Who was Hubert Ogunde?
The memories of Hubert Ogunde, the founding father of Nollywood in Nigeria and first doyen of traditional Nigerian drama, still lingers 23 years after he had passed on.
Ogunde, as he was fondly called by both old and young, dominated the theatre for several decades, leaving his foot prints behind. The legend, performed his first folk opera, “The Garden of Eden and the Throne of God’’, which was rated as a huge success far back 1944.
The opera was produced under the patronage of an African Protestant sect, mixed with biblical themes and traditions of Yoruba dance-drama while he was still with the Nigerian Police Force. His popularity was established throughout Nigeria by his timely play “Strike and Hunger’’ (performed in 1946), which dramatized the national strike of 1945. In 1946, the name of Ogunde’s group was changed to the African Music Research Party, and in 1947, it became the Ogunde Theatre Company.
Many of Ogunde’s early plays were attacks on colonialism, while his later works with political themes, deplored inter-party strife and corruption in government circles in Nigeria. Yoruba theatre became secularized through his careful blending of astute political or social satire with elements of music hall routines and slapstick.
Ogunde’s most famous play, `Yoruba Ronu’’ (performed in 1964 meaning Yoruba think), was such a biting attack on the premier of Nigeria’s Western Region which led to the banning of the company from the region — the first literary censorship in post-independence Nigeria. The ban was, however, lifted in 1966 by the first military government in the country, and in that same year, the Ogunde Dance Company was formed. “Otito Koro’’, (Truth is Bitter), also performed in 1965, satirizes political events in Western Nigeria in 1963. An earlier play produced in 1946, “The Tiger’s Empire’’, also marked the first instance in Yoruba theatre that women were billed to appear in a play as professional artists in their own right.
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Ogunde’s technique was to sketch out the basic situation and plot, write and rehearse only the songs of his plays. The dialogue was improvised, thus allowing the actors to adjust to their audience. The plays produced by his company usually reflected the prevailing political climate and interpreted for audiences the major issues and the aspirations of those in power.
The colossus traversed the length and breadth of Nigeria performing with ease particularly in remote villages and in metropolitan cities as well as West Africa. Many of Ogunde’s later folk operas were basically popular musicals featuring jazzy rhythms, fashionable dance routines, and contemporary satire. Through this format, he set an example for a successful commercial theatre and prepared audiences all over Nigeria for his followers. In the 60s and 70s, his plays became an important part of the urban pop culture of West Africa.
How He Started
His first love was teaching before joining the Nigerian Police Force. Like many of his contemporaries such as A. B. David, P. A. Dawodu, Layeni and G.T. Onimole, his theatre career began under the patronage of the Church. For instance, his first opera — The Garden of Eden and The Throne of God, was commissioned by the Lagos-based Church of the Lord, a sect of the Cherubim and Seraphim Society – it was in aid of the Church building fund.
A public outcry had been going on for a year at that time over the growth of a “social evil’’ which was entering Lagos society. It was popularly called the “Aso Ebi craze’’, a craze which required both men and women to buy the most expensive materials for social gatherings.
The rule was that when someone wants to celebrate a marriage or a funeral, he or she chooses an imported or local fabric for the family and their guests to wear as uniform on the occasion. The number of people to wear the uniform with her shows her popularity and social connections.
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. This craze, of course, bred intense competition with celebrants trying to outshine one another. It was a competition that delighted textile traders, but which often ruined marriages, as women were known to leave husbands who could not afford to robe them, for lovers who could.
Ogunde decided to make his first social satirical comment by writing a play designed to expose the vulgarity and ostentation of the craze. He called the play “Human parasites’’ — a tragedy in two Acts describing ‘Aso Ebi as a social evil. In modern day Nigeria, particularly in South-West and South-East, the “aso ebi’’ has become a craze or fad that will not go away!
His Professional Years
In 1948, Ogunde’s troupe went on a tour of Ghana, their first trip outside Nigeria. They met with little success: their performance of King Solomonwas negatively received as Ogunde discovered that theatre-goers on the Gold Coast preferred old time music hall and variety shows. Despite the failed tour’s heavy financial toll (Ogunde owed his cast a month's salary and the lorry-owners their fare), he bought saxophones and trumpets and returned to Ghana with a variety program he called Swing the Jazz. This turned out to be a massive success and Ogunde’s troupe managed to recover their name and reputation. Despite the great success he had with Swing the Jazz, Ogunde was uninterested in bringing the concert party to Nigeria. Instead he debuted two new pieces: Yours Forever andHalf/Half. The latter was met with particular acclaim, even for the usually popular and well-received Ogunde operas.
1949 was the year of the tragic Iva Valley Massacre during which twenty-one striking miners in Enugu were shot and killed by the British colonial government. A year later, Ogunde’s troup would address the issue with a production entitled Bread and Bullet. After the opera premiered in October 1950, Ogunde took the piece to Northern Nigeria where the play was deemed seditious and banned in Kano, Kaduna and Makurdi (the capital of Benue State). Ogunde and his troupe were also fined £6 for putting up posters advertising the performances.
Alongside composing Bread and Bullet, Ogunde made a number of stylistic developments such as the inclusion of foreign instruments, dialogue and the use of the English language. The 1950s also saw Ogunde subject his company to gruelling tours both within and outside the country. This had a detrimental effect on his work as he would compose only six new pieces in a nine-year span: My Darling Fatima (1951); Portmanteau Woman; Beggars Love (1952); Princess Jaja (1953),Delicate Millionaire (1957) and Village Hospital (1958). During this period the name of his company would change from the Ogunde Theatre Party to the Ogunde Concert Party.
Yoruba Ronu and Western Nigeria Ban
Aside from Song of Unity, which was specially commissioned to celebrate Nigeria’s independence in October 1960, Ogunde wrote no new plays between 1960 and 1963 until he composed Yoruba Ronu (Yoruba think!). In 1964, following Obafemi Awolowo’s imprisonment on charges of treason, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola had broken away from the Western Region’sAction Group to form the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNPD). This meant that the Yoruba, who had previously had one political organisation to identify with and draw patronage from, now possessed two; a schism that was in stark contrast to the ethnic groups in other regions who continued to enjoy tribal solidarity. Ogunde’s aim in composing the piece was to ask Yoruba people to set aside their differences and unite once more. The play's main song became immensely popular and its title was later adopted by the NNPD as their slogan.
The play was first staged in Ibadan at the inauguration of the Egbe Omo Olofin on February 28, 1964. Among the various dignitaries and political figures in the audience was Chief Akintola. When it became apparent that Ogunde’s allegorical piece was a direct attack on him and his rule, he and several others walked out. The play was later staged in Lagos on March 2 as part of Ogunde's theatre company’s twentieth anniversary celebrations; there were further performances in March and April before the play was to begin its tour of the western region. The first performance was due to start in Ilesha when minutes before the curtain rose, Ogunde was informed by security forces that his theatre troupe had been banned from performing: the Western Region's government had labeled Ogunde’s group an unlawful society. People, papers and parties all voiced their disapproval of the government’s actions but the extensive press coverage and public outcry did little to help Ogunde’s cause. The Western Regional government further clamped down on Ogunde and banned the playing of his music on the region-wide Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service radio and television stations.
The ban lasted two years and almost financially crippled Ogunde’s company as the majority of Yoruba people, his primary audience, lived in Western Nigeria. The group managed to stay afloat by performing in other parts of the country. Following the first military coup in January 1966, Ogunde immediately wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel FA Fajuyi (the military governor of the Western Region) and the head of state Major General JTU Aguiyi Ironsi asking them to lift the ban on his company. On February 4, 1966, the ban was lifted and Ogunde was once again able perform in front of a Yoruba-speaking audience. The military government would further strengthen bonds with Ogunde’s company by inviting him to form a dance troupe to represent Nigeria at the ’67 Expo in Montreal, Canada. The Ogunde Dance Company became the third of Hubert Ogunde’s troupes and performed at a number of renowned venues and festivals such as Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod,Fairfield Halls, and the Apollo Theater.
Was Hubert Ogunde in The Occult?
On the source of Ogunde’s artistic prowess, Mrs Mary Adekoya Ogunde, one of his wives recalled that “late Ogunde use to tell us that his grand father was a powerful herbalist and he patiently understudied, investigated and monitored their peculiar language and actions at their meetings. He claimed he memorised many things and stayed constantly in touch with the elders.
According to her, Ogunde also possess God bestowed wisdom initiatives intuition and talent. She recollected that the artistic icon was never into occultism. “When I was there, he had no secret. I used to wash his cloths, his mind is so open. He had nothing hidden anywhere. We all have access to his cupboard and very personal things. He was like open book that you could read and see everything.”
However I know his mother protected him and advised him a lot. I know that during our association that spanned from 1949 to 1960 he always rebuffed dark things.
“After he died, they claimed he had joined Ogboni cult. That surprised me. I think it must have been in the 1980s that he joined them. Prior to that he was a devout Christian.”
Till he died, people always spoke of a chain that he put on his neck. This was nothing strange. It was just the Star of David.”
It was God that gave him all his talents and abilities. He was very modest helpful and kind with the use of the talents. Whoever ask for his assistance provided you can be patient, he will help you.
He was generous, abhors hatred and ill feeling. She under scored the fact that before Ogunde died he became “born again.”
A Prophecy And A Warning
Mrs Mary Ogunde recounted how a prophecy in a church affected one of their plays. Earlier, according to her Ogunde had been warned in a church that one of his wives was going to be struck with a mysterious illness and that he should look for the cause within his household.
“On the faithful day at Glover Hall in 1954, I put on a wig that had just been procured at Kingsway by late Ogunde to complete the costume of princess jaja. But suddenly my world turned upside down. I became ill and had to be taken away for protective hiding at Ogunde’s hometown Ososa. There was already a hall packed full of fans that wanted to watch the play. All their monies had to be refunded.
“I was treated at Ososa for a whole day and I became well. Because the play had been re-scheduled for the third day, I was persuaded to travel to Lagos to join the troupe for the act. The next incident was worse. I became so ill that I was taken to a renowned medical practitioner in Abeokuta for treatment. He however advised that I should be taken back to Ososa. For over six months the traditionalist investigated the sickness and could not find a cure. At a point all the witch doctor refused to attend to me. It got to a stage even Ogunde was fed up when all efforts proved abortive, I knew his heart was deliberately turned against me.”
“The gratifying thing was that both his parents stood by me because of my previous good deeds, so they sought solution from far and wide.” She recalled that when she became well she became afraid of taking part in any play. The next time they were leaving for a theatre performance she bluntly refused to follow them. “They waited for two days hoping I will join them. I did not.
How He Died
Recalling further Ogunde’s last moments, Mrs Mary Adekoya Ogunde, his seventh wife, noted that she was with him till he breathed his last. “He was acting in the film Mr Johnson in Northern Nigeria when he was brought to London after he fell ill. I was already in London and my son called me to tell me he was on admission at Cromwell Hospital. I immediately left for the Hospital and was attending to him and sleeping at the Hospital with the other wife. In the first few days he expressed his regret that it is when new things like Compact disc and VHS production were advancing that his health started failing.”
According to his wife, in spite of his condition then, he requested to be flown to Jos Northern Nigeria to complete his acting role in Mr Johnson film.
“I refused to let him go but he pleaded with me that he had to go because he did not want to breach the agreements of the film makers who had already paid him.”
By the time Ogunde came back after he was flown away for two days in a chartered jet, his condition had taken a turn for worse, Mrs Ogunde explained. She noted that inspite of the late dramatist condition he was able to reconcile her with her son.
Subsequently he could not eat; at a point he fainted and later stopped talking. Speaking on the last day of the doyen of theatre Mrs Ogunde said that it was a Wednesday in April 1990 at 5.45am. “I was lying sown near his bedside and just stood up, I look at his face, his eyelid fluttered momentarily and it went down.
Then the position of his hands changed and he started breathing heavily. I immediately alerted the doctors, they tried to resuscitate him, but he was gone. They certified him dead and told me and my son to adjust him the way we wanted him in death.”
10 Fascinating Facts About Hubert Ogunde
- He is considered by many to be the forefather of Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry
- He married 12 wives, some of whom were trained by his theatre company
- His company performed at Expo ’67, Canada’s first world’s fair which marked the country’s centennial
- In 1950, his company was fined £6 for putting up posters advertising the play Bread and Bullet in Kano– they were accused of importing inflammatory values into a conservative region
- Throughout his lifetime, none of his productions was ever recorded on video cassettes for sale
- His greatest regret – which he expressed on his death bed – was how unfortunate it was that his health was failing at a time when video cassettes and compact discs were taking off, as he recognised how much of an impact they would have on the film industry
- He had a very sweet tooth
- He was warned once while at church that one of his wives was going to be struck with a mysterious illness and that he should look for the cause within his household. This happened when she was to play the role of Princess Jaja in the play of the same name at Glover Hall, Lagos in 1954. Fans – who were already seated – were told the play had been cancelled because of her sickness and had their money refunded
- He starred in Mister Johnson (1990), a film which also featured James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, and which was shot on location in Jos, Plateau State
- He sent members of his troupe to London to learn tap dancing when it began to rise in popularity, and they returned to teach it to other Nigerian performers