Last of theatre titans, Baba Sala passes on
• Aregbesola, NANTAP, others mourn passage of comedian
Across the road, just by the University of Ibadan’s main gate, is Agbowo Shopping Complex. Inside the facility lies a bunker-like structure that used to house the film theatre named after the famed comedian Baba Sala, whose appearance in any scene alone, with his signature oversized glasses, would have audience reeling in laughter.
After functioning as an event centre for a while, the venue is now empty awaiting renovation. Like so many other facilities that remind art lovers of the golden era of Nigerian theatre/cinema, Moses Olaiya Adejumo, popularly known as Baba Sala’s demise on Sunday night has brought the tour through the golden era of Nigerian traditional theatre cum cinema to an end.
Last year, when Baba Sala appeared at a media briefing to herald launch of his biography, many knew all was actually not well with the comedian. He was down with stroke and battling partial paralysis, as he was unable to make use of his leg: The old comedian could hardly talk, and most times, struggled to recall answers to questions asked.
Eminent Nigerians, including the Osun State Governor, Rauf Aregbesola, and the Speaker, Osun State House of Assembly, Najeem Salam, have, however, mourned his departure.Aregbesola, in a statement by his Special Adviser on Media, Sola Fasure, described the late comedian as a colossus, whose death is a loss to the nation and a minus to the entertainment industry.
The governor noted the immense contributions of Baba Sala to the development of the country, saying, “the vacuum he left will be difficult to fill.”He prayed God to grant the deceased’s family the fortitude to bear the painful loss.Speaker, Osun State House of Assembly, Salaam, described the death of Apostle Adejumo as end of an era in the entertainment industry.
In a statement signed by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Goke Butika, Salaam said the late comedian was an enigma who redefined comedy and brought many people to work in the entertainment industry.He noted, “Nigerians would continue to remember him for bringing them therapeutic laughter and lessons of life.” According to the former Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos, Prof. Duro Oni, Baba Sala was the last of the titans of the Yoruba Travelling Theatre, which comprises Hubert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo and Kola Ogunmola. “Olaiya came with a different genre of production aesthetics. While Ogunde theatre was show business-like, Duro Ladipo was historical and Kola Ogunmola was a quintessential actor. Baba Sala was a comedian extraordinaire and he became so popular with his style of presentation. He was completely avant garde. He drew large audiences where he performed as Lamidi in production. He brought a different flair to theatre development in Nigeria between 1970 and the 80s.”
He continued, “this, indeed, is a sad loss to the entertainment industry.” Prof. Barclays Ayakoroma of the Nasarawa State University, Keffi, also echoed the feeling of Oni, saying: “It’s quite a surprise.” Ayakoroma said, “Baba Sala was an inspiration to us as young boys who had interest in theatre. The entertainment industry has lost an icon. It’s so sad. We are losing all those we are looking up to in theatre profession.”
The technical theatre expert and chief executive of ZMirage, Teju Kareem, said, “essentially that was a man, who, in many ways, gave us the face of comedy appreciation. He made us to understand the import of comedy as a correction tool of entertainment. Baba Sala’s genre stuck in our memory. We continually found time to watch what he did on set. We were encouraged by his long-time commitment and professionalism. From his costume to prop, make-up to acting, he provided us with something unique. He was a good example of what theatre should be. We will surely miss this rare gem.”
Prof. Peju Layiwola, Professor of Visual Arts, University of Lagos, said, “Olaiya’s style of comedy was interesting and we all came around to watch it. He was really popular at the time. He played a great role in terms of development of the Nigerian comedy. His comedy was quite different from what we have now, but it really captured us when we were growing up.”
Reacting to news of Baba Sala’s death, the theatre practitioner, Chief Jimoh Aliu, said he felt really bad, because nobody expected such now. He noted Baba Sala was one of the leaders of the Association of Nigeria Theatre Arts Practitioners (ANTP) who many looked up to.“Baba Sala was a great man, not only in Nigeria but also all over Africa, and now we have lost someone who did a lot of good things. We can never find someone like him.”
Aliu noted that the history of Nigerian theatre would be incomplete without a mention of Baba Sala, stressing that he was one of the pillars of ANTP. “It is painful that we lost someone of that caliber,” he said.
Expressing surprise at the news, Emeritus Prof. Femi Osofisan said it was good that he died in peace after all the strifes of this world, he, however, noted that Baba Sala would be missed greatly.“He was a genius, he completely invented himself and so people loved him. He was one of the pioneers and pathfinders of what many people are reaping now. We are going to miss him. It is a pity that we he didn’t get what he deserved considering his contribution to the theatre and other spheres of art,” Osofisan said.
According to the playwright and theatre scholar, though Baba Sala was honoured with the Member Order of the Niger (MON), it was not enough for what he brought to Nigeria through his works.“We don’t have a culture here that recognises people like Baba Sala, who in their own contributed immensely to the growth and development of the society,” he added.
The General Manager of National Theatre, Dr. Stella Oyedepo, said, “Olaiya was one of those who gave strength to the country’s theatre in the 20th century. Like Ogunde, Ogunmola, Ladipo and Ishola Oguunshola, he was one of those individuals whose talent and determination helped to shape the Nigerian theatre. He was an icon and excellence personified. That Nollywood is a thriving cinema culture owes much to their pioneering efforts. He was a natural comedian who could provoke laughter without saying a word. We’ll sorely miss this man of theatre.”
Oyedepo pointed out that Baba Sala’s trademark props – enormous bow-tie, gigantic spectacles, over-large shoes, alarm clock and pipe – combined with his hilarious demeanour to create an unforgettable character that was synonymous with entertainment for much of the 70s and the 80s.The President of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), Israel Eboh, also extended NANTAP’s heartfelt condolences to the Adejumo family.
Eboh described the passing of Baba Sala as the end of an era, saying, “he was the last of his generation of pioneers of Nigerian theatre.” According to Eboh, “NANTAP joins the family and other admirers in mourning the elder artiste, who had a distinguished career as a thespian. He brought joy to millions and exemplified the spirit of adventure synonymous with most Nigerians. He created many classics that will ensure his memory lives with us forever.”
Born in Ilesha, Osun State in 1936, Olaiya began his entertainment from secondary school where he started performing magic with which he toured other schools and held public performances. Upon joining the Cherubim and Seraphim Church, Idasa in 1957, he became born again and ended the art.After his secondary school education, he left for Lagos where he worked as a driver with Empire Hotel and later as a sanitary inspector – but still retained his passion for entertainment.
The passion was reignited in 1960 when he joined the Ade Ade Federal Juju Band until he founded Moses Olaiya and his Federal Rhythm Dandies. One of Nigeria’s foremost musicians, King Sunny Ade, was then one of the members of the group. “Let me say that Baba Sala is my boss and will continue to be my boss for life. I played percussion in his band. We used to play IK Dairo’s music; I was the youngest in the band. When he decided to have a theatre company, he told me to see to the music side. So, I was the one in charge of the music; I handled opening and closing glee. In-between, I was always back stage playing music; I played every instrument,” KSA told The Guardian in an earlier interview.
Television was particularly important for Baba Sala. In 1965, early on in his career, his Alawada Theatre won a “Talent Hunt” contest sponsored by the Western Nigeria Television (WNTV); this led to a regular weekly half-hour slot on prime-time television.“They WNTV did much to promote my theatre. I will say I owe more than fifty percent of my present success to them. For about two to three years from 1965 we concentrated mainly on our television programmes and appearances. We became very popular with our Yoruba-speaking audience. After that we ventured out with our plays, our audience was ready made, the television had done it,” he said in an interview.
In 1969, he became a full-time stage actor and comedian, setting up the Moses Olaiya International Alawada Theatre Limited. The group toured extensively and visited many towns in Nigeria’s Southwest, as well as the United Kingdom and the United States.Olaiya was quick to exploit the potential of television when WNTV/WNBS was set up in the Western Region, and his Yoruba-language comedies were extremely popular for decades. He was also a pioneer in the emerging movie industry and was one of the first producers of indigenous-language films. Some of the most notable were Orun Mooru (1982), Aare Agbaye (1983), Mosebolatan (1985) and Agba Man (1992).His nearly five decades in the industry are untainted by scandal or improper behaviour. It is no surprise that he was made a Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) by the Obasanjo administration in 1978.