying attention to, and when they're not. When INEC sent out its BB Pin and Twitter handle, they also put out billboard and radio jingles with SMS numbers to report election irregularities across the country. That's how you know that they were serious. While governors put up websites to showcase the work they've done in the states, they also take out ads on TV in pidgin and the local language. With this kind of forum that I See Lagos has, where's the analog equivalent? There's a reason why, when folks have important things to say in Nigeria, they don't necessarily go on Facebook to say it. And it is that reason that makes things like this look unserious.

There's nothing wrong with a bunch of diaspora folks and their internet-ready friends with strongly-held opinions batting back and forth on how best to help Lagos in and of itself, but this should not be the sum of what we can expect from our government and other people within relatively-easy reach of the resources that can make a difference in people's lives. This has less to do with getting people talking about how to move the most populous state in the most populous countries in Africa, and more to do with Fashola getting “cool points” with upwardly mobile middle-class Nigerians and the Nigerian diaspora. Nothing wrong with that, let's call it what it is, shall we?

I'm probably being harder on this than I absolutely need to be, but this points to a larger trend I see among more-monied, London-for-Summer-hols Nigerians like myself, where we band together in our little bubbles and beat our Proudly Nigeria drums and extol on the virtues of change. We make election monitoring forums by and for us. Our blogsphere is created by people like us and for us. We are both addresser and addressee. Think about it: do you think Nigerian newspapers have to worry about making less money because folks read 234Next/Punch/This Day/Guardian/Daily Independent online and don't buy the physical newspaper? NYT, LA Times and the Washington Post have to worry about stuff like that, because, in the U.S., internet access is ubiquitous. In Nigeria, it's not, so internet cannot be the default for a national or statewide conversation that we actually really need to have. Gov. Fashola and his posse really ought to think about expanding their scope and widening our conversation to those who don't have the same access as we do. That is, Fashola and his posse should really think about expanding the conversation to within the reach of most Lagosians.