Adebayo Faleti: The exit of a cultural icon, by Akin Adesokan


An Encounter

Adebayo Faleti, the Yoruba poet, novelist, playwright, broadcaster and administrator, who died on July 22, 2017 at age 86, was one of the most important Nigerian cultural figures of the twentieth-century. The scope of his achievements is so broad, his artistic range so capacious, that it is hard to make a general observation about his work. No less an authority than Wole Soyinka has drawn attention to this fact by describing Faleti in his obituary comments as “a pioneer in virtually every genre of literary creativity and its expansion.” Of all Yoruba writers of the modern era, excepting Olatubosun Oladapo and the late Afolabi Olabimtan (and Akinwumi Isola, to some extent), hardly anyone else was that productive in all modern literary genres.

Born in Agbooye, near Oyo (Oyo State), in December 1930, Faleti showed early precocity and wrote his first book—a collection of 100 proverbs—before he turned seventeen. That work is presumed lost. He did not begin high school education until he was twenty, however, having held odd jobs as tax collector, sign-writer, producer inspector, and pupil teacher in the years since completing elementary schooling.

Although Faleti was regarded primarily as a poet and received the most sustained scholarly attention in this area of his writing, there is no genre or medium of artistic expression available in Nigeria which he did not employ to excellent result. He received tertiary degrees in English and French, but Yoruba was his chosen language of literary expression. Like most first-rate writers in any language, he left his mark on Yoruba, joining Daniel Fagunwa and Oladejo Okediji as perhaps the only writers who recreated the language in the process of using it. Late in his career, in response to gentle criticisms that he wrote only in Yoruba, Faleti tried his hands at English. The result was the elegant novel –Magun: The Whore With The Thunderbolt Aids, the screen version of which was also filmmaker Tunde Kelani’s first English-language film.

His choice of Yoruba was not straightforward, although once it was made, it only seemed so. According to the scholar Olatunde Olatunji, the expert on Faleti’s poetry, the author wrote several poems in English in the early 1950s. In September 1954, he “wrote a lengthy poem in English on the Oyo Riots [but] a friend advised him to be writing Yoruba poems, and that was the end to poems in English.”

And how happy has been the result!

A Poet of Poets

After that decision, Faleti never looked back. He published regularly in Aworerin (prose and poetry) and Olokun (poetry) between 1955 and 1965. Aworerin, the bi-monthly magazine of features published by the Western Nigeria’s Ministry of Home Affairs and Information, was his most consistent outlet at this stage, and its popular-culture format was well-suited to his laid-back, self-assured creative outlook. Although the title poem of his first collection, Orin Ominira (Independence: Poems), had been written as early as 1956 and had won a prize that year, the book was still in press in 1978 when Olatunji completed Adebayo Faleti: A Study of His Poems.

However, his poetry had previously received an important boost from Adeagbo Akinjogbin’s Ewi Iwoyi, an anthology of modern Yoruba poetry first published in 1969. Thirteen poets were featured in that volume, and Faleti’s eleven poems received the most extended attention, taking up about a third of the space.

Olatunji singled out Faleti’s poetry as most deserving of scholarly attention, because of the poet’s “concern with the timeless and the universal.” That assessment was in contrast to the didacticism prevalent in modern poetry, especially with poets like Lanrewaju Adepoju, Olatubosun Oladapo, Ifayemi Elebuibon, Iyabo Ogunsola, and the late Lakin Ladeebo.

Olatunji’s study gives a thorough analysis of Faleti’s poems in print through 1978, with a judicious treatment of their contexts. For example, he is viewed as having a “philosophical disposition,” steeping his writing in archaic, poetically rich lexical items associated with an agrarian environment. Oral poetry is one of the sources of his work, and he remained devoted to it as a fathomless reservoir of poetic practice. For Faleti, the poet is an alore, a sentinel, on behalf of society. But to him, “preaching” is not a primary objective in poetry: “my duty in [my narrative poems] is primarily to tell an interesting story [and] if anyone thinks there is a moral […] for him to draw, let him do so.”

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Faleti started reading his poetry on the radio as early as 1958, but he had spent the two previous years as a cinema commentator with The Nigerian Tribune. He was employed as a producer by the WNBS/WNTV between 1959 and 1976, when Radio O-Y-O was established with the creation of Oyo State. This was how his careers as poet, dramatist, actor, producer, broadcaster and administrator fused…

In addition to the monograph, Olatunji also prepared a two-volume critical edition of the poems, the first volume appearing the same year as the monograph. It is possible that this was a successful attempt to rescue the poet’s long-suffering manuscript from a publisher’s slush pile.

Before scholarly opinions gained grounds, however, Faleti had been widely acknowledged among poets as their doyen. I had my earliest intimation of this status when a friendly school teacher responded to my enthusiasm over Adepoju’s first LP with the disbelieving question, “Have you heard or read any of Faleti’s poetry?” Oladapo, a recording musician, put four of Faleti’s poems on an LP record in 1977 and included on the album sleeve the following lines:

Igunnugun ni won nri ti won ndasaa gbaguruye

Akalamagbo lawon nri ti won ndasaa bagebage

Adebayo Faleti ni won nri ti gbogbo aye ndasa ewi kike

Omo Faleti dagbo ijo, e forin f’eni to lorin

Agba ninu akewi tii soro ijinle.

[The sight of the vulture’s moves inspires the copycats’ garrulous gait

The sight of crow’s steps inspires their fancy footwork

It is Adebayo Faleti’s example that inspires others to become poets

Child of Faleti struts to the dance floor, leave the song to its owner,

Master-poet with high diction.]

The two poets apparently got along well. Faleti begins a 1974 poem titled “Itan Ibadan” (The Story of Ibadan) in a playfully patronising tone (which may be a sublimated sign of the sibling rivalry between Oyo and Ibadan):

Olatubosun Alamu

Mo ni nnkan otun lenu ti mo fe so

Alamu, pele, omo ere l’Apa.

Nitooto, iru eyin le morin

Orin lasan niruu yin le ko…

[Olatubosun Aremu

I have a new thing to say

I salute you, Aremu, offspring of the Python of Apa.

True, your type is good at singing

Mere song is your suit and your peers’…]

The typical Faleti poem is extended, narrative, free-versal, and innovative of the prosodic rule of lexical set pairing. In observing this rule, according to which poetic effect is achieved through contrasting sounds in three tones (dò-re-mí), many contemporary poets are constrained to compose through a chanting pattern that favours the tercet but can, at length, come to sound formulaic. Faleti observes this rule by default, the demands of literary composition nudging him in the direction of putting sense, sound and their mediation on an equal footing. The result is poetry at its most linguistically ebullient, with aesthetic pleasure as top priority. The last two lines of the Yoruba verse quoted above give a sense of this approach. There is no contrast in their tonal pattern because, having observed the rule in the first three lines, the poet quickly sets his gaze on a task implicit in the relationship between him and the named persona.

A Fusion of Media

Faleti started reading his poetry on the radio as early as 1958, but he had spent the two previous years as a cinema commentator with The Nigerian Tribune. He was employed as a producer by the WNBS/WNTV between 1959 and 1976, when Radio O-Y-O was established with the creation of Oyo State. This was how his careers as poet, dramatist, actor, producer, broadcaster and administrator fused: nearly all his literary work, with the possible exception of the fiction, found an outlet in radio and television broadcast. For the Alebiosu Theatre Group which he founded in the late 1960s, he wrote, produced and directed a detective series, Adegboye, which ran in both media between 1969 and 1975, and was revived again in the 1980s.

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His work as a dramatist came to its own in this period, through such titles as Itan Ibanuje Ti Basorun Gaa, Ferebiekun, Sawosogberi, Idaamu Paadi Mikailu, and others. These plays were adapted for the television and performed by the group, sometimes in alliance with others.

Idaamu Paadi Mikailu is one of the early modernist plays in Yoruba, like Isola’s Koseegbe, Babatunde Olatunji’s Egbinrin Ote, and Okediji’s Rere Run. These plays break with the dominant perspective in dramatic representation seen in the traveling theatre idiom through their eschewal of the “cause-effect” template based on supernaturalism, and often with an otherworldly resolution. They are also known to focus on the plight of the downtrodden, or play up the efforts of the progressive sections in society in their conception of dramatic conflict.

They hardly ever go so far as to suggest the kind of radical, systemic change that Marxist/materialist critics consider necessary for social transformation. Faleti especially receives a sharp rebuke from then-young critic Tejumola Olaniyan on account of the perspective seen in Idaamu Paadi Mikailu: “Running through the play is a strong Christian ethic,” Olaniyan observes, “polished at intervals with brilliant poetry. But even this is hardly enough to stave off charges of poor artistry and boring moralising.”

Crimes and high misdeeds are almost always punished through the instrument of the modern state, either in the form of the police and the legal system, or in the deployment of forensic procedure like poisoning, gunfights, and stabbing. The general appeal in these dramas is to moral uprightness, not so much an ideological critique.

In a short tribute following Faleti’s death, Kelani reflects on the screen version of the play: “[M]y first attempt at adaptation from literature to film was my choice of…Ìdààmu Páàdi Míkáilù (The Dilemma of Father Michael) which I found fascinating for its drama and my favourite theme of a clash of cultures. The film was titled Ìwà, adapted by Lọlá Fani-Kayọ̀dé, [and] was released to mixed reception from the audience and finally disappeared to Rank Film Laboratory after the two prints wore out. But the project gave me enough experience in producing and adapting film from literary source which has strengthened and shaped my career as an African filmmaker.”

The coming of Nollywood gave much spark to Faleti’s skills as a man of the screen media. He played bit parts in some films in the early 1990s, but it was with Kelani’s Saworoide (1999), Agogo Eewo (2002), and Thunderbolt (2001) that he really found his mettle. His role as Opalaba, the gnomic, easily neglected old palace wit in the first two titles, is foundational for Nollywood aesthetics because its disposition finally became a model for characterisation in a number of Nollywood genres, especially those in Yoruba. Playing the babalawo (diviner-herbalist) in Thunderbolt, Faleti admirably combines esoteric knowledge and playfulness, launching into stylised Ifa chants moments after wondering why an attractive woman cannot understand Yoruba! In O Le Ku (1997), Kelani’s film version of Akinwumi Isola’s campus novel, he appears on television in a family scene, reading the news as “Ajibade Eletu,” based on the format of Irohin Atelejo which he broadcast on TV in the 1960s and 70s.

The Artist In a Bureaucracy

Faleti became controller and acting director of programmes services in the newly established Radio O-Y-O, later named BCOS, the Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State, in August 1976. After four short months, he was removed from the position. In a 2010 interview with the journalist Gbenro Adesina published in TheNEWS magazine, Faleti remembered his ordeal: “I was detained for a crime I didn’t commit…. I was removed from Radio Oyo but later returned when they found out that I was not guilty of what I was accused of. The detention period was a trial moment of unhappiness because I didn’t commit any offence.”

He provided no details of what happened, but it is on record that the radio station had, in December 1976, broadcast a programem critical of Cuba, a country that Nigeria considered a strong ally, due to their commitments to the African liberation movements. Several days of detention and interrogation in Lagos followed, and although he was released just before Christmas, he was not to resume his position until March 1977.

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At the funeral service for Faleti at the First Baptist Church in Oyo on September 8, 2017, the journalist Wale Fatade reports, the presiding preacher Archbishop Ayo Ladigbolu informed the audience of how the broadcasting service “under Faleti had just one outside broadcasting van [because] he refused to inflate the cost of new vans as demanded by those who [would] approve the purchase.”

Those who had close relationships with Faleti at this period also testify to his efforts at staving off the ‘commercialisation’ of broadcasting, especially with the Pentecostal onslaught on public media. There may be no systematic accounts yet, but the period when Faleti became involved in broadcasting at the managerial level was significant in another respect. Practices arising from social change in twentieth-century Nigeria quickly found their expression in the Yoruba language in a process of translation meant to make them familiar in everyday use. Thus, phenomena and practices like armed robbery, insurance, competitive sports, apartheid, religious fundamentalism, liberation movement, and sundry bureaucratic protocols became the staple of news broadcast as standard information. Had the French philosopher Jacques Derrida visited Ibadan in the 1970s and listened to the news, he would not have made the laughably Eurocentric statement that no language could bear the contamination that translating “apartheid” entailed.

The Long View of Art

“The day of one’s death heralds one’s veneration” is a moral fragment that could have found its way into Faleti’s poetry. Despite his mastery of aesthetic and customary resources of Yoruba culture, Faleti remained a man of his times. His poetry was innovative, even sometimes audaciously experimental, enlivened by his conviction that “nothing is beyond the poet’s imagining.” He was also notably restrained and cautious in his worldview. What Olatunji praises as “philosophical disposition” may be another way of characterising this cautiousness, which very much resembles the Yoruba ethos of moderation.

Yes, there was always something of the cunning peasant in Faleti. The “boring moralising” which Olaniyan decries in Idaamu Paadi Mikailu is not aberrant. One can hear it in the poetry suffusing Basorun Gaa, in the poem “Eda Ko Laropin,” in the untroubled surface of Magun: The Thunderbolt, and in the character of Opalaba, the wise old man recumbent on the palace stoop voicing moderated reason at intervals in Saworoide.

The spirit of Oyo, custodian of the imperial heights of Yoruba culture, found its survival in Faleti, and this came to me with a striking immediacy during an event at the University of Ibadan in May 1998. The economist Adebayo Adedeji was giving the year’s Odunjo Memorial Lecture at the Conference Centre, a political choice under the circumstances: it was in the final days of General Sani Abacha’s tyranny, and Adedeji’s former boss, retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, was among those serving time for an alleged coup plot. Before the lecture, Faleti appeared on stage with an arresting rhetorical gesture. Without preambles, justifications or explanations, he read a few short Yoruba poems by Josiah Odunjo, the man of letters after whom the lecture series was named.

There was a key to the gesture: Once upon a time in Oyo, there was a professional barber, who plied the streets of the downtown area. You knew he was in the neighbourhood the moment you heard the call-out about his diverse skills. Only after having proclaimed his services in this way did he turn to acknowledge the environment, by greeting the people around him. One day, the barber was challenged on this unseemly habit. He apologised, but explained that salutations changed according to the time of the day, but the nature of his job was unchanging.

The shooting of Saworoide was in high gear as Abacha died in 1998, and its sequel, Agogo Eewo appeared three years later. The old Opalaba has the last word in both films, and his exhortatory address is more direct in the latter. The poet says through art what the climate of fear prohibits on the podium, confident that art is longer than life, brutish or glorious.

Akin Adesokan teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.

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