(A review of Festus Adedayo’s ‘Ayinla Omowura: Life and Times of an Apala Legend’)
By Lasisi Olagunju, Ph.D
(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Tuesday, 5 May, 2020)
Five hundred and thirty five pages in seven chapters girded firmly, front and back, by a Preface, a Foreword, an Afterword and an Acknowledgment! This unusual structure makes this an uncommon biography. The story, if seen as a drama, has all the trappings of a Shakespearean tragedy: There is Ayinla Omowura, the tragic hero; there is a villain in the man who wasted him. The hero’s tragic flaw, his harmartia, was possibly his love for women, beer – and brawl. Fate and fortune played parts (or pranks) throughout the lives and even, the after-life of the principal characters. A full dose of greed, foul revenge and intrusion of supernatural elements completes the tragedy for the man and his entire family. This is a dramatic, tragic story of a whirlwind man who was compelled by fate to hold out his candle in the wind.
Written in simple, fluid language; illustrated with very rare photographs and properly indexed and referenced, the book, as said by the author, plots the graph of Omowura’s tempestuous youth, his musicality, his family and feuds, the fatality of his early departure and the cataclysmic events that eventually took him out. Set in Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State, Nigeria, the story opens with a chapter on the roots and beginning of Apala music. And it is foreboding enough that that chapter itself starts with an Omowura song in which he dares anyone to confront his ‘trailer’ as he ventures out on the highway of music:
“Who dares block me?
This trailer of songs I am driving into the musical scene is awesome
It is different from previous songs, so clear off road…”
Indeed, the above sets the tone – and the stage- for every scene, every act of the life and times of a man who has refused to die 40 years after his murder in a bar room brawl with a man he accurately predicted would be his Judas.
The story moves from the general to the particular in Chapter two. It is here readers are led from the roots of Apala to the beginning of the principal character himself, Ayinla Omowura. Chapter two opens with Ayinla’s eerie invocation of the powers of his ‘mothers’ who made him sit on two hundred needles with the assurance of none hurting him:
“Igba abere l’a fi joko ni’le orin
Awon iya ti ni’kan o nii gun wa nibe…” (page 38).
We read here of the very tough, rough beginnings of Omowura. We are regaled with stories of his vagrancy which earned him the suspicion of being an Akudaaya, an apparition with no earthly address. We are told that it was during his street years that he got hooked to igbo (marijuana) and did not really wean himself off it till his death. One of his friends told the author: “Ayinla and Indian hemp were like Siamese twins and he didn’t see it as a vice at all…” (page 46). Here you read also of his several pre-success brushes with the law, including one in which he was jailed for partaking in the gang rape of a certain “Amosa oniresi ni Sodeeke…”
If readers believe the chapter is all about what the title says, they will be mistaken. The chapter actually dwells as much on the political history of Egba Ake starting with its founding in about 1840 by Sodeeke as a town of refugees. It proceeds to detail how the fecund soil and cultural essence of Abeokuta birthed a succession of multi-talented personages with one of them, Yesufu (Yusuf) Amuda Gbogbolowo siring, in about 1933, a child who would in later life be known as Ayinla Omowura. Readers of these pages will be initiated into the unknown about Omowura’s maternal grandmother, Morenike Asabi on whose ancestral shrine Ayinla built his famous Itoko home. It is also in this chapter you will read about how music had always been part of Yesufu’s homestead even before he had Ayinla:
“…Ayinla’s mother used to sing ege with other women. This translates to mean that Ayinla met music at home. (His father) Yusuf too, from sources spoken to was an itinerant sakara musician who did music as a pastime whenever he was less busy at his smithy…” (page 40).
“Ayinla met the music profession as a family preoccupation. My father was adept at singing sakara. He used to go out on musical engagements and was very good at playing one of the early musical instruments called goje. Haruna Ishola, S.Aka knew my father, Gbogbolowo.” (Ayinla’s sister, page 43).
If you are interested in the relationship between Omowura and other musicians of that era, including Haruna Ishola, the author took time to interrogate this through the mouth of Ayinla’s lead drummer, Adewole Oniluola. Was he ever in a rivalry with Haruna Ishola? No, Adewole said but the same could not be said of his arch rival, Fatai Olowonyo, and later, Ayinde Barrister who moved from being the captain of Omowura fans club to becoming a bitter rival of the Apala maestro.
Chapter three spans 88 pages and it is appropriately titled ‘Ayinla’s iconic years (1970 – 1980)’.
This appears to be the nucleus of the story where issues of fate and destiny were argued and settled for a man who would dominate the musical scene so much he would brag and threaten anyone who dared him on that turf with eternal hunger…
“Olorin to ba foju di mi l’ode
Jije mimu e tan nile aye…” (page 83).
The author interrogates Ayinla’s ambivalent relationship with his Islamic religion, the Ogun and the Ogboni cults and his abiding faith in the unfailing powers of his Onisegun and their juju. Special mention is made here of his name sake and spiritual backer, Ayinla Agbejapa Oba. Still in this chapter, the author continues Omowura’s journey to fame, fights, riches, controversies and foregrounds his death which was to come soon later over a mere motorcycle, and perhaps because of a woman.
Chapter four discusses further the peculiar rancorous family which Ayinla raised; the complexities, the dangers and the competing malevolent forces that rule a polygamy – ile olorogun – plus the various philandering escapades of the family head with all manner of women, including his secret lust for the woman in whose beer parlour he was killed. Here, the author discusses the metaphysics of love in a traditional Yoruba society portraying Ayinla as a man who did everything and anything to have a woman he fancied. One of his two surviving wives, Iya Agba gives a personal example of how Ayinla got her married using love potion: Ayinla proposed to her; she turned him down. “Se ara yin ya sha?” Are you well at all? She rebuked him. He retreated. Then a certain Tai brought her a fried guinea fowl; a friend of Ayinla who was with her at her shop when the meat came warned her not to eat it. “If you eat this meat, you will marry Ayinla,” the man warned her. She ignored him, ate the meat and shortly after started craving the musician.
“I would ask my customers in the evening if anyone of them had seen Alhaji Ayinla anywhere, that it had been long I saw him in my beer parlour…One day, he came to my shop and restated his proposal. He said, ‘Iya Agba, emi re maa fe e.’ I said what’s wrong with it, that I was all right with it.’ “
He loved his women – wives and mistresses – but loved his children more. This he demonstrated in his own peculiar ways: He gave them tribal marks so that no other man would snatch them from him; he, towards the end of his life, was in a furious, desperate race to get all of his children of school age educated and he gave all he could to get this done – again, tragically, without success.
Then on May 6, 1980, he was killed with a glass cup, in a beer parlour by his estranged band manager. His murder, the recriminations and the consequences, legal, physical and metaphysical occupy the 70 pages that make up Chapter five.
Now, did Omowura know he was going to die when he did? The author answers this question in various ways through various sources. First was the claim that he told Fatai Bayewumi, his band
manager who killed him, six months before the deed was done, that he was going to be his Judas Iscariot:
“Bayewumi…Iwo re Judasi; emi re Jeshu; iwo re ma pa mi. Translation: Bayewumi, you are Judas; I am Jesus, you will be the cause of my death” (page 261).
Beyond his death, here we see the turmoil that upended everything he laboured for at his home front. The struggle for succession between his first son, Akeem and his only brother, Dauda that tore his immediate and extended families into miserable shreds. We see how that battle for the soul of Ayinla’s musical empire was fought on all planes – physical, metaphysical, spiritual – and how it was resolved finally with the death, first, of Dauda in 2005 and Akeem in 2016 (page 225). It is a classical tragic case of mutually assured destruction.
Chapters six and seven are a posthumous examination of his music and the genre to which it belongs. These latter chapters can be said to be an extensive excursion into the musical world of Omowura, his precursors, contemporaries and successors. Perhaps deliberately or fortuitously, the author exposes himself here as a voracious connoisseur of the works of Omowura. He presents here the thematic, textual and contextual analyses of every of Omowura’s 20 albums and stage songs.
But the book, like all good biographies, is more than the personal history of Ayinla Omowura. The rainbow background of the author as a media practitioner and scholar, a philosophy graduate, a political scientist and a lawyer is stamped on every page of the book. Competently tucked in those pages and chapters are the history, sociology, politics and economics of music and language of the Yoruba of South West Nigeria. The book is also big enough to qualify as a compelling brief on everything Abeokuta, its various quarters and their people.
If anyone seeks to read the book as a praise song, such will be disappointed. What I find in it is an unflattering, unpatronizing characterization of this iconic figure as a genius wrapped in dissembling contradictions. He was rich enough to ride in Mercedes Benz cars but poor enough to fight and get himself killed over a motorcycle; he was a Muslim who performed Hajj and, yet, was a bard for, and a participant in the shrines of Ogun and the Ogboni cult. The unsparing author gives every shade of opinion connected with the Ayinla story enough rooms to ventilate their points for and against him. The family of the man who killed him, perhaps for the first time, is able to speak for their hanged father and give their side of the story. “Ayinla was the aggressor,” Bayewumi’s son said forcefully. There are others too who insist that despite Ayinla’s success as a brand, he was an anikanjopon (a selfish man) who hated seeing anyone around him make waves like him. And yet, many of the other voices we hear in the book cast Ayinla as a generous giver almost to the point of profligacy.
A man is never all beauty without blemish, so is this work. One of the strengths of the book ironically harbours its weakness. The author laced the story with songs after songs of Omowura. All lovers of Yoruba language will find the lyrics, well accented, a delight to read and sing along. But the author did not translate many of those beautiful, witty, pithy songs to English for non-Yoruba speaking readers to understand and savour. However, what such readers miss in the non-translation, they gain in the effusive examination and interpretations, by the author, of the thematic and philosophical imports of each of the songs.
There is also what I see as an unresolved issue of the name of Ayinla’s mother. The tragic hero surnamed himself ‘Omowura’- son of Wura. That presupposes that one of his parents – his mother, was Wura. But Wura is the abbreviated form of a name, a prefix which must have a headword. What is that to which Ayinla’s ‘Wura’ is affixed? The author on pages 39, 40 and 240 settles for Ayinla’s coinage ‘Wuramotu.’ Users of Yoruba language know that ‘Wuramotu’ is not a Yoruba name and certainly not a Yoruba word. The truth is Ayinla’s creative genius simply, maybe, impulsively, grafted an Arabic suffix – ‘mat’ (as in Wulemat/ Wulemotu) onto a Yoruba prefix and conveniently sang it as his mother’s name. Future studies may seek to find out if the real name is Wuraola or whatever.
It is significant that the Foreword to the book was written by Professor Ebenezer Obadare, a sociology teacher at the University of Kansas, United States who confessed to, as a pre-teen, knowing “literally every word of Omowura’s songs by heart.” The Afterword was written by Professor Wale Adebanwi of the University of Oxford, who said he was drawn, as a kid, to Omowura’s music so much that he converted, in later life, one of his famous lines into a declaration of self-conscious autonomy: omo b’ao r’eni gbekele, a te ‘ra mo se eni (roughly: child of one who works harder in lieu of someone to lean on). Obadare is pleased that Adedayo has finally answered a question of his youth on what really was behind “the elemental bond” between Omowura and his fanatical fans. Adebanwi, on his own, gives a closure to the appetite whetted by Obadare in the Foreword. He expresses his satisfaction that the author has been able to explain why Omowura, despite his personal failings, foibles and weaknesses and “his contradictory impulses,” remains a celebrity “long after his – as they say – untimely death…”
In all, this book is a competently written account of the life and times of the subject as well as of the history of the various genres of Yoruba music; the socio-economic philosophies underpinning the rivalries – petty and major- among the practitioners and the contextual cultural allure which grew the trade. It is also a significant addition to the literature (or portraiture) of the impressive characters that drove the entertainment industry in the first three decades after Nigeria’s independence. It is a compelling read.