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Pan through Time: Yoruba Folkloric Films


This week, we will go back in time. To the beginning of Yoruba films. Nollywood is doing tremendously well, gaining international recognition and meeting first world standards in movie production.

You can’t talk of Yoruba folklore, wrongly called “folkloric”, without talking about the father of contemporary Yoruba theatre”. Oloye Hubert Adedeji Ogunde.

Ogunde was a Nigerian actor, playwright, theatre manager, and musician who founded the Ogunde Theatre Party, the first contemporary professional theatrical company in Nigeria.

He has been described as the father of Nigerian theatre. In his career on stage, he wrote more than 50 plays, most of which incorporate dramatic action, dance and music with a story reflecting the political and social realities of the period.

His first production was a church-financed play called The Garden of Eden that premiered at Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos, in 1944.

Its success encouraged Ogunde to produce more plays and he soon left his job with the police force for a career in theatre.

In the 1940s, he released some plays with political commentaries: The Tiger’s Empire, Strike and Hunger and Bread and Bullet in 1950.

During the 1950s, he toured various Nigerian cities with his travelling troupe. In 1964, he released Yoruba Ronu, a play that generated controversy and earned him the wrath of Akintola, premier of the Western Region.

In the late 1970s, Ogunde was spurred by the success of Ija Ominira and Ajani Ogun, two pioneer Yoruba feature-length films, to co-produce his first celluloid film, Aiye, in 1980. He released three more feature-length films influenced by Yoruba mysticism.

Ogunde distinguished his group by using promotion methods such as advertisements and posters and changing the round stage used by alarinjo performers to one with a proscenium.

In addition, he introduced dramatic action and realism into his plays depending on the audience for commercial support. By these acts Ogunde began the rise of modern professional theatre in Nigeria, a movement in which he remains the father figure.

After leaving his job as a police constable, Ogunde moved away from his earlier focus on religious themes and started writing plays that were nationalistic or anti-colonial in outlook, a trend in Lagos during the furious forties. During this period, many of his early movies were co-directed by G. B. Kuyinu.

In early 1945, he produced worse than Crime, a political play infused with Yoruba dance and ancient folk songs and like most of his early plays, it was premiered at Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos.

Later in that year, he wrote The Black Forest and Journey to Heaven, two Yoruba operas that also improved on his use of traditional Yoruba folklore but with the latter having a strong Christian influence.

In November 1945, he wrote a pro-labour play, Strike and Hunger motivated by the events of a general strike by labour unions led by Michael Imoudu. In 1946 he wrote and produced Tiger’s Empire.

Premiered on 4 March 1946, Tiger’s Empire was produced by The African Music Research Party and featured Ogunde, Beatrice Oyede and Abike Taiwo. The advertisement for the play was the result of Ogunde’s call for “paid actresses”.

It marked the first time in Yoruba theatre that women were billed to appear in a play as professional artists in Light in their own right.

Tiger’s Empire was an attack on colonial rule. He followed Tiger’s Empire with Darkness and Light, a play he vaguely remembers.

Later in 1946, he produced Devil’s Money, an African story about a man who entered a contract with an evil spirit so as to get rich.

The folk opera was successful with a set of twenty-four actors donning costumes. After the death of Herbert Macaulay, he wrote the opera Herbert Macaulay, to commemorate the life of the nationalist who died in 1946.

He then released another political themed play, Towards Liberty in 1947. Before 1948, Ogunde plays were staged in Lagos and occasionally in Abeokuta, both his growing popularity in other Western Nigeria provinces made him think about traveling to other cities with his theatre troupe.

In 1948, he went on a tour major Western Nigerian cities with his group, including stops at Abeokuta, Ibadan, Oyo, Ede and Ogbomosho.

When he took his tour to the north, he had two major encounters with the police due to the political context of Worse than Crime and Tiger’s Empire.

His first tour outside Nigeria was not well received by the Ghanaian audience largely because they did not understand the Yoruba language and Ogunde was ignorant about the tastes of the audience.

Ogunde wrote his first satire, Human Parasites, about the craze for Aso Ebi, a social culture which encourage both men and women to buy the most expensive materials for social gatherings.

“The custom has lent itself to much abuse in that the occasions for celebrating marriages of funerals occur so often that one may be asked by friends to buy ‘Aso Ebi’ more than ten times a year”.

Human Parasites lampooned Lagos socialites but many of them were Ogunde’s patrons. Around the time, he wrote Human Parasites, he changed the name of his troupe to Ogunde Theatre Party from the previous name of African Music Research Party.

Ogunde’s earliest dramas were folk operas whereby the actors on stage sang their lines with limited dialogue.

In 1947, Ogunde and Adesuwa, his wife and co-star traveled to London to make contacts with the promotion of his shows in England. The talks were not fruitful but in London, they had the opportunity to take waltz and tap dance classes.

In his later operas, he syncretized the waltz with the traditional Batakoto dance and tap dance with traditional Yoruba Epa dance.

At the inauguration of the complete musical works of the late theatre impresario, which held at the June 12 Cultural Centre, Abeokuta, the personalities submitted that the messages of the late Ogunde still held much meaning to the society, especially the Yoruba race 20 years after his death.

In attendance was renowned Yoruba scholar, Late Chief Adebayo Faleti who die who on July 23, 2017.The Yoruba race and Nigeria at large lost one of its finest minds, one of its brightest sons and perhaps the best of its philosophers.

Other notable personalities to remember in the industry is Tunde Kelani who was responsible for the circulation of Zimbabwean movies in Nigeria while John Ribber, his associate distributed “Thunderbolt” and “Saworoide”.

Ola Balogun is one to remember. He is a Nigerian filmmaker and scriptwriter. He also ventured into the Nigerian music industry in 2001.

Balogun, who has been making films for more than three decades, is part of the first generation of Nigerian filmmakers
Ajani Ogun, Balogun’s first indigenous Yoruba-language film is a musical released in celluloid form in 1975.

The film had Ade Love in the lead role, while the majority of the crew came from Duro Ladipo’s travelling theatre troupe.

Balogun reached a wider audience with Ajani Ogun and the success of the film led to an increase in the adoption of stage plays performed by Yoruba traveling theatres into feature-length movies.

After the success of Ajani Ogun, his next project was Musik Man, a movie produced in pidgin and English so as to reach a wider audience. However, the film was not financially successful.

Balogun bounced back with Ija Ominira, an adaptation of Adebayo Faleti’s novel, Omo Olokun Esin, which was being performed on stage by a theatre troupe.

The movie was produced in collaboration with Ade Love, his lead actor in Ajani Ogun; Ade Love was also the lead actor in Ija Ominira.

There were filming difficulties between Balogun and Ade Love on the set of Ija Ominira, both men had minor disagreements about the direction of the movie.

Balogun followed Ade Love’s Ija Ominira with A Deusa Negra also known as Black Goddess, which he both wrote and directed; the project was a Nigerian-Brazilian collaboration distributed by Embrafilme of Brazil.

A Brazilian producer had seen some of Balogun’s previous works and asked him to shoot a new movie in Brazil. Despite some tensions and financial challenges, he completed the film in 1978.

Yoruba Films have managed to remain relevant, improving on production and content. New acts and talented technical gurus also developed interest in the industry due to the success of the past.

Now we know Kunle Afolayan, a renowned cinematographer who has taken filming to another level. He recently produced “Banuso”. A creative work available online for download.

Online media became and remained has remained a relevant tool in the marketing and distribution aspect of the industry’s output.

Popular Actress, Funke Akindele, most popular for her lead role in “Jenifa”, is one brilliant innovator who used mobile standards for her movie series “Jennifer’s Diary” when she discovered it was mostly downloaded on portable devices. She also produces with Quality cameras that online platforms conform with.

The Yoruba movie industry, wrongly called Yoruba-Nollywood has survived different generations of actors and still managed to remain relevant in the country’s entertainment sector.

This achievement cannot be unconnected to the activities of the practitioners, who have kept up with the pace despite the many challenges.

We are familiar with actors like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dayo Ade, Femi Adebayo, Mercy Aigbe, Iyabo Ojo, Odunlade Adekola, Muyiwa Ademola, Funsho Adeolu, Kareem Adepoju, Sikiru Adesina, Adeyemi Afolayan, Gabriel Afolayan, Legendary Kunle Afolayan to mention a few.


About the author

Ihesiulo Grace

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