By Femi Osofisan
I owe Isidore not a tribute, but an apology, for many things. Or perhaps more accurately, I should say I owe him a number of apologies. But how does one say sorry to the dead? Since I am bringing this up belatedly, after he has departed, who will now take this burden from my shoulders? Do the dead forgive?
The first offence I must own up to is possibly the most grievous, at least for any genuine African. Over the many years of his illness, I regret now, I never got to visit him, nor did I even once get to personally voice my sympathy, as a brother should to a kinsman, and as the intimacy of our relationship before he relocated to the US demanded.
The problem was that, from reports that came to me, his illness was the sort that someone like me could not merely discuss over the phone and feel acquitted of my duty. No, our customs would interpret that kind of gesture as a singular lack of feeling, if not even of callous indifference to the plight of a friend in need. In Ibadan Isidore and I had been close even to the point of having our own special form of greeting. Whenever he met me, and no matter how often, it was the same playful routine. He would shout ‘Okinba!”, thrust his right arm forward in a mocking attempt to reach down into my shirt front and pull my chest hair, provoking me to then beat his arm down, protesting, ‘Ah-ha, Isidore!’, after which we would then both burst out laughing. It was a regular game between us. Isidore had devised it in order to get me to begin to button up my shirt which was always half-open in those days. I left it like that deliberately of course, as a visible sign of my disdain for the prim and proper get-up of our colleagues, which some of us considered an emblem of their lazy, uncritical surrender to the cultural agenda of our erstwhile colonial masters to make us into alienated mimic men. Isidore, as far as I saw, was patently one of them, to judge from his appearance and his gentlemanly conduct. For he was always correctly turned out, always polished and polite; and courteous just the antithesis in fact to our own rude and voluble brashness.
So how on earth did we come to become friends, you will want to know? The answer must lie in his quiet, unassertive charisma. Isidore was intelligent without bombast. His erudition and mastery of the English language went much beyond the common lien, but he never pushed it in your face. His comportment displayed a maturity and a sangfroid appropriately scripted for the difficult moments of those contentious days. And yet, with all that sober and scholarly air of a genuine man of knowledge, Isidore would still surprise you with a sudden puckish burst of banter when you least expected it! With all these therefore, how could I not forgive him and overlook his annoying concern for sartorial elegance? He was, after all, a master artist, the quintessential story-teller of multiple talent, armed with a variety of charms.
Indeed, as it turned out, his outward gentility might be the reflection of an innate distaste and lack of appetite for the kind of open protest that we advocated, but it did not mean at all that he was complacent about social injustice or indifferent to political causes. No: his predilection for formal decorum was just a mask for his probably more incandescent anger against the imbalance in our society between the rich and powerful, the men and the women, and the poor and deprived. And, in place of raw or hortatory denunciation, Isidore recorded his rage in his books. Read them therefore, and you discover that behind that innocuous façade of gentility was a searing pulse of dissent; that the seemingly anodyne works of fiction are full of acidic testimonies from a sensitive conscience railing against prevailing inequities—such as the plight of women and widows in a parochial society (The Victims), the unattended agonies of the victims of war (The Last Duty), the environmental damage and the human costs of oil exploration in the Nigerian Niger Deta (Tides), and so on. Finally, he might have appeared oblivious of the cultural implications of adopting the European fashion of dressing that the colonialists brought to us, but he was not for all that just another assimilated intellectual. Already in Ibadan, long before he left us for Binghamton where his scholarship finally attained its fullest bloom, he had already begun the research that would lead to the comprehensive refutation of the prevailing racist claim that Africa, lacking a literate tradition, was also thereby bereft of such narrative epiphenomena as Myth and Epic, both supposedly the invention of ‘superior’ races.
There was no question about it therefore: in spite of his annoying quasi-bourgeois appearance, Isidore’s heart was in the right place. And his mind was so mellow with knowledge obtained through extensive reading and research, developed through the rigours of a First Class degree in the Classics from Ibadan, that he spoke on issues with enlightened ease. You listened to Isidore, and you learnt; by his side, debate was self-enrichment. Hence it was with great pleasure that I accepted to collaborate with him on some projects, including being his co-editor for our Faculty’s Journal of Modern and Comparative Literature. Regrettably, when he left, the journal died, one of the first casualties of those cruel “Years of the Locust’, in which the universities were dredged away from the pursuit of excellence, and our best intellectuals were forced to either flee the country, or to join the rat race to survive.
Still, Isidore in exile did not forget our friendship. Many years after he had relocated to the US, I suddenly received an invitation one day from the famous Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota—known all over the world for its outstanding work as the only European repertory theatre in America’s mid-west—to come over for a visit. And when I arrived there, I was confronted with an offer I could not refuse.
As it turned out, the theatre was embarking on an experiment which its director at the time, Garland Wright, informed me was meant to radically expand their repertory. Up till that moment, he said, the theatre had built its reputation on the superb production of European classics. But in a bold and innovative move, the enterprising Wright wanted to shift the direction to include classics from other lands. Could the Guthrie achieve the same success by diversifying into a multi-national, multicultural agenda? That was the goal anyway, and the immediate gain of course would be the attraction into the theatre’s already formidable patron list of a substantial part of the surrounding population that had always been neglected—that is, in particular, the black and Asian communities. This venture thus led, naturally, to a preliminary research for [‘classics’ in these other lands outside Europe, in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Experts were consulted, and of course Nigeria’s name came up as one of the thriving emporia of theatrical activity on the continent—had we not after all, produced a Nobel Laureate in that area of creative business?
But when they read Wole Soyinka’s works however, they found that none of them could be rightly placed in the same category as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Euripides’ Medea or even Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the European plays that served as their models. But searching further, Garland—or the theatre’s dramaturg, the much respected, much experienced Michael Lupu—chanced upon Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard, and were immediately captivated. This was what they needed, they decided—a stage adaptation of this fascinating and unusual novel from Yorubaland. And that was how they eventually got onto my name, as the playwright who could do the adaptation. That was how I got invited to Minneapolis for a meeting.
I have already recounted elsewhere, in a long interview with Biodun Jeyifo, what happened at the meeting, but many might not have read it, so I will rapidly repeat it here. Basically, I got to the Guthrie, unaware of all that had transpired before, and was offered the job of writing an adaptation of Tutuola’s classic. Naturally I was thrilled by the offer—imagine, me, a young playwright from Africa, being invited and given a commission by such a world-famous theatre, and the very first in fact of its kind to any African playwright! I was literally in the moon—but only for the first few minutes. Then, after the elation was over and I returned to soberness, I found that it was an offer I could not accept after all for several reasons—one of these being the fact that the book already had quite a few stage and film adaptations. But nevertheless, on seeing their disappointed faces, I volunteered to help select from these if they wished.
Probably intrigued, a rueful Garland pressed to know what I would rather do in the alternative. This was when I told them about two projects that I had been thinking about—one, a new play on Sango Oba Koso, different from Duro Ladipo’s; and the other, a play on the adventures of Hugh Clapperton and Richard Lander, based on their published travel diary, Travels in Yorubaland. To my huge surprise, Wright and his team accepted not just one, but the two suggestions, and I went away that day with two contracts from the prestigious Guthrie!
In the end, this experience resulted in the birth of two of my plays. The first was Many Colours Make the Thunder-King, produced at the Guthrie Lab in 1997, with the remarkably gifted Bert Sher, still then at the dawn of his dazzling career, directing. That production was one of the glorious moments of my theatre career. Then secondly, came the script of Richard Lander and the Traveling Polygamist, which is still to be put on stage, owing to Wright’s departure from the Guthrie and the consequent change in the theatre’s management and policy.
But where does all this rambling concern Isidore, you will ask? And the answer is that it concerns him very intimately because, as I found out only a long time afterwards, the whole story of my involvement with the Guthrie started from him! When Wright was searching for a classical play from Africa, it was Isidore, as the preeminent authority on African folklore and cultural traditions—author of The Epic in Africa and the magisterial Myth in Africa—who was hired as the Guthrie’s consultant, and it was he, when the choice finally fell on The Palmwine Drinkard, who suggested my name. Yet, ever a gentleman to the last, (what we Yoruba refer to as ‘Omolúàbí’), Isidore himself never breathed a word about his role to me; never sought to claim any credit as many others routinely do even with much less significant acts of assistance! I finally found this out some time later, by pure accident, by which time—you have guessed right—Isidore was no longer capable of receiving my thanks! Oh, too late, too late. this my second burden, this story of undelivered gratitude!
I want however to plead, in mitigation, that it was not all my fault. I mean, in these circumstances that I have narrated above, with all this accumulated baggage of shared affection—with all these, could a mere phone call to him in his terrible predicament have been of any meaning? The answer was of course a patent no! Nothing less than my physical presence at his side could suffice to show my concern—at least that is our African practice.
But time however can be a cruel and subtle adversary. As determined as I was to fulfil this filial obligation, I found the years just fleeting past, almost by magic, and with the promise unfulfilled. Before I realized it, my frequent visits to the US had abated, as increasingly, I became the guest of other lands. Even my visa to the US expired, unused. Renewed, it suffered the same fate; till it became gradually obvious that I just was not going to make it to Binghamton for a long while. Still I was not unduly bothered by this, because by then I had learnt that Isidore had gone past the worst moments of his illness, and was happily on the mend. That cheering news, I confess, encouraged me to relax, to stop worrying about my failure to visit him. He would soon be back on his feet, I assumed in vain ignorance, and we would then meet somewhere to talk at leisure about the whole experience and laugh over it.
Then the announcement came, like a felon thunder-clap! The Yoruba say, olójó nkájó, èdá sùn lo…[Man goes to sleep, but the Owner of Life never stops counting the days…] But we had all forgotten this. While those who saw Isidore gave us joyful reports of a successful convalescence, the inexorable Reaper, Ikú Alágàngánmágan was insidiously honing his deadly blade. We didn’t remember that it is frequently his cunning to make his victims shine out in radiant health at the very moment that he is poised to strike. Isidore was on his way out, but those around him thought he was recovering and blossoming, and on these accounts I allowed myself to grow negligent. Now the man is gone, and Death must be chuckling in mischief.
So how do I apologize now for my carelessness? Do the dead forgive?
Perhaps I should take consolation from the fact that he too, when I think of it, owes me an apology, even if it is an offence he knew nothing about. In fact that probably makes it more painful. I am hurt that, by leaving abruptly like that, he has inadvertently opted out of a work of collaboration that I began not too long ago on behalf of the two of us. He did not know about it because the plan was to inform him only when the work would be near to completion. So it was a secret I kept to myself. But since he has gone now, I will willingly divulge it to the public. (Who knows, perhaps someone out there would be willing to apologize on his behalf?)
The ‘secret’ project concerns the University of Ibadan, our alma mater. Isidore, as is well known by now, was the one who finally composed an anthem for us, after fifty years of lack. In his capacity as the chairman of our 50th anniversary celebrations, he had organized a competition for an anthem and, finding none of the entries suitable, had then taken upon himself the onerous task of writing one. The result, however, which is what we have today, is in my opinion only partially successful. Very much the work of a scholar, the lyrics are uplifting, but patently incongruous for an anthem meant to whip up the collective fervour of the community and rouse their sense of collective pride. Particularly for the use of the students of an institution bearing the unique historic identity as the first higher institution in modern Africa, the song to me appears singularly shy. Not only that: such songs, in my experience, while being simple and direct, always also contain lyrics that are capable of easy memorialization, deliberately woven in a sequence to enhance exhortatory repetition. Thus the usual assets at play here are lyricism and alliteration, parallelism, harmony, syncopation, strong and catchy melodic beats, and so on. But it seems Isidore’s composition prefers to foreground ideological correctness rather than euphony, and the result is a flaccid staccato:
Unibadan, fountain Heights
Of true learning Deep and sound
Soothing spring for all who thirst
Buns of knowledge to advance
Pledge to serve our cherished goals
Self reliance, unity
That our nation may with pride
Help to build a world that is truly free…
The second verse, reaches for a different pitch, infusing the lines with a greater limpidity, even while celebrating a heavier freight of social obligations but still, one can see where they could be softened with a more supple attention to synchronization and metrical cadence:
Unibadan, First and Best,
Raise true minds for a noble cause;
Social Justice, Equal chances
Greatness won with honest toil
Guide our people this to know
Wisdom’s best to service turned
Help enshrine the right to learn
For a mind that knows is a mind that’s free
Inspiring words, all right, but as an anthem, the verses lack the necessary even if covert rhythmic pulse, the hidden but tuneful lilt that should spontaneously goad the lines into song. And, not surprisingly therefore, Isidore’s composition has failed to catch on thus far on campus. More than ten years now after its introduction, it is still rare indeed to find the student or staff who can sing it. The best that has happened is that, no doubt by force of having to listen to its recorded version by the University choir several times a week, in the course of their official duty, some administrative staff are gradually beginning to get familiar with the anthem, and especially to its final line sung purposely to a rousing fortissimo:
“For a mind that knows is a mind that’s free.”
The rest of the campus population however continues to remain indifferent, if not even hostile, to the anthem. Yet with other university anthems, as we know, this is far from the case. Elsewhere—go for instance to the OAU, or Unilag, or Unilorin, or Kwasu: the examples are legion—the fervent din that rises when the members of the university community belt out their anthem is almost always akin to an earthquake! The roof virtually comes down with the gusty enthusiasm that even the national anthem does not enjoy.
But sadly, not at Ibadan: Isidore’s anthem is neat and clever, but it does not sing? Something therefore, I thought, should be done about it, but what? Perhaps a little digression here would help illustrate the point. Let us consider for example the peculiar case of Ife’s OAU which for me should arguably provide the template for such exercises. There, at the OAU, the officially sanctioned anthem, as given on the Website (which I have had to slightly correct), is as follows:
Hail to thee, Awo Varsity
Hail our Alma Mater,
Hail our Place of Learning and Culture
The pride of our Fatherland
Refrain: All hail, brothers, hail
All praise, sisters hail
All hail GREAT IFE,
Hail her for her beauty
Praise her for her wisdom
The pride of our Fatherland
Hail to thee, O.A.U. Great Ife
The Citadel of Wisdom
The place of Arts and Science
Where men and women seek knowledge
Hail to thee, the Great Iroko Tree
That hands its branches like a paw-paw
The haven for scholars and discoverers
The pride of young and old
But if you go to the campus yourself, you will have to work hard to find a single person that knows or sings this song. Instead, what everybody sings, what has come to be the accepted anthem even at official functions, is this following ditty:
Africa’s most beautiful campus
We are conscious, vigilant, progressive
A luta against all oppression
Forward ever, backward never,
For learning and culture, sports and struggle,
Great Ife I love you
There’s only one Great Ife in the universe,
Another Great Ife is a counterfeit,
Great, great, great, great, great
Of the greeeaaaatttteeeessssstttttt Ife,
This is the anthem popularly used at OAU. Simple, repetitive, and even silly at points, it has a haunting, incantatory energy and mass appeal that can be strangely infectious. The regular disciplined metres of the official anthem are rejected, undermined by this ‘rough’ one that, we are told, came from an anonymous source, from one of those ‘a luta’ moments of the students’ demonstrations. And it reminds us therefore of ‘La Marseillaise’, from which we have learnt that the best anthems are usually those that are seized from the mouths of the people at collective moments of struggle, either in resistance against injustice, or in celebration of some memorable victory.
But perhaps sadly, such apocalyptic moments are not only rare, but also, they cannot be planned. At more organized times, anthems have to be commissioned. Besides, UI is not like the ever combustible OAU, where youthful exuberance continually explodes into some form of protest or demonstration. We in Ibadan like to boast that we are older and more mature, and therefore more restrained, even if our rivals describe that as lethargic conservativism. Isidore’s anthem adroitly captures the essence of our personality and our values and aspirations; but unfortunately lacks the resonance, the quasi-infectious élan that would make the anthem fill our lungs with spontaneous glee.
So what should be the solution to this impasse? Should the university replace or retain the anthem? Nobody has dared voice an opinion, at least not in public. Dutifully, whenever the anthem has to be played, we all stand up and stare at the words on the screens till the song is over, but no one sings along!
Well, one day, there we were, at one of these official ceremonies, when I heard the Vice Chancellor murmur some complaint about the anthem. Then, turning towards me, he wondered if there was no possibility of doing something about it? On the spur of the moment, unthinkingly, I answered at once that I would take up the challenge. Having successfully produced anthems for other institutions, I would, I promised, try and propose something in exchange. And later on, as part of my proposed programme for the Emeritus position, I even had the audacity to include the promise!
It was after this, after the commitment had been made, that I began to see the implications of the assignment. Clearly I had got myself into a jam. Or how else interpret it, than an act of gross impudence, to dare attempt to alter a song composed by a celebrated alumnus, and for an occasion as significant as the 50th anniversary of the institution? Yet I had already given my word.
To resolve the problem, I finally resorted to a number of strategies. First, I decided not to embark on a totally new composition but rather, just a re-working of Isidore’s verses, so as to render them more supple and more apt for singing voices. This means that, apart from retaining the tune, I would also try as much as possible to keep, or at least echo, some of his rousing lines. Then secondly, whatever version or versions that I came up with would have to be vetted by Isidore himself before its final adoption. It would then be, Isidore approving, a case of joint authorship.
The first thing to do then, was to provide a sample of my proposed alternative(s), and afterwards present the result to him for his input. So I went to work and after the sweat of shaping and reshaping, typing and discarding and retyping—for there is nothing perhaps as tedious and soul-sapping as re-writing someone else’s script, rather than presenting a fresh script of one’s own—I finally came up with the following:
UNIBADAN ALTERNATIVE ANTHEM
Unibadan, first and best
Of excellence, the fountainhead
Fertile soil for all who quest
A soothing spring for those who thirst
This wisdom we teach to all—
Greatness comes through honest toil:
With love, faith, and charity
We can build a world that is just and free
Unibadan, marching on
Unique and always Number One
Here, the goals we cultivate
Are those that make a nation great
With ‘Recte Sapere Fons’
We turn acorns to icons
We hold that Man’s noblest role
Is to give our life to some lofty goal
Thinking not of gain, yet with all our soul!
That was as far as I went initially, using Isidore’s script as palimpsest. Then later, it occurred to me that the students might want some sonorous uplifting finale, an emphatic coda, in keeping with their exuberant yen for self-celebration. So I have added a call-and-answer refrain that I believe will delight them:
Great UI – great!
Great UI – greatest!
Once through our gates, you’re a mind that’s free
(or: Great UI – let all know that we’re truly great!)
The final line, as you can see, is still to be decided. The attraction of the penultimate one above is that it dutifully echoes Isidore’s memorable line: ‘For a mind that knows is a mind that’s free’. However the last line appears more fitting as a rallying cry.
So which of the two should we settle for? This was one of the questions Isidore’s collaboration was meant to resolve. But look, the man has left without notice, and I am in a quandary now what next to do. How do I get him to fulfil his part of this unfinished collaboration? Can I get him to apologize?
Nothing can be done any more, I suppose, than to seek reconciliation in a compromise. I will be going ahead therefore to offer this alternative anthem to the institution, with the statement that it was authored by the two of us. Perhaps, this way, I will be able to purge myself both of guilt and resentment, by thus paying homage to his genius. Knowing Isidore, I know he will be kind enough to forget my shortcomings. And if the song is adopted and becomes popular, as I hope it will be, then maybe Isidore will finally return from death to where he belongs, here, in the living archives of UI’s immortal icons.
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