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         By Peju Akande & Toni Kan

Austin Avuru believes he would have become a Seadog, as members of the Pyrates Confraternity are called.

He had friends who were members and he was intrigued by their anti-establishment and counter-cultural ethos: “But the Pyrates had just been banned from campus the year I entered Nsukka”, he recalls.

 The previous year, they had gone “sailing” at midnight, at which time students were not supposed to come out and see them. There was a final-year student who was coming back from where he went to read. They ran into him and there was a confrontation. The Seadogs beat him and tore his project, after which there was pandemonium. A final year student was special because he was what every student wanted to become; the essence of our being in school. Students were incensed. They gathered together and beat every Pyrate in Nsukka. After that incident, the university authorities officially banned it. They were underground when we entered Nsukka in 1976 and if you were identified as a Seadog, you would be expelled. That’s why I couldn’t join, otherwise I could have become a member because of the friends I already had among them.

Barbeque, by Nasher Motley, 1934

Club 41, the club to which he belonged, instead, used to organize the Sobrado Nite and, in 1978, it fell on Austin Avuru, as the club’s Social Secretary, to contract Fela Kuti to perform at Nsukka.

Before the idea of getting Fela came up, the club used to go to Benin to contract performers because the Bendel State Arts Council had the best performing troupe in the country. Members of the Arts Council gave a rousing performance of the award-winning play, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi in 1979. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Getting Fela to play, in 1978, was in another league,

Avuru continues the story.

“We sent a team from Nsukka to Lagos to talk to his manager. Fela normally charged a discounted fee of N4,000-N5,000 to play for students but we got him to play for N4,000. That was huge, because that was a special fee for students. Fela would charge more than that for another group. I remember at that time we brought the Lady of Songs, Christy EssienIgbokwe, she charged N1,600, so that is a comparison of what the fees would look like”.

Fela’s performance was a high point for Austin Avuru and other members of the Club 41 executive. Even though the show had been advertised and assurances given, students and indeed some members of the club did not believe that Fela, the enigmatic and erratic afrobeat maestro, would show up. But Austin Avuru was a big fan. He had seen him perform before in Benin, when he and Pius spent their first salaries as teachers buying new clothes and tickets to attend a Fela concert in 1975. He had experienced something unusual and unforgettable watching Fela on stage. And he wanted the entire Nsukka student body to experience it too.

 Austin Avuru remembers the magic of that night:

“It was huge. There was doubt and apprehension earlier when we didn’t see his vehicle at 5pm when he was due to arrive. I was almost losing hope and getting very scared because students had all bought tickets. But Fela finally arrived on campus at about 8pm. Now, you would think that he would go in straight, set up and play. No way. The hall was full and the students almost went on a riot because by 12 midnight Fela had still not gone on stage. He didn’t start playing until 1am. And when he started, he played till 7am in the morning. All those students who were complaining that he didn’t come early were ecstatic. It was probably the best show we ever had at Nsukka.

Pascal Madufor was there in Nsukka and attended the Fela show that his friend, Austin Avuru, had put together. He agrees that students were apprehensive, but he wasn’t because he knew that if there was anyone who could bring Fela to Nsukka, it was Austin Avuru.

“Ah! I was going to talk about that. After Fela came to school and left, we didn’t hear word for weeks because the talk was all about Fela. But Avuru knew more about him than any of us. He had plenty of stories to tell us about Fela.”

“I was a big fan,” Avuru confirms. “One of the things I will say I was lucky to experience while growing up was that I was around during Fela’s time and one of his top fans.”

Excerpted from A Safe Pair of Hands, Published in Nigeria in 2020 by RADI8 LTD. 46, Adebayo Mokuolu Street, Anthony Village, Lagos.

 

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