African arts, culture + politics · London culture

The Playwright Q&A: Bola Agbaje

Bola Agbaje colour. Pic by Brian Would

(ARISELIVE.com, March 2013) Words Carinya Sharples  Photo credit Brian Would

In her Olivier-Award winning debut play Gone Too Far, Bola Agbaje brilliantly captured the lives of young black residents on a London council estate. In her new play, The Burial, the playwright draws on her Nigerian heritage in a satire about a daughter, her late father and his two Nigerian wives.

If that sounds like a Nollywood plotline, it’s no wonder. Raised in London (bar a couple of years in Nigeria), Agbaje is fascinated by Nigerian culture and both the country’s firmly established DVD market and its burgeoning cinema scene, and carried out careful research to write the play.

The Burial is set to open at The Albany theatre in Deptford, South East London, on 2 May. But that’s far from the only ink pot Agbaje has her pen in. She has also written a play, Take A Deep Breath And Breathe – inspired by Aristophanes’ famous female-sex-ban play Lysistrata. The production, performed by young actors from Ovalhouse theatre’s Drama Company, runs from 16-20 April.

In a break between rehearsals and castings, ARISE met Agbaje in the café of the Royal Court Theatre, the launchpad for her first play. Perched on a high stool, she told us all about writing the script for the film adaptation of Gone Too Far, exciting future projects, African Buddhists and much more we couldn’t squeeze in here.

Already a fan of ARISE, she was keen to link up. “My aim is to get my work out into Nigeria so for me this is a good thing,” she declared. “It’s such an emerging market and I want to be part of it from the beginning.” Nigeria, are you listening?

ARISE: How are things going with The Burial so far?
Bola Agbaje: It’s cool. We’ve just finished casting and we start rehearsals next week, so at the moment I’m just redrafting it, because I recently had a play on here [at the Royal Court Theatre] called Belong and if you look on it from outside it was about the Black-Nigerian experience and mixed cultures – so with The Burial I wanted people not to make the assumption that it’s the same as Belong. It’s a totally different style, exploring music, dance and dream sequence and fantasy, which I’ve never done before but a lot of traditional African playwrights – like Wole Soyinka – used to do that in their work. Because we didn’t grow up learning African mythology or anything like that it’s a lot harder to incorporate that into your work. So that’s my challenge with this play.

How are you introducing these new forms? Are you bringing in musicians and choreographers?
Well, I’ve sourced the old music myself because I like talking to my parents, asking them about traditional folk songs and stuff like that and incorporating that in it. And then talking to loads of musicians about how to do it, watching loads of different plays and reading old screenplays from African contemporary playwrights. It’s tough. [There’s been] a lot of research for this play. The others you just kind of write from memory but this one… I don’t want to get it wrong!

With more and more African and Nigerian productions coming to London stages – such as The Winter’s Tale in Yoruba, Feast at the Young Vic and the critically acclaimed Mies Julie (still on at Riverside Studios), do you feel there’s more space for Nigerian theatre?
I think so. It’s important to have those voices. Like with any culture, you want an Irish playwright to tell an Irish story, you want a Scottish playwright to tell a Scottish story and I think it’s the same with Nigerians. For too long it feels like we haven’t had a voice in London. There was a time when you had the Wole Soyinkas, the Chinua Achebes, you had all those great authors who came out and had global recognition, but then after a while it just seemed like it kind of died down completely. So it’s nice that now there are more emerging – like [Nigerian playwright] Janice Okoh, she’s got a play on at the moment [Three Birds] at the Bush Theatre. So there are loads more coming out, and there are loads of Nigerian actors – LOADS! So it’s nice to tell those stories and to be given the platform to tell those stories.

Identity has been a theme throughout your work. In The Burial you’re exploring religious identity too. What made you want to approach that?
I’ve always been interested in religious studies and my mum’s a Muslim, but I don’t practise, so it’s kind of weird in my family – where my mum and my sister are practising Muslims but me and my younger sister are not. And I went to a Catholic school when I was younger, so I’ve been exposed to all different types of religions. But I find it quite fascinating how that has an impact on people’s daily lives; how people think, how people react to certain situations – so I wanted to explore that. Tradition more than religion. Like with The Burial, it’s about what traditions do you follow when someone dies? What do you do? How do you bury someone? Because your religion has an impact.

And you brought Buddhism as well into it. That’s more unusual…
Most Africans aren’t Buddhist so I thought it was an interesting twist. I’ve met a few and you know people have raised eyebrows when someone [goes against] what religion you expect. Like [you anticipate] Christian or Muslim or atheist and then they go ‘Buddhist’ – and you’re like, this is a little bit wrong! ‘How did you get involved in that culture?’ So I thought it was interesting to explore that.

And African culture, music and creativity are hot right now in London…
Of course, completely. Whenever I explore my Nigerian culture it is a bit of making up for the lost time when I was younger and wasn’t so proud of it. My sister’s 18 and I find it so fascinating watching her growing up and she can’t believe there was a time when it wasn’t cool to be African. She’s like ‘How is that possible?!’

“We’re at that stage where it’s not about fitting in, it’s about standing out – and [being African] it’s the thing that gives you an edge”

Why do you think things have changed?
I think there are more of us [Africans] in London, in England, and more people are tapping into that. My parents came over in the 80s and, like a lot of parents, their whole idea was to set up a new life and fit in. Whereas now we’re at that stage where it’s not about fitting in, it’s about standing out – and [being African] it’s the thing that gives you an edge.

What would be your ideal project to work on? A TV series? Another film?
At the moment I’m developing a TV series – actually I’m developing a web series that I’m really keen to get off the ground because I’ve seen loads of web series online. Have I heard of Awkward Black Girl? It’s amazing! There’s also a Nigerian one that comes on at the moment called Gidi Up which is only about 8 minutes long but it’s so fascinating so I want to be a part of that movement.

Have you got a concept in mind?
Yeah but I can’t say yet, it’s not out there – someone could steal the idea. But I’m quite excited about that. And I’d love my [theatre] work to be performed in Nigeria and do more TV and more film stuff. I’m working on a collaborative piece for a film idea with Destiny Ekaragha, she’s the director of Gone Too Far. I’ve known her for a while now, we’re worked together closely on this film so I know what I’m in for. We’ve got a similar sense of humour so it won’t be a shock.

Last October [through 2Far Media] I also produced my own play [House Of Corrections at Riverside Studios]; funded it myself and put it on myself. That was quite an experience, a hard experience – I learned to appreciate other aspects of what makes a play come alive. But I want to do more of that – I got a buzz from it.

Nigeria is big on your radar at the moment. Do you want to travel out there sometime?
I do, I do. I might be going out later on this year because one of the lead actors of Gone Too Far, O.C. Ukeje, is one of the rising Nollywood stars so we want to have a premiere out in Nigeria. That will be kind of cool.

Do you know when Gone Too Far will be released?
No. Before its official opening we’re going to do a series of screenings though. So we’ve got one at the end of the month [March], a couple more in May/June and then officially it launches in October – hopefully through London Film Festival. I’m really excited. It’s a good little film.

Would you consider moving to Lagos for a while?
I’d love to. I’ve got loads of family out there so it wouldn’t be a massive leap, and as I writer I can work anywhere. As long as it’s got electricity and internet [laughs]! But I just want to make my mark here, make a bigger stamp on this place first and go over. The aim is to be global, tough task but that’s the aim! And the great thing about writing, making film or having a play is that it can travel around the world. And that’s what’s exciting for me being a writer – your work can reach so many different people, it can live on. Good work lives on for a long time.

Last year I had a version of my play on in Germany, and in Italy they did a translation of my play Gone Too Far, which was really cool. I went to go and see it and it was so weird watching them speak Italian and not understanding a word they were saying but I knew where they were in the story based on where people were laughing. It was amazing to see, and to see that it worked somewhere else.

You’ve named Wole Soyinka as one of your role models. How do you feel about being a role model yourself now?
I grew up in Peckham and I make no shame of growing up on an estate or coming from that environment but if that motivates one person to go off and do something against the norm then I’ll feel like I’ve done my job… Most of the time what you’re inspired by is seeing someone else doing it, it’s those mirrors that people hold up so you go ‘Oh actually if she can do it I can do it too’. It’s like when we were filming Gone Too Far; my nieces and nephews came on set and it was the first time they’ve ever been on a film set and it was fascinating to watch them see the process of filmmaking and then go ‘I want to be a director. I want to be a writer’ – and that’s how it works really. My nephew saw Destiny directing and was like ‘She’s the boss, I want to be the boss!’

The Burial is at The Albany, London, from 2-11 May 2013. For more details and to book tickets visit www.thealbany.org.uk

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Dele Sosimi: Afrobeat Ambassador

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(ARISELIVE.com, 2012) Words Carinya Sharples

Dele Sosimi is the self-confessed ambassador of afrobeat. Ever since he became keyboardist in Fela Kuti’s Egypt 80 band in 1979 at the tender age of 16, he has been promoting the genre.

But like Fela´s former drummer Tony Allen, Sosimi has kept the spirit of afrobeat alive while also taking it into new waters. After playing with Femi Kuti´s Positive Force for eight years, he moved to London in the mid-1990s to strike out alone.

Since then Sosimi has performed at Montreux Jazz Festival, Womad and the Copenhagen Jazz Festival; hooked up with British rapper Ty; and set up his own underground night – London´s answer to The Shrine – the monthly Afrobeat Vibration sessions. Little wonder that he scooped the Outstanding Contribution to Music title at the 2011 Nigerian Entertainment and Lifestyle Awards.

His 15-piece band Dele Sosimi´s Afrobeat Orchestra is due to play at Liverpool´s Africa Oyé festival in July, so we caught up with the man himself on a rare sunny London day (“It´s like we´re back in Lagos!”) to chat Fela, future plans and what he thinks about the new afrobeats wave.

You left Lagos for London nearly 17 years ago now. How has it been?

It’s been fun. It’s been kind of a learning curve for me. I’ve mostly been experimenting with my music, and then trying to evolve the genre by making sure I don’t go stagnant. I’m always happy to try something new. When I initially got to London I was not performing in anything less than a big band but now I do trios, I do quartets, quintets, duets… so I’m ready to experiment as long as there’s a good spirit between me and whoever I’m working with.

Are you collaborating with anyone at the moment?

Right now I´m working with a Brazilian artist, we’re exchanging stuff. Who is it? Well I should keep it under wraps! It’s supposed to be a surprise thing, but I’ll tell you that I’m working on his material to start with then depending on the result we will bring him over to the UK or I will go out to Brazil. We’re not sure what will happen but we’ve got a good spirit. And the jellifying factor is Fela. He loves Fela to bits and when he heard that I was interested in collaborating with him he was over the moon and he was very quick to give me his latest album and say, ‘look listen to that and tell me what you think’.

Any other hookups?

I’m working also with my very good friend, another keyboard player who’s based in London, his name is Kishon Khan. We went to his country, Bangladesh, the year before last and performed in the first Dakar World Music Festival, which was interesting. It was one hell of a performance. We’re definitely going back very soon. But that got me collaborating with him and we’re going to be trying to release a couple of tracks very soon. I happened to also go to India this year so I’m taking afrobeat to two new territories.

You’re like the Afrobeat ambassador

Yeah, more or less. I think I can claim that I’m Afrobeat’s most interesting ambassador at the moment! I’ve taken it to Dakar, Bangladesh; I’ve taken it to Booti in South India and there’s a possibility that I’m going back very soon to those two places and this time I’ll probably stay longer and do some collaborations with local musicians, local traditional Indian musicians. So it’s looking very very interesting in terms of content that people can look forward to.

Do you have much connection with what’s happening in Lagos or Nigeria at the moment?

I try to stay in touch with what’s happening but if you’re not on the ground there there’s no point. You have to be there. And to be honest I’m not there, I’m not there at all! I keep in touch with Femi every once in a while, we chat and all that but it’s not enough. You have to be in Nigeria for you to be relevant. But I’m always looking to see what’s going on, to see what people are doing.

What do you think of the new afrobeats craze?

I don’t know much about it but I know that there’s a particular wave going around now called afrobeats. I don’t know whether it’s a fad, whether it’s a phase but I know there’s a lot about it on Twitter. I also know that a couple of people have made reference to me, Seun Kuti, Fela etc as the originals…For me art is art, I don’t like to criticise art. I think it’s an interesting wave to watch but I still remain true to my upbringing [and] school, and happy to explore, to expand the horizon as long as it’s live and real.

When I performed in India…[there were musicians on stage] surrounded by computers, playing samples, pre-recorded material on a loop… It sounded interesting enough but what I noticed was that there was no energy. When we got on stage the whole vibe changed. When you watch ten men performing afrobeat on stage there’s an energy that you feed off them that makes you move and they are feeding off your return energy.

Why do you remain an independent artist?

Lots of reasons. The industry has changed for starters and I’m a mature artist so I’m more experienced, I’m choosy, I’m picky. And I have not been able to convince myself to sign with a record label, the kind of contract that exists today, which is in my opinion not worth getting involved in. The advent of technology now gives the artist the ability to keep his destiny in his own hands. You can record an album as long as you finance it, you can pay a producer to produce with you if you don’t have those skills and then upon doing that you can release your product yourself. And with the advent of social media networks you can get involved in a lot of things. Working with an established record label is good if they are willing to work with you and earn what they work for – but they always want more.

Are you working on any of your own compositions?

I’ve got quite a number of tracks that I’ve written but – maybe because I’m old school – I don’t believe in releasing something that I have not performed well. When Fela released an album he had been playing that track in The Shrine for over three years. So the band could enter the studio with their eyes closed and record it in one take. That’s what I was exposed to, so I always like doing the same thing. I believe in getting that live feel going, having performed it so many times over and over again you get so used to it and then creatively develop it over the repeated performances so when you get in the studio you know you’re performing the best version of it you can.

What would you say is the most important thing you learnt from Fela?

Loads of different things but one of the most important things is; no matter what happens it’s better to get to your appointment two hours before and be chilled, relaxed and ready than for you to get there late and have to make an excuse. [ARISE: So much for African time!] Oh the African time thing, it’s good it’s all good and all that but to be honest we live in a world today where time is money and time don’t wait for nobody!

What I also learnt from Fela is you need to have somewhere you can be identified with, so in London I have a regular night every two months called Afrobeat Vibration, where if you want to hear what I’ve been up to that is where to go. So that’s where I have been able to keep my sanity, keep my music going, keep my creative juices flowing and also offer an environment for interested musicians, up-and-coming musicians to have an experience of playing afrobeat and funk in front of an afrobeat-loving audience. So I’m really proud of that – four years and we’re still going.

What about future collaborations?

There are a couple of people I’d love to work with. Top on my list is Questlove, it would be nice to do something with him. Last year I did something with the Copenhagen Jazz Festival where we did a Fela tribute, a star-studded line-up of the top jazz musicians based in Denmark, and it was a successful outing so I’m looking forward to doing it again this year – we’re earmarked the 13th or 14th July for that. I’m going to be doing some collaborations with Tony Allen at some point in time too, and I’m looking at collaborating with a couple of hip hop artists because I believe afrobeat is a hip hop artist’s partner – there is a lot they can take out of afrobeat as a vehicle for getting their message across.

Dele Sosimi´s Afrobeat Orchestra is performing at Africa Oyé in Liverpool this July. delesosimi.org; afrobeatvibration.com

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Nigeria’s No 1 Samba School

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(ARISELIVE.com, October 2011) Pictured Seyi Ajeigbe, founder of Eko Samba School in Lagos, with his growing bateria

Words Carinya Sharples

It’s the national music and dance of Brazil, yet the roots of samba stretch back to Africa – from the semba rhythms of Angola to the Yoruban agogô bell. Now one musician is completing the circle by setting up Nigeria’s first samba school.

Seyi Ajeigbe moved to the UK from Nigeria ten years ago and it was in London that he discovered and learnt to play samba. “I was amazed and dazed at the same time,” he remembers. “I had never seen anything like it … the energy was so gripping I had to get involved immediately”.

After performing with many groups – from the London School of Samba to samba reggae band Eri Okan – Ajeigbe decided to share his expertise with young children in his home city, Lagos.

Through his new project, Eko Samba School (named after the traditional Yoruba name for Lagos), Ajeigbe aims to teach samba to kids in disadvantaged communities in the Nigerian city. “The children just love being able to play drums, a lot of them would love to but haven’t got access to anything like it,” says Ajeigbe. “Samba for them is something they’ve never heard of, but they are willing to learn something new, they truly enjoy it and I think it makes them feel like they’re part of an international community.”

On the ground, setting up Eko Samba School has had its obstacles. “We’ve had a lot of difficulties getting any support or recognition from within Lagos itself,” says Ajeigbe. “We couldn’t get into the Lagos carnival… it was also impossble to get an audience at the Brazilian Embassy. No one really knew or understood what we were trying to do except us”. However, he adds, the music has made it all worth it. “The best part so far has been the music itself. It brings a lot of satisfaction to hear the samba swing in the middle of a slum in Lagos, it’s as if the souls of those slaves taken via Lagos to Brazil are returning.”

After returning to Nigeria earlier this year to set up the school, Ajeigbe is back in London to raise capital for the project – to buy much needed resources and instruments. A night of live music will be held on October 30 at East London music venue Cargo to kickstart fundraising. Ajeigbe will perform at the one-off event with his band Agemo, alongside Maracatudo Mafua and a special samba bateria.

For more information on the Eko Samba School fundraiser on October 30 and details on how you can donate to the fund visit www.gandaia.org.

African arts, culture + politics

Wants list

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(ARISE magazine, issue 13) He’s on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, as well as his own website. And now newly re-elected Lagos state governor Babatunde Raji Fashola is encouraging his constituents to go online – to share their visions for Lagos.

At the time of writing, 332 Lagosians have logged on to I See Lagos to upload their photos and requests. Many dream of a constant power supply, affordable housing and good transport. Others have more specific wishes: from an end to the “illegal collection of money from bus drivers and conductors” to simply “C-Train. 15min 4rm Ogba to Aja”.

“What was really the driver behind this project was that we were in a political campaign period and just felt
we need to get people better engaged in what they want a government to do for them,” explained one of the project’s coordinators, Moji Rhodes. The I See Lagos team will be monitoring feedback over the next four years and inviting those who share their visions to high-profile events, such as Governor Fashola’s recent inauguration.

http://www.iseelagos.org.ng

African arts, culture + politics

Vote with your tweet

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(ARISE magazine, issue 12) How do you inspire apathetic young voters? By getting them to fill in their Twitter status. That was the idea behind a campaign by Vote or Quench that urged young Nigerians to tweet about how the upcoming election could change their country, using the hashtag IfNaijaVotes.The one-day action in January provoked a chorus of tweets; as well as trending locally, it was covered by Yahoo and USA Today while celebs such as US rapper Nas and Nigerian singer Nneka tweeted about it. Young voters also joined in via Facebook, smartphones and BlackBerry Messenger.

“We wanted people to donate their status, something that was easy,” says Vote or Quench founder Nosarieme Garrick. “We wanted people to be creative, to have fun with it.” It may have been fun, but there was an important message behind IfNaijaVotes: 70 per cent of Nigeria’s population is under 30, which could mean serious electoral bargaining power, if they take advantage of it.

Through its lively online hub of debate and information, Vote or Quench’s aim is for more 18-35 year olds to become aware of their voting power. “We’re not saying social media is the answer to all our problems,” says Garrick, “but it’s helping to fan the flames. It changes the idea of social activism.”

Vote or Quench is now recording video diaries of first-time voters and calling for a presidential debate on youth issues. In Nigeria’s last ballot, less than half of the electorate voted. With the help of Vote or Quench, that might be about to change.

http://www.voteorquench.org