Baba Sàlá: Lights Out for the Joker of Yemẹtu

By Akin Adeṣọkan

A man saunters into the first-class section of an airplane, and walks into two men. The first is the president of Nigeria and the other the President of Muslims in Yorubaland. “Ah, this is so good,” he says. “It’s my lucky day. You are president of Nigeria, you are president of all Muslims, and I am president of the whole world. That’s the name of my new film, Ààrẹ Àgbáyé. I have been through the hot heaven, Ọ̀run Móoru. People, even myself, I thought I was finished and done for. But here I am, in the midst of presidents, both of you are very rich…”

 

Concluding his 1982 review of Ọ̀run Móoru in West Africa, the poet Niyi Ọ̀ṣúndáre observed that “Ọláìyá dominates all shows as the sun rules a cloudless sky. He is the center of the drama, its animating spirit. When he is not around, everything on stage looks forward to his coming…What happens when Ọláìyá is gone?”

This is being recalled to a reporter, who’s seated before the speaker, laughing so hard he looks like he is crying.

“Ha, you’re laughing? I’m telling you the story of my tragedy and you’re laughing?”

The reporter would later recall, in turn: even the way he said that, when he was clearly chiding me, even that only made me laugh more.

Moses Ọláìyá Adéjùmọ̀, the Nigerian comedian who passed away on October 7, 2018 after a prolonged illness from diabetes, was a natural achiever of laughter. The comic master who could not handle tragedy.

His broad face, animated with expressive eyes, sets off the tremors. Stocky, potbellied, and incredibly nimble of feet, he presented his rotund physique on stage and provokes the laughing impulse, even before he opened his mouth.

Born in Iléṣà, present-day Ọ̀ṣun State, in 1937, Adéjùmọ̀ worked previously as a sanitary inspector, then as a thrift-collector, combining the first with informal engagements as a teacher. But entertainment was top on his list of professional desires, and as early as 1963, he formed a band named the Federal Rhythm Dandies. In the fashion of the time, the band was an all-purpose entertainment outfit, although primarily making music as a Concert Party group. As fate would have it, the most memorable thing about that band was that it gave an apprenticeship opportunity to King Sunny Adé, KSA, the legendary juju musician, guitarist, and bandleader. It feels both warm and homely to realize that Adéjùmọ̀ was instrumental to KSA’s abilities as a guitarist.

In 1965, the Western Nigerian Television Service, WNTV/WNBC was in search of programming content and held one of the earliest talent hunts in Ibadan. Of the dozen acts that auditioned, two were considered the best—Fred Coker, alias Lord Cokerson, and Moses Adéjùmọ̀. Although Adéjùmọ̀’s play came first, it was in Pidgin, and the judges, worrying that the work would be difficult to understand abroad, gave the first prize to Cokerson—a flight ticket to Germany. For his part, Adéjùmọ̀ received a regular weekly slot on WNTV. He soon disbanded the musical band and turned his full attention to producing drama under a troupe named Aláwàdà Theater Group. He took on a name and an identity: Làmídì Sánní Ọ̀rọ́pọ̀, alias Baba Sàlá. Though a Christian, his professional identity as a Muslim was matched by the fact that Ibadan, the cultural-political capital of modern Yorùbá society, also became his base.

 

A Star Is Born

With a part-fictional address at 33 Àwàdà Spot, Yemẹtu, the group’s status as standard-bearer for an aggregate cultural community was firm. This was the golden era of traveling theater, with actor-producer-troupe leaders such as Hubert Ogunde, Kọ́lá Ògúnmọ́lá, Dúró Ládiípọ̀, Oyin Adéjọbí, and a hundred others traversing the length and breadth of Nigeria and West Africa, selling entertainment. As the writer Rotimi Babátúndé recalls in a tribute during the February 2016 Ibadan Film Circle’s Legacy series in honor of the dramatist, the engagement with the television station received further boost when Chief Ọbáfẹ́mi Awólọ́wọ̀, de facto Prime Minister of Nigeria in the early 1970s, and a self-confessed fan of the comedian’s work, made it possible for him to get a one-year contract with the WNTV. The glorious career of Moses Ọláìyá Adéjùmọ̀, alias Baba Sàlá, was on its way. Surefooted, gregarious, fully empowered at dawn, on a bright day sure to be loud and long.

A master performer, with a gift of the gab and a natural comic demeanor, Baba Sàlá could hold a scene, or a sequence of scenes, all by himself by simply porting his bulk around the stage and through a series of rib-shaking word-plays. He needed only appear in his arsenal of metal bow-tie, necklace with an alarm clock as pendant, missing front-teeth, a colorful cap, a tobacco pipe, all framed on a face of gray hairs, to complete the comic effect. With time, other competitors emerged: Òjó Ládiípọ̀ (Baba Mèró), Ayinla Olùmẹ̀gbọ́n (Baba Johnbull), (both based in Lagos), Ọlá Ọmọnìtàn, alias Ajímájàsán, and latter-day ones like the Jesters International trio (Jacob, Papalolo and Adẹ́rùpọkọ̀) and Oyèwọlé Olówómojúọ̀rẹ́, alias Baba Gébú.

It is possible to view Baba Sàlá, as a singular performer, in comparison to two other comic figures in Yoruba theater: Sunday Ọmọ́bọ́láńlé (Pappy Luwẹ̀) and the late Gbénga Ibrahim (Lúkúlúkú). But Baba Sàlá’s dominant performance as lead actor differs from Lúkúlúkú’s, for instance, because the latter often needed several actors in a scene to enliven his comic tic.

Even a dramatist of Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s stature paid unreserved homage to Baba Sàlá’s talent. Writing in “Letter to the Director,” the production advisory to his 2013 play, Alápatà Àpáta, Ṣóyínká disclosed that Baba Sàlá was the play’s “originating impulse, the figure around whom the character of Àlàbá was conceived.” He was “easily one of the greatest comic geniuses that the Nigerian stage has ever produced” and his acting “métier was broad, socially disruptive, [and] Falstaffian.”

The story is told of Baba Sàlá taking a Yorùbá performance on the road, and touching ground in Sapele, that city of irreverent talkers. The audience was upset by the show staged in an incomprehensible language, and turned rowdy. The lead actor disappeared backstage, and reemerging minutes later, launched into a language—“Pidgin” or “Yorubanglish.” First what came out of Baba Sàlá’s mouth was nothing like the Pidgin spoken in the old Bendel State. But, then, it rang a bell that brought an instant silence to the hall. A few moments followed, and recognition registered: the man on the stage was speaking Pidgin, but as a comedian. What had pent up as anger finally found a release in uproarious laughter, to be followed with calls for more.

At the height of its fame, circa 1980, the Aláwàdà Theater Group numbered in excess of twenty members, including the musical ensemble and players of bit parts. About ten people typically constituted the cast of a given play. Baba Sàlá himself, totally indispensable; his friend Àdìsá; Ìyá Sàlá; Emily, Adisa’s wife; Sàlá, the daughter; Káríilé; Baba Lẹ́gbàá; the son Ṣèyí (sometimes substituting for the daughter); and a couple or owners of a business, in contact with whom the conflict often developed.

Serious Business

His body of work can be broadly divided into three—the short, thirty-minute sketches conceived as slots for television and radio; the extended, hourlong plays scored with guitar; and the films. The sketches were numerous and may no longer be fully accounted for, considering how they were created. As skits they emerged from rough scenarios and “situational narrations,” the practice of a drama company developing a play as a series of situations that respective actors flesh out with their turns. These were the ones that the Aláwàdà Theater Group broadcast on television and radio across Western Nigeria and Lagos throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s, and subsequently produced as “tracks” on two-sided 33rpm vinyl.

It is these short plays that have produced most memorable examples of Baba Sala’s verbal arsenal: the puns, the brilliant misreadings, the jokes, the insults, and the idiolects. In one, Baba Sala insults a skinny woman: “́Ó gbẹ nínú, gbẹ lẹ́hìn bíi ìpékeré Yaba” (She’s flat front and back like the fried plantains sold at Yaba). In another, he accuses a man of behaving as if he “has no nonsense in his head.” In yet another, based on the civil war, he misreads a cable that Adisa sends from the front with serious consequences.

The hourlong plays were fewer and, in some cases, episodic moments linked by certain turns in the main actor’s escapades, relating to money, women, or a scheme around both. The play, Tòkunbọ̀, about a 21-day trip to the US, is a good example of how comedy reproduces stereotypes. The Nigerian perception of African American women (his friend, Adisa, is married to one) as “akata” (jackals) is on full display, and Baba Sala returns to Nigeria acting as if he can only speak in English. Abọ́bakú, his variation on the theme of the king’s horseman, constructed as tragedy by Dúró Ládiípọ̀ [Ọbá Wàjá] and Ṣóyínká [Death and the King’s Horseman], is included as an excerpt in the documentary Pioneers of Nigerian Cinema (1999), produced by the Nigerian Film Corporation. It is the kind of dramatization that the late film historian Frank Ukadike characterizes as “filmed theater,” although it is more appropriate to say that that particular work was not intended for cinema. Unsurprisingly, Baba Sala’s dramatization of Ẹlẹ́ṣin Ọba’s final rites turns on the enjoyment of bodily pleasures, the enactment of each movement accompanied by the chant,

Bí’un ó ti ẹ̀ kú o

Mà lo’ra kí ntóó máa l

(Even if I must die/I shall first enjoy (sex, clothes, food, wine).

 

Baba Sala was also a talented composer, and the songs in all his major plays were his original creations. A group of Nigerian fans based in Dublin, Ireland, presented an award to him in July 2015, in an event compered by the Nollywood actor, Deji Adenuga. The organizers gathered behind him to serenade him with his famous love song, “Ọ̀rọ̀ Ìfẹ́” (The Matter of Love, dedicated to Káríilé), and the seated old man managed to sing along, as can be seen from his lip movements.

Consider the following leisurely repartees with a lady he is trying to woo, in an earlier version of Ọ̀run Móoru:

Lady, you attract me, and I will like to marry you.

 

Oh no, but I’m already engaged.

 

Engaged? Is that to say that you are like a car tire?

 

No, it means that I already have a husband.

 

Husband? What nonsense! It all comes down to money. I’m rich, I have charms, and I have clothes to cover myself at night.

 

Charms? Are you going to bewitch me?

 

No, I won’t bewitch you. I only want you to know that I am important person, because it is only an important person who has money, charms, and clothes to cover himself at night. Take this fifty naira and go spend it the way you like…

 

Laughter Out of Turn

Concluding his 1982 review of Ọ̀run Móoru in West Africa, the poet Niyi Ọ̀ṣúndáre observed that “Ọláìyá dominates all shows as the sun rules a cloudless sky. He is the center of the drama, its animating spirit. When he is not around, everything on stage looks forward to his coming…What happens when Ọláìyá is gone?”

It felt like a premature question in 1982, with the man at his prime. Ọ̀run Móoru had on its cast not only KSA, but also the multi-talented artist Twins Seven-Seven, and the philanthropist S.B. Bakare. Yet it was the onset of decline, precipitated by the sad story of the pirating of the film. Baba Sala made other films, notably Moṣebọ́látán (1985) and Ọbẹ̀ẹ́-Gbóná (1987), after the episode, but the toll was intense. He took to religion, and took the title of ‘Apostle’. Hardly funny.

In a 1997 appearance on Àràǹbádá, a television program produced by Tunde Kelani’s Mainframe Productions, Baba Sala relates the story of the pirating of Ọ̀run Móoru (1982), to anchor Yẹmí Shódìímú, in Yorùbá, in the following words.

I experienced a lot of setback with that film [being pirated]. I was the first victim of what we know as piracy—the practice of stealing other people’s work and selling it off as one’s own—in this country. After we completed work on this film, Ọ̀run Móoru, pirates got a hold of the film, and turned it into a video cassette, which was mass produced and sold everywhere. So, we ended up losing the patronage of those who would have gone to theaters to see the film. I spent all the money that I had on that film. I put all my earthly belongings into making that film. The total budget on that film at the time, 1.5 million naira, will be up to about 15 million right now. I mortgaged five different buildings, used them as collateral to be able to take the loans to finance the film. We had foreign technical support, and took the film abroad to process, and the post-production took up to three, four months to complete. However, I’m thankful that I have now been able to pay back those loans, and I have largely recovered from the ordeal. I’m now resolved to continue with my work.

 

Writing in “Letter to the Director,” the production advisory to his 2013 play, Alápatà Àpáta, Ṣóyínká discloses that Baba Sàlá was the play’s “originating impulse, the figure around whom the character of Àlàbá was conceived.” He was “easily one of the greatest comic geniuses that the Nigerian stage has ever produced” and his acting “métier was broad, socially disruptive, [and] Falstaffian.”

 

It is something of an irony that of all the Yoruba-language films that constituted the “golden age” of Nigerian cinema (1971-1992), Ọ̀run Móoru is perhaps the only one available on YouTube—apparently from the pirated version of the film.

Moses Ọláìyá Adéjùmọ̀, aka Baba Sala, comedian, producer, MON, May, 1936 to October, 2018.

 

The writer, Akin Adesokan is a Nigerian writer, scholar and novelist with research interests into twentieth and twenty-first century African and African American/African Diaspora literature and cultures. He is currently the associate professor of comparative literature at  Indiana University Bloomington. He exerts influence on Nigerian cultural environment through commentary, advocacy, and writing. Adesokan’s novel, Roots in The Sky, won the Association of Nigerian Author (ANA) award for prose in 1996.

 

 

About The Author

Related posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *