Tempo (Lagos)

23 August 2000

Nigeria: 'Apala Will Bounce Back'

Lagos — Leader of the Golden Star Band, El Hadj Suraju Alabi Aminu, the most prominent of the surviving Apala musicians says the lull in the Apala genre during the past two decades will soon be over.

Seido Mulero reports when you ask him if he would choose to play the apala genre of music if he had to live his life all over again, he simply answers that "only God can know if we can live a second time and what we would do there and then." But if you ask him if he feels self-actualised being an apala musician, he says "yes. It gave me satisfaction, honour and popularity throughout the world.' ' Ask him how many records he has waxed so far and he will tell you, in his native Yoruba language: "melo ni k'a ka?... ko see ka!" (I have lost count of them because they are innumerable!).

Meet El Hadj Suraju Alabi Aminu, the most popular apala musician now alive in the whole of Yorubaland, since the transition to the great beyond, of the musical triumvirate of Kasumu Adio, Ayinla Omowura and Haruna Ishola. With his Golden Star Band Suraju, as he is known in his native Ajase (or Porto-Novo), the political capital of Benin Republic, is one of the many apala musicians in Benin. The others are Anafi Alao, Sikiru Isola Oloyede, Alhaji Agba Raimi Isola, Ramanou Alao, and Ganiyou Atanda. Others are Mouftaou Ajao Ojulari, Ganiyu Alabi Kolawole and Salawou Oloyede.

Born in Porto-Novo in 1949, Suraju, after his primary and Islamic education, veered into music. Like most Moslem Yoruba musicians, he started in the 1950s, through the usual were entertainment activities. Were consists in playing rudimentary instruments between 3 and 5a.m to entertain and especially wake the faithful up each morning during the month of Ramadan.

This went on through the 1960s, when Suraju was staying with Yekini Aminou, an uncle of his, his own parents having died. During this period, he has moved from one trade to the other, in search of self-discovery; having learnt tailoring, bicycle repairs and barbing, he finally settled for full-time music and chose apala, a traditional Yoruba genre of music.

Talking to TEMPO in an interview at his home in the Djregbe quarters of Porto-Novo, Suraju explains his works. In a bid to reach a wider audience, he says, he sings in Yoruba, French and Goun languages. This, he says, helps him to reach the Yoruba market which he estimates at not less than 30 million souls, the Goun audience; three million and the francophone audience which cuts across all continents. According to him, apala has a universal message, though he concedes that it appeals more to the elderly than to youths who form the bulk of music consumers today. This, he explains, has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage, is that it makes, apala an "evergreen" music and that is why, two decades after the demise of both Haruna Ishola and Ayinla Omowura, their songs are now staging a come-back, notwithstanding the plethora of musicians in Yorubaland today.

"With due respect, I say that, contrary to fuji which has lots of noise contents and therefore appeals more to the youths. Apala is for mature, level- headed people and the philosophical message in apala songs make them treasures for the future."

Suraju sees the lull on the apala scene in the last two decades or so as a temporary problem due to various factors: First is the rising quota of the youths in the population distribution at a time the youths-naturally - prefer a noisy way of life, including noisy music. And since apala is a cool music devoid of noise, the youths don't really appreciate its values.

"It's like throwing pearls at a swine. I am very sorry to make this analogy," he says.

Worse still was the fact that the apala maestros of yesteryears, Kasumu Adio, Haruna Ishola, Ayinla Omowura and co failed to provide for a feeder team that would take over from them when they eventually leave the stage.

They did not prepare for successors in their trade, that is apala music.

This, said Suraju, was a great mistake because "life is not forever" and you cannot, because of your selfish interests, prevent your followers from rising. It is through one's works and especially through your followers that you perpetuate yourself as an artiste," he posited, adding: "I did not make such a mistake. Many of the apala players in Benin like Ganiyou, Atanda and Ramanou Alao have been trained by me and, as time goes on, they would grow into big trees in the apala forest to allow the music to bounce back with full force."

On why it has taken so long for him and other apala exponents to step effectively into the shoes of the leaders of yesteryears, he says it is more of a marketing problem than that of creativity. Suraju believes today's apala musicians are not well known because they are based in Benin where the Yoruba market is far below that of Nigeria. This has negatively affected the fortune of those musicians so much that to get launched, most of them need sponsorship, especially in their bid to penetrate the wider Nigerian market.

On whether he does not think the fault is not really with the market but with the themes and lyrics of nowadays compositions, Suraju says the themes of his songs are far better than those of today's "noise makers" who still sell better in Nigeria. On why there is preponderance of apala among the Yoruba population in Benin, he reasons, it is probably due to lack of means: if someone sponsors you to, for instance, buy juju equipment, it will take very long before such a financier can get some retturns on his investment, because of the exiguity of the market. That is if he will ever get it. Faced with such a problem, the only alternative is apala which does not require the kind of costly equipment modern genres such as juju require."

Suraju says his Golden Star Band is made up of some 20 members, with his drummers being from Nigeria. Among those who played for him at one time or the other was Raufu Ojubanire, Haruna Ishola's, erstwhile drummer from Ijebu-Igbo who played for the Porto-Novien from 1977 to 1990. There are others like Rahaimi Baba Khafila (from Odogbolu in Ogun State), Yekinni Ashamu (from Ayetoro in the Yewa North Local Government Area of Ogun State) and late Muritalabi. With his band, Suraju had toured various countries. He once represented Benin Republic at an international cultural festival in the America.

On the band's plans for the future, Suraju says it has a song ready for 'waxing' but he is still contemplating on the right record company to handle it.

The dialogue between politics and music in Benin, says Suraju, has not been very favourable to apala musicians, because politics has not been very rewarding for the Beninois Yorubas in general. The apala maestro says he has no particular feeling or affiliation for any one of the more than 100 political parties in Benin Republic because "politics is dangerous; if a musician gets himself enmeshed in politics, and politics turns on him its ugly face, such a musician should run away even if there is no physical being or object chasing him."

The irony, however, is that after the 1996 presidential election, the "apolitical" musician waxed a record in honour of President Mathieu Kerekou, the former military head of state who won the election, recalling how the man was disgraced out of office in 1990 and how he came back gloriously, through the ballot box. Instead of seeing that song as a contradiction of his self -styled "apolitical" stand, he rationalised by saying Kerekou's comeback through the ballot box is a metaphor for apala's glorious come-back after many years of recession.

Publication Date: August 31, 2000

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