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Author: Jonathan Haynes
Title: Structural adjustments of Nigerian comedy: Baba Sala
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Structural adjustments of Nigerian comedy: Baba Sala
Jonathan Haynes

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 8, pp. 17-18, 20, 1994
Issue title: Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities: Media, Popular Culture, and 'the Public' in Africa
Author Biography: Jonathan Haynes is an Assistant Professor in the Literature Division at Bennington College.

Structural Adjustments of Nigerian Comedy: Baba Sala


The career of Moses Olaiya Adejumo (known as Baba Sala), Nigeria's most famous comic actor, reflects the changing conditions of Nigerian popular entertainment. Originally a musician and band leader (Olaiya 1992:25), his attention gradually turned to drama, in the mode of the Yoruba Travelling Theater.

This form of popular drama was created in the 1940s by the late Hubert Ogunde, out of the traditional Alarinjo theater, with the addition of elements from the Ghanaian Concert Party and elsewhere. Its formal structure includes substantial elements of music and dance and even acrobatics, as well as drama, and it is tied up with traditional Yoruba metaphysical and religious beliefs. It has been wildly popular with Yoruba audiences, and draws crowds even in non-Yoruba areas. It is known as the Yoruba Travelling Theater because none of the troupes have had a fixed home: they travel constantly, performing in rented halls or wherever they can. The troupes may be composed largely of members of the family of the principle actor/manager, who may marry his actresses, as Baba Sala has done. At one time (around 1980) there were about 100 such troupes (Clark 1980; Jeyifo 1984, 1985).

Nowadays, it is difficult to see a performance of the Travelling Theaters, as most of the major companies and many of the minor ones have switched over to making films. Some of the leading companies became used to being around cameras through television appearances. Television was particularly important for Baba Sala: in 1965, early on in his career, his Alawada Theatre won a "Talent Hunt" contest sponsored by the N.T.A. Ibadan station; this led to a regular weekly half-hour slot on prime-time television.

They [N.T.A. Ibadan] did much to promote my theatre. I will say I owe more than fifty percent of my present success to them. For about two to three years from 1965 we concentrated mainly on our television programmes and appearances. We became very popular with our Yoruba-speaking audience. After that we ventured out with our plays, our audience was ready made, the television had done it. (Lakoju 1984:39-40)

Television continues to be a source of advertisement and income for the companies. As Karin Barber has pointed out, television "was a catalyst in the process of shedding the older operatic format and replacing it with a streamlined tightly articulated comedy style carried almost entirely by straight dialogue" (Barber 1986:8). But as she says elsewhere, television is only one source of income among others, and has not changed the companies or their practices very much: "Rather than imposing the uniform stamp of mass culture on these plays, the television seems to be invaded by chunks of the living, popular culture that flourishes around it" (Barber 1987:65). This is only somewhat less true of the relation of the Travelling Theater companies to film.

The midwife of the transition from stage to film was Ola Balogun, Nigeria's leading film director, who made the first Yoruba film, Ajani Ogun, in 1977, with Duro Lapido and his troupe and starring Adeyemi Folayan (a.k.a. Ade Love). Balogun also directed the first film of Hubert Ogunde, Aiye (1979), which, like the rest of Ogunde's films and most of Baba Sala's, began life as a stage play.

Following the others' example, for Baba Sala's first film, Orun Mooru / Heaven is Hot (1982), he enlisted the help of Ola Balogun, as director, co-producer and co-script writer. The film was made in 35 mm. with a big budget and opened with lavish publicity (F. Balogun 1987:82-3). It begins with Baba Sala living in a fishing village as a basket-maker, amusing himself by chasing women. A visit from an old friend is the occasion for a flashback to the better days when he had a shop in town selling electrical appliances. A herbalist tricked him into believing he could magically fill oil drums with money; this led to an ecstasy of grief, ruin, and the move to the village. Now his visitor Adisa loans him 500 Naira. Baba Sala interrupts his dance of joy to close his door and worry about where to hide the money. He loses all the money; half to a pickpocket in town, and the other half when his new wife unwittingly trades the old container where he's hidden the rest, for some new plates. In despair, he throws himself from a bridge, and finds himself in the underworld.

The underworld is represented with the help of special-effects trickery and the striking neo-traditional sculpture and architecture of the Grove of Osun at Oshogbo. Death tells him he is not ready to take him, and Baba Sala ascends to meet the Queen of Joy at her shrine surrounded by dancers. She sends him off with two magical eggs. When he is cast up on the beach of this world, two of her disciples meet and escort him to an extravagant mansion. He cavorts with the two girls in the bedroom (in his childish, roly-poly, sexless way), and breaks one of the eggs on the floor, whereupon it turns into a huge pile of money—the magical wealth the herbalist had falsely promised him. He joins a big party downstairs, spraying the Jújù musician King Sunny Ade, who is entertaining the guests, and everyone else. He makes a speech from the high table, reopens the floor, refuses a group of petitioning women, and is generally the center of attention in a wild ego fantasy. He goes upstairs and breaks the second egg (though he had been warned not to do so) whereupon Death appears. Then we find Baba Sala coming to in his shack in the fishing village, with a flashback to the time when he was fished out of the water under the bridge from which he had thrown himself.

The themes of over-reaching greed and wild swings from village life to lavish prosperity and back again are close to the heart of the Nigerian national experience during the oil boom years. The oildrums which are to be magically filled with cash are a clear enough figure for "Petro-Naira" (see Barber 1982). Propelled by his feckless moral will, Baba Sala bounces among four sharply opposed realms. One is the village, a pretty traditional place; this is where he wakes up with a hangover after the mad story is over, and it's also where Baba Sala is at his most relaxed and attractive, though the film does not advance a moralizing polemic in favor of rural values. The town is lively and entertaining, but a place where desire (for upward mobility) can slip on treacherous ground: it's where Baba Sala gets cheated—twice, first by the herbalist and then by the pickpocket. The fantasy villa is still more unstable, because fundamentally unreal, but it is perfectly attractive as far as it goes—the pleasures it affords (notably King Sunny Ade's performance, and the party surrounding it) are pleasures for the audience too. The metaphysical dimension is not introduced with any great solemnity (Baba Sala clowns his way through the sacred grove with labile, childish curiosity), but it adds depth and scope to the film, culturally as well as morally. In spite of the unhappiness of Baba Sala's own adventures, the film feels expansive, and reflects the buoyant outlook of Nigeria before the crash: the modern world was full of possibilities, and the traditional realms of religion and art were there to back up and guide one's posture in it, if only one could pause from a career of tearing greed.

Mosebolatan / Hopelessness (1986) was another product of the Yoruba Travelling Theater network, but a sophisticated one, made with the assistance of the fine (and prolific) cinematographer Tunde Kelani—Olaiya's Alawada Movies produced, and Ade Folayan directed very competently. Baba Sala plays his usual role as a lecherous miser. The plot is large and complex. The family of Mosebolatan, Baba Sala's friend, was split up in a boat wreck; Mosebolatan has become a wealthy businessman, and his son Jide has become an officer on a ship, while (unknown to them) his wife has become a market woman in the same town, struggling to put her daughter Shade through school. Baba Sala's son is in love with Shade, though his father won't hear of the match with a poor woman's daughter. Meanwhile Mosebolatan's son Jide rescues Baba Sala's daughter from bad guys who have abducted her and, since Baba Sala won't allow her visitors, Jide takes a job in his household as driver/cook/steward, pandering to the father's miserly fantasies so he can court the daughter. Eventually the lovers are discovered by the two fathers; a "recognition" scene follows in which everyone's identity is established, Mosebolatan's family is reunited, and the two marriages are contracted.

The setting of Mosebolatan is very modern. Jide's ship is big and sparkling white. Baba Sala and Mosebolatan are nouveau riches on a grand scale, living in spacious mansions. Mosebolatan has a huge warehouse, and Baba Sala a large appliance store, larger than the one in Orun Mooru (again, and as he will in the later Agba Man, he casts himself as a small businessman/ entrepreneur—which is what Moses Olaiya Adejumo is in fact, as owner/manager of his company). Mosebolatan is wholly good, and is irresponsible towards half his family only through a trick of fate. But Baba Sala is irresponsibility itself. His business is built on sharp practices, as we see at the film's beginning, where we also get a taste of his ways of getting himself into trouble with women. Later, as Chief Launcher at a benefit concert, he is unwilling to shoulder the responsibilities that come with his status.

This film seems to be more consciously contemporaneous than Orun Mooru. When his cash box is stolen, Baba Sala has motor park touts tie his son to a stake in front of a wall of oil drums, like the armed robbers who were executed on Bar Beach. When he subsequently takes his money to be deposited in the National Bank of Nigeria, he shows all the suspicion and ignorance of a bush man suddenly flush with cash. He sometimes wears a Nike T-shirt, while Jide wears a Manchester United cap, as signs of the changing Nigerian times. Other foreign elements are absorbed into the sophisticated syncretic soup of this film: Jide and Sala have several love duets obviously inspired by Indian films, and an early chase scene in which Baba Sala swivels a road sign to throw off the pursuing police draws on the tradition of American silent films. There are other, characteristically Nigerian elements. As in Orun Mooru, there is a long scene at a lavish party, where famous musicians play (in this case, their names appear on screen as titles), and Baba Sala gives them money. Doubtless, the insertion of these scenes owes something to the revue-like aspects of the Travelling Theater tradition.

Orun Mooru and Mosebolatan represent, in retrospect, the high-water mark of Nigerian film comedy, and deserve their great popularity. Baba Sala's personality and excellent acting are at the center of things, but are set in rich, various, and well-structured comic worlds. In spite of the theatrical derivation of many of their elements, the films are fully cinematic, in design and execution, and their high production values (e.g., the performances by musicians who are major stars in their own right) would not have been possible on stage.

The "Yoruba" films of the Travelling Theater artists thrived, even as the attempt (begun in the 1970s) to create a Nigerian national film industry sputtered out, victim of the iron laws of neocolonial economics which make it effectively impossible to get indigenous films into the distribution system (controlled by foreign monopolies) without the active intervention of the government, which has not been forthcoming. (On the economics of film distribution in Africa and the Third World, see Armes 1987; Cheriaa n.d.; Diawara 1992.) The Travelling Theater companies are outside the distribution system which serves Nigeria's theaters; they have succeeded because they have their own system.

The companies—now reduced in size, but associating themselves with other companies to produce the films—continue to travel, with their films. They do sometimes rent cinema halls, and the National Theatre in Iganmu, Lagos, now shows Yoruba films on a regular basis, but for the most part they screen the films elsewhere, in the places where they used to perform their plays: in hotels, schools, town halls, anywhere. The presence of the actors at the screenings makes for excitement and good publicity. The films are advertized on television and radio, as well as by posters and sound trucks making their way through popular neighborhoods.

Alain Ricard has pointed out the advantages of this system of distribution. The actor/manager/businessman has the name and perhaps already has the resources to capitalize a production. The circuit of distribution is already in place, and those from whom he rents halls are used to treating him with the respect his popularity commands. He does not need to trust them or any intermediaries to handle his business for him, because he is on hand to oversee everything. All he needs to do is load a projector onto his vehicle as he sets out on tour, and so "the producer becomes his own distributor and realizes at a more or less artisanal level the vertical integration typical of capitalist successes in the cinema industry" (Ricard 1983:163; my translation).

Baba Sala is unusual—I believe unique—in that he has acquired his own theater, the Cinema de Baba Sala, located in a modern shopping complex just outside the gates of the University of Ibadan. He is benevolently present at screenings, and the audience shows unusual patience with projector problems and delapidated breaking prints of the films because the great man himself attends to the problems. The women of the company sell tickets and food. At a time when most theaters have fallen under the sway of disreputable elements, there is a special kind of probity about the Cinema de Baba Sala as a social institution: in the afternoons it may be filled with uniformed school children, at specially priced screenings; during the Ilaye holiday, the middle class comes dressed up in fine brocades to see the films of late Chief Hubert Ogunde, which have acquired semi-sacramental status.

But Baba Sala has also suffered intensely from the hazards of film distribution in Nigeria. A copy of Orun Mooru was bootlegged, to Baba Sala's well-publicized grief. The lack of an environment of copyright and contract law is a major stumbling block to the development of a film industry (see Oladitan 1992; Ekpo 1992; Olaiya 1992) and accounts for some of the peculiarities of the Travelling Theater companies' mode of distribution. The company, or some part of it, has to travel with the film because if they are not there in person they will be cheated out of their share of ticket sales. Similar reasons explain why they put their work on film rather than video cassettes, for showing in the legion video parlors. Widespread piracy means the films are kept in the jealous possession of the theater companies.

In Nigeria, amidst so many other disintegrations brought on by the economic crisis and Structural Adjustment Program of the mid 1980s, the institution of "cinema" has disintegrated, both socially and technically. Now the bourgeoisie never goes to films in cinema houses—the films (shoddy violent American, violent Chinese, and romantic and/or violent Indian ones) don't suit their tastes, the theaters are dilapidated, the audiences are too rowdy and harbor pickpockets, and their cars, parked outside, are apt to be vandalized. Instead the middle class stays home with their televisions and VCRs, serviced by a thriving market in pirated cassettes for sale or rental, and the elite now have satellite dishes or satellite cable. Patronage of film is left to a "popular" audience of the working class and lower middle class, who conjured their indigenous entertainers from the improvised theaters through television studios onto celluloid. But their patronage can hardly any longer support real film, even in 16 mm.—their five or ten Naira tickets don't convert into enough foreign exchange to buy film's raw materials. Some films are being made with outdated film stock or chemicals. Others are shot on reversal stock, from which no copies can be made, so when the unique print wears out it is time to make another film. Needless to say, this encourages the lowest possible production costs and values. Other films are shot on video and then blown up to 16 mm. Another option is to make videos for release on video cassette, which may be shown without authorization in unlicensed video parlors as well as sold to individual consumers. Video production companies handle the financing and distribution of such works (F. Balogun 1992:69). Because popular releases are apt to be pirated, the idea is to work fast to stay ahead, and not to invest too much in the first place.

Two of Baba Sala's recent productions on video, Agba Man (1992) and Return Match (1993) (both in Yoruba, despite their titles), illustrate a dire degradation of means, and a contraction of artistic imagination. Doing the writing, directing and producing himself, his theatre group has shrunk to a small cast composed essentially of his family troupe. The video work is crude. There is no attention to direction or cinematography, no crane shots or special effects beyond elementary and amateurish freeze frames and video keying between scenes. Rank commercialization obtrudes itself: the name and address of AMCO Video Films, the video production house, keep scrolling up the screen throughout the films. In Agba Man the locations are paid for by advertising them, with ostentatious shots of, for example, a restaurant's sign board. There are other internal advertisements: near the beginning when the conversation turns to invitations to a birthday party, Baba Sala recommends a specific printer by name and gives his address; later there are pitches for Betamalt and Mayor Beer.

Both these films are comedies of sexual intrigue. In Agba Man Baba Sala is at the center of things; in Return Match he is peripheral, playing a comic servant in a household where the wife is having an affair with a man who turns out to be her husband's friend. The two films display different sides of Baba Sala's normal character: in Agba Man his miserliness and lecherousness is given full play; in Return Match he grabs the housemaid when he can, but the emphasis is on his goofy costumes and his strain of absurdist humour—he sticks the baby in the refrigerator, reverses the terms of a prescription, tries to jump into Madame's arms, and so forth. The setting and aesthetic of Return Match, and its moralistic plot, are very much like those of the current bourgeois TV serials, though without so much glamorization of wealth.

In Agba Man Baba Sala is a businessman who spends his time chasing girls, and who jealously tries to prevent his son and daughter from having affairs. As usual Baba Sala is both miser and lecher; all his relationships with women are based on hard-nosed negotiations over how much sexual favors will cost. As in Mosebolatan, Sala's boyfriend must resort to disguises to get into her house, and Baba Sala acts miserly when his son entertains girlfriends. Lovers still sing Indian-style duets, of the lowest possible quality. As in the other films there are party scenes, with Baba Sala circulating and spraying musicians, though now they are on a much more modest scale: a birthday party at the Sonnyville Restaurant, with three break dancers performing to Tina Turner's music on a fancy sound system; a dance in a beer parlor, with a live band. Baba Sala is still moving with the times; the musical styles and clothing are absolutely contemporary. This film seems more realistic than the others, closer to the quotidian life we see on the streets, though this is probably just the effect of the low budget, which doesn't permit the more spacious recreations of cinema. A certain theatricality still hangs around Baba Sala's own character—he is always the performer, and always "on"—but not around anyone else; the locations never feel like sets. Nigerian film has never been closer to the daily lived experience of its audience. The class of businessmen Baba Sala represents is both the object of satire and the channel for desire; in neither case is it remote.

Agba Man seems claustrophobic, in fact, in comparison to the earlier films. Baba Sala is still wearing his crazy outfits, and he keeps up an endless comic patter, but in an atmosphere of slapstick farce and fabliau-style intrigue, the cruelest forms of comedy. The element of fantasy and imagination has contracted to almost nothing—there is nothing like the Oshogbo artistic element in Orun Mooru, or its metaphysical dimension, or the aesthetic self-consciousness and variety of Mosebolatan. His character has shrunk too—certainly shrunk from the cheerful satyr of Orun Mooru, so full of geniality and playfulness, whose lust for money and sex are the expressions of an untrammeled childish ego. Now there is a hard ball of selfish greed inside him, and not much else. This film is pitiless towards his own character.

His desire is comic but degrading—Agba Man's plots are always and directly about the joyless purchase of sex by money. Most of all, his desire is preternaturally persistent, leading to a potentially infinite proliferation of plots, all of the same kind, as his girlfriends multiply. These stories always come to a humiliating denouement—the young whom he is exploiting have seamy imaginations and desires of their own, and are better masters of deception. The plots involving his own children are the most unsavory. It turns out father and son have been having affairs with and are engaged to the same woman, Segi—in the end her father drives them both off. And finally, in a brothel, Baba Sala is escorted to his own daughter. His friend Adisa is on hand to tell him he's gotten what he deserves: he's been a sugar daddy, and his daughter has chosen to be a sugar baby. He's learned his lesson the hard way.

A nasty kind of comedy, but in its very nastiness it conveys a strong satire on the Nigerian business class and its parasitic attendants. Baba Sala's accumulation of girlfriends is hardly an unrealistic element; his greed is the greed of a class, which leads multiple lives with multiple women, playing on the advantages that irresponsible wealth brings. Baba Sala's caricatures of western dress, his symbolic Mercedes, his patronage of entertainment spots, all are references to the behavior of a specific class in a specific setting; always the comedian of impossible desire, his miser is not merely an archetype floating through history.

The Travelling Theater actor/managers who turned to film retained some of the direct face-to-face immediacy of the popular theater by being present at screenings. The work on video has another kind of immediacy, that of the low-budget, quotidian realism discussed above, mediated through the commodity form and petty commerce. The video production houses work fast to stay ahead of pirates; in the spirit of Nigerian capitalism, a quick return is looked for from a small investment. Little cultural capital is invested either—the prestige that attached to the films of Ogunde, for instance, is no longer looked for. A major film, gathering production values and cultural prestige, is hard to finance and a target for thieves, as Orun Mooru demonstrated. The new system consists of using name recognition, which Baba Sala has, to stay ahead in a rapid turnover of disposable art.

The Structural Adjustment Program has collapsed industries and stimulated petty informal sector activities, across the board. Social reproduction is kept churning, on a low level, but import substitution becomes impossible, let alone manufacturing for export. A Nigerian film industry, talked about for decades, is further than ever from realization, with important consequences for Nigeria's place in the world information order. The twenty video production houses in Lagos (Adesanya), meanwhile, reach a reformulated audience with (ambivalently) serviceable products.

Nigeria may not have a proper film industry, but it certainly does have something that is alive and kicking, and that is in the paradoxical image of the country, expressing its ethnic divisions, its relative industrialization, its huge market, and its current poverty, which does not, however, prevent busy, inventive, informal economic activity. The dumping ground for Hollywood's toxic waste, Nigeria is also a notorious pirate and producer of goods so shoddy no one would import them. If film distribution in Nigeria is as clear a case as one could want to see of continuing neo-colonialism, the Yoruba cinema is also an extraordinary example of popular cultural self-assertion, speaking directly and effectively to a mass audience. The same country that imports junk vehicles and makes wondrous imitation spare parts adopts the reversal process and lowbudget video: in both cases there are lots of accidents but traffic does move, in rattletrap vehicles going at full speed.

References Cited

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