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Elders Corner, reminiscing on Nigeria’s musical heroes of yester-years

By Florence Utor
30 November 2022   |   2:09 am
The just concluded Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), showcased among other films a documentary titled, Elders Corner, produced and directed by Siji Awoyinka and Ade Bantu.

The just concluded Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), showcased among other films a documentary titled, Elders Corner, produced and directed by Siji Awoyinka and Ade Bantu.

The 96 minutes documentary viewed a colorful celebratory sounds of Juju to the politicized urgency of Afrobeat, by Nigerian musicians who have spearheaded some of Africa’s most prominent musical movements. Oftentimes, their work formed the backdrop against which the nation blossomed.

What happened to these pioneering artists who rose to prominence during the country’s happy and peaceful years who continued to endure when it faltered, is what Elders Corner helped to achieve.

The film evokes a keen sense of sadness a story of return and discovery through memory and music. The reel begins with an encounter in New York City with one of Siji’s childhood friends, who is an audiophile collector. Osita showed Siji a classic by Fatai Rolling Dollar, which featured a rare recording by the Nigerian singer/guitarist, called, “Won Kere Si Number Wa.”

Filled with swirling guitars, lilting melodies and the unmistakable rhythms of a bygone era and Siji is instantly seduced. Beckoned by a wave of nostalgia, Siji planns a trip to Lagos to confront the past and find out what has come of Nigeria’s long forgotten musical heroes and her legendary musical pioneers.

He finds Highlife bandleader and trumpeter, E.C. Arinze, through Arinze’s story and interviews with other living legends; Victor Olaiya, Joni Haastrop, Fatai Rolling Dollar, and Jimi Solanke, the film paints a picture of a jubilant time. In 1960, Nigeria gains its independence from Britain and Highlife perfectly captures the prevailing mood of optimism, hope, and national unity. King Sonny Brown and Tony Odili evoke this moment, by giving impromptu performances of music from that era. The film then retells how many Nigerian professionals sought training abroad and then returned home to help build the nation. Singer, Mary Afi Usuah recounts how she was among the lucky few chosen to study as an opera singer at the prestigious Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome. Following her studies, she went on to tour with diverse acts such as Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple. But with lines of disappointment on her face, she reflects on how she forsook a burgeoning international music career to return home to serve country and flag.

Through carefully selected archival footage and pictures, the film sets the context for understanding Mary’s disappointment, by weaving an account of how power struggles, corruption, and ethnic tensions in the newly independent nation quickly led to a bloody coup and the Biafran civil war (1966-1970). Breaking out into Eddie Okwedy’s bitter sweet 1972 classic “Happy Survival”, musicians testify to how the cultural soul of the nation suffered.

Elder’s Corner offers a rarely seen, home grown alternative vision of our culture, our joy, and our humanity by honoring the legacies of our musical forebears whose pioneering efforts paved the roads we now walk. Key Characters Given the wide diversity of Nigeria’s people, language, music and culture, Elder’s Cor-ner features a number of the country’s key music icons (both the living and deceased), many of who have to a large extent contributed significantly to the social and cultural fabric of the nation as revealed in their work.

Their collective journeys mirrored that of the nation, through its triumphs. These intimate sessions feature prominently in the film and help lend even greater weight to their moving stories.

The years after the civil war are marked by reconciliation and a desire to move forward. The oil boom years see the country awash in money, and Juju, a new style of music which fuses traditional Yoruba rhythms with western instrumentation. Popular among Nigeria’s elite, Lagosians display their wealth by lavishly “spraying” Naira bills on artists like Ebenezer Obey (featured prominently) and King Sunny Ade. The film culminates with a remembrance of the controversial International Black Arts Festival (FESTAC),
hosted by Nigeria in 1977.

Woven throughout this denouement is Siji’s personal search for reconciliation with the past. Through coordinated recording studio sessions with some of the surviving musical icons, the film conjures a way for everyone to savor once again, everything that is sweet about the past. The live studio performances reveal how their collective tragedies; Siji’s, the musicians, the nation meet in the present with music and sound as vehicles for healing.

Elders Corner is not only a voyage of return and discovery, it’s an epic tale of survival and the undeniable power of music to reconnect the present.
Sadly, there was no northern voice in the film, as Dan Maraya Jos that was penned down to make appearance gave conditions that couldn’t be met immediately and by the time the crew was ready for him, he had passed on.

The Producer is opened to talk on turning the movie into a series to make it available to public viewing as he has barely scratched the surface of the footage he collected.