Friday, 26 February 2010

If music be food

I like to dance. I’ve always been the first on the dance floor at weddings, not put off by being the only person above 9 years of age: for me being first means you have the most space on the dance floor to enjoy yourself, and it's when the DJ’s playing the really good tunes to get people dancing. Besides which I simply can't help myself.

I always tell people that I learned to dance in Nigeria. It was at the tender age of 15 amongst the expat kids of 1980s Kaduna that I had my first chance on a dance floor that wasn’t in the common room of my Sevenoaks boarding school, Walthamstow Hall. To the strains of Kool & the Gang, Earth Wind & Fire, Sister Sledge and the rest of the genre now commonly known as ‘80s Skool Disco’ (including the first ever rap song – Sugar Hill Gang’s Rappers’ Delight’ that I have been known to recite in full with a couple of bottles of Star inside me), I began appreciating the uplifting nature of a good beat.

And boy do Nigerians know a good beat.

I challenge anyone to sit for 15 minutes in a Nigerian bar or ‘night club’ (and I use the term loosely) without starting to ‘chair dance’. Whether it be foot tapping or shaking the shoulders and fists in time with the music, the rhythm’s gonna get you.

Nigerian men really know how to dance and they enjoy it too. No dancing around handbags for women here!

You’ll find music, singing and dancing at all the cultural events and weddings where traditional music and dance group, or women’s fellowship choirs, will fill the air with irresistible beats and wonderful harmonies.

(From left to right) - Batadon Day in Manchok; dancers from Bayelsa (Delta region) at the Abuja Durbar; some of the girls of the Vincent Kawai Memorial Foundation praise the Lord in song and dance.

Our very own Victoria makes an appearance in the main arena of Kagoro Day 2010 with her Women's Fellowship, whilst another group helps celebrate an album launch in a local church

What makes it even better for me – Nigerians love to dance. No more ‘lonely on the dance floor’ with the kiddies for me: there will always be several men, women or children who will get up and dance at the slightest hint of an opportunity. And, although the adage ‘white people can’t dance’ I’m afraid to say, really is true, just being a bature means that you will be appreciated.

I justify my attendance at the weddings of people I’ve never met before by knowing that I will be invited up to dance by the MC and, if I oblige, I will earn much more than my plate of rice and a mineral by the money that will be ‘sprayed’ onto my forehead (occasionally stuck into my eye) by other well wishers.

My fame as a dancing bature is spreading: as I was depositing my motorcycle helmet for safe keeping with the security guard in the front lobby of Kafanchan’s Oceanic Bank a couple of weeks ago, the guard, after exchanging the standard greetings asked: “So when are you going to dance for us again?”. “Excuse me?” I countered. He replied: “Don’t you recognise me? I was the MC at the Send Forth at the Fantswam Resort – you danced for us. You really tried!”

Dancing at weddings, Send Forths and Engagements with friends and colleagues!

I'm not the only one to dance at weddings: couples dance down the aisles, to the receptions and out of the church: this is real dancing for joy!

In addition to being a nation of dancers, Nigeria is also a nation of musicians. With little employment available, and a lot of talent, virtually everyone is looking to make it big in music. Not so different from at home, but with even fewer options available if you don’t succeed. The big challenge is how to stand out? How to make music your livelihood?For every one successful artist in Nigeria, I would think there are several 1,000s of unsuccessful ones. But it just takes something to stand out.

Local Kagoro musician"Best VD Boman" is hopeful at the launch of his gospel album. His nephew Steven sings amongst the dancing audience as he celebrates winning the Vincent Kawai Talent show in 2008. His album is due for launch this Spring.

I’m hoping my that blind friend Jonathan – or let me get his 'handle' correct: J T Shadow – is one of them. Not only does he have some talent, he’s brassy and puts himself out there, and he’s blind. When he shows up at radio station in Kaduna or Abuja having travelled there, sometimes by himself, to promote one of his songs, the DJs really sit up and take notice and sometimes, just sometimes, offer to play his songs without demanding the airtime fee which can run into several 1,000s of Naira.

JT Shadow and his crew performing "Selector" at the Gimalex Talent Event in Kagoro Town Hall

Here’s a link Jonathan’s debut song, recorded in the first two hours he had ever spent in a recording studio. Whilst not heading for the pan-African number one slot quite yet, you wouldn’t be that surprised to hear it on the radio.

These songs were made possible with the help of a Jos-based producer called V.I.C. who I was put in touch with via a volunteer musician friend at Fantsuam. A recording artist as well as producer, V.I.C. will often contribute to the backing vocals of the songs as he’s done with J T Shadow’s ‘Headin for the Top’ as well as my current number one favourite, ‘Ma Time’ that he recorded with his nephew, Jizzle.

Now I don’t claim to be a hit-spotter (although I will mention that I had no doubt that Gary Numan’s ‘Are Friends Electric’ was going to be a hit when I first heard it languishing in the low 30s in the UK Pop Charts in the early 80s) – however I can’t stop listening to "Ma Time" which I find positively addictive. V.I.C. hasn’t yet had time to promote it however he has given me permission to feature it on this blog.

I’m also not a music expert and frankly I sometimes feel a bit of a fraud trying to help Jonathan with his music aspirations when I can barely tell my ‘gangsta’ from my ‘hip hop’, but I think this number has potential.

Let me know what you think? And, if you feel in need of a change from Brit Pop (OK I know that’s a bit out of date) or whatever is hitting the charts where you are at the moment – do check out some of these top Naija jams which I have no doubt you’ll be able to find on Napster or iTunes. Here in Nigeria the concept of digital copyright is about as rigorously applied as the Highway Code so all these songs are freely available but I know you can all afford them so give those Naija artists the royalties they won’t be able to earn in their own country!

Naija – it’s our time to shine!

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Rivers of Babylon

Peanut butter and jam: two things that shouldn’t naturally be put together yet Lord knows millions of people, particularly in North America, swear by this unlikely combination. This thought occurred to me as I contemplated another odd combination which has become part of home life in Nigeria: toilet seats and duct tape.

You must understand that at the time I thought this, I was looking at the toilet in the other half of the Pink House into which Teleri and I moved yesterday. Whilst the four of us ‘Pink Ladies’ get on famously, it was beginning to get a little bit cramped in our existing accommodation, particularly when we learnt that Teleri would be extending beyond her initial three month project window. And serendipity helped us along the way, when our colleague, good friend and neighbour Mr Shinggu landed an excellent job in his home state, making the other half of the Pink House (now called the ‘Yellow Flat’ see picture) available for us.

With two bedrooms and one bathroom, it’s not quite as well appointed as the ‘Pink Flat’ which sported two bathrooms and three toilets, however the rooms are large, airy and bright. However with a bed being the only furniture in the bedrooms, no fittings to speak of in the kitchen and an incredibly tired old sofa in the corner of the cavernous living room, it was difficult to believe that the house been continuously inhabited, although admittedly, by men.

The Yellow Flat and the Pink Flat in the shade of Kagoro Hill

Men who would not (and clearly had not) questioned a toilet seat that had at least 4 cracks across it, none less than 3 inches long. Back to the duct tape: early on in our Nigerian adventure, us delicate flowers had all discovered the ability of cracks in each of the three toilet seats in the Pink Flat to pinch softer regions of our anatomy more aggressively than an angry crab.

However the solution was readily on hand: duct tape (left over by former VSO, ‘acanuckamuck’ Glenn). This wide, reinforced and colour- compatible plastic tape, provides a durable, comfortable and, not unattractive (wait til you see the toilets!) solution to the cracked toilet seat problem.

However the toilet seat was just one aspect of furnishing our new home. With no Ikeas, Habitats or similar to be found in easy public transport distance from Kagoro, the solution is usually to find a local carpenter who, for less than the price of a “SVALB√ė” basic cabinet will knock you up a set of shelves or a wardrobe.

That was certainly our experience when we first arrived in Kagoro where we discovered an excellent local carpenter who produced good quality items including wardrobes, shelves and bathroom cabinets. Very, very sadly one night he was bitten by a snake on his way back from a party across fields and died.

So in this move the search was on again. My sisters in the Pink Flat fortunately came to the rescue having got chatting to such an artisan – called Babylon- at a local joint. So passionately did Babylon speak about his commitment to carpentry (despite being a couple of brugutus worse for wear) they thought he would be worth an introduction. Things got better when our new, improved guard who is reliable, diligent and never ever with a hint of alcohol on his breath, said that Babylon was a neighbour.

So we arranged for Babylon to come and price the job on the Friday morning prior to our Saturday move. I’d wanted to see him earlier so the work could be completed on Saturday, and Lady Luck waved her magic wand once again when the guard met him on the way home from duty the previous evening and brought him back to the house. Slightly drunk again. This should have been a warning sign however carpenters are not so easy to find at short notice, particularly not those that came with referees: always important when they will be in your house.

We agreed a bargain price – causing me to comment to my sisters that alcohol does certainly not sharpen one’s negotiating skills - with a bonus to be offered for completing the job by close of play Saturday.

Babylon arrived (sober) at 7a.m. on Friday morning and collected the money for the materials. By our return on Friday evening my wardrobe and bathroom cabinet had been relocated from the Pink House and a shelving unit for the kitchen was well on its way. I think ‘shonky’ is the best way to describe the kitchen shelves which I did not hesitate to point out causing Babylon to whip out his plane and sander to try and make good.

Shonky shelves...You can see why I had my doubts?

Teleri chopping vegetables at the only existing piece of 'furniture' in the kitchen

Before he left that evening, Babylon said that he needed more money to get the better quality plywood from which to make the kitchen cabinet.

I remonstrated that I was reluctant to do so given that I wasn’t convinced by the quality of the workmanship, let alone the materials. I also accused him of raising the price unnecessarily to extract more money from me and he looked downcast and said: “Mommy I would never cheat you”. With our reliable guard standing by, I conceded and handed over the additional N1,000 but reiterated again and again that I expected a quality outcome. “Of course mommy, of course”.

Saturday arrived and I had moved virtually all of our belongings into our new home by the time Babylon turned up at 9am, still without aforementioned sheet of plywood. He spent a short time finishing the shelves before leaving for Kafanchan to collect the wood. Before he left he pleaded for help getting treatment for his sick daughter who was suffering from ‘catarrh with dysentery’ (OK – perhaps that was another clue). Being a soft-hearted type, I duly helped.

It was during the three hours or so that he was in ‘Kafanchan’ that the toilet seat contemplation took place and by the time he finally arrived not only was that repaired, but I had also filled all the water butts, hung the mosquito nets, scrubbed and rinsed the bathroom floors and successfully concluded surgery on the (almost unused) kerosene stove.

As Babylon walked through the front gate toting the large sheet of bendy plywood on his head, his spirits were much improved, and clearly not just from the anticipation of creating a really special piece of furniture for me. But by then it was too late to just send him straight home as he’d been warned when he was originally commissioned. Oh if only we’d followed our own instructions.

Leaving him at work with the plywood, I made a quick trip to Kagoro’s Saturday market to pick up fresh vegetables, bread and fruit but by the time I returned, the damage had already been done. The plywood had been cut and cobbled together so badly that there were barely two straight edges to be found and at least half the nails were protruding in places they should have not been.

I brought all this to Babylon’s attention however I was not buying the downcast ‘sorry mommy’ look. The least that he had done was ruin a perfectly good piece of plywood. The worst was fraudulently extracting extra funds not only for materials but also for his sick daughter: funds which he subsequently drank. He started fumbling over the pathetic excuse for a cabinet trying to ‘make good’ but his attempts were so clumsy that we feared more damage and indeed personal harm would be done if he continued. He was sent packing immediately with half of his agreed pay, no ‘on-time’ bonus and harsh words from me.

This cabinet would struggle to register a 'Pass' in an 'O'Level Woodworking exam...Nails protruding, layers delaminating and structurally unsound... Oh dear.

Unfortunately Babylon’s situation is all too common in Kagoro.

Drunkenness is rife amongst men and women. Scarce Naira that should be saved for school fees, medical bills and – well food for the family – is simply drunk. Our local Catholic parish priest Father Richard lamented on the increasing incidence of liver cirrhosis causing untimely deaths living further impoverished widows and orphans.

So far, Alcoholics Anonymous has not been added to the list of Fantsuam’s ‘integrated model of rural development’ however, and I mean this seriously, perhaps it should? There are so many direct enemies in the fight against poverty: unemployment, inadequate education, lack of infrastructure. However all too often some of the basic building blocks for ‘development’ like paying for health care and school fees, let alone responsible parenting, are foregone to alcohol.

When a friend you often see drunk approaches you asking for money to fix a shoe or make an essential journey, it’s all too easy to preach: “Well if you just saved what you spent on alcohol....” however of course the solution's not that easy. Life for most in Kagoro is not that easy. Many people will have less than N50 (20p) a day to spend, will be unemployed with bleak prospects, craving a family but being unable to support one. Drink is an easy ‘out’ to plaster over the problems albeit temporarily.

We too, the girls of the Pink House could buy a new toilet seat. But we prefer duct tape. It’s easier.

As Teleri comments: it’s all about coping mechanisms and priorities.