Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Yemisi Ransome-Kuti: A great highlife party for an Amazon

• As published in The Guardian, Wednesday January, 8)

• The celebrant being inducted into the Elders’ fold

By Armsfree Ajanaku
SOMEONE whispered that she sat and gazed with the mien of a queen. There was also a radiant smile that lit up her face. Her dress was sleek and black, and she draped her shoulders with what looked like an Aso Oke. Yemisi Ransome-Kuti left no one in doubt that she was the one being celebrated at the edition number 74 of the Great Highlife Party, otherwise known as the Elders’ Forum. Not even the craze for football (there was an English Premier League game being shown on the flat screens at O’Jez restaurant) could take the shine off the event put together by the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) and O’Jez entertainment. So it was that as the celebrant sat waiting for adherents of “African time” to arrive, so that the party gets underway, she was constantly inundated with hugs from admirers and well-wishers.
Even the sound check from the bandstand got everyone present swaying on their seats as the sonorous combination of saxophones, trumpets and drums filled the cosy evening air.
That was the point when compere of the event, the indefatigable Benson Idonije welcomed guests and declared that the night was one of celebration. Fat and juicy hits from the highlife scene in the 1960s came pouring down from the band, and the applause that followed after each rendition showed that the audience was increasingly getting into the groove.
Then came Maliki Showman who brought his energy as a performer to bear on the show. He made amazing music with his sax and tried to get the crowd dancing. As his sax led the way during what proved to be a musical journey into the past, it was backed up by the tingling slaps from Joseph Daniel and Papa Wori on konga. However, the audience was just content with enjoying the music from their seats.

• Yemisi at the show

All that changed the moment Fatai Rolling Dollar came on stage.
The octogenarian strummed and stroked his guitar with the expertise of the virtuoso that he truly is. Unlike the previous performances, the saxophone and other horn instruments did not feature in Rolling Dollars’ performance, but the sounds of his guitar, the drums and the keyboard created a rhythm that was too difficult to resist. This resulted in every available space being taken up by dancing crowd. Yemisi was so impressed with the tunes from Rolling Dollar that she got him to autograph one of his CDs for her.
For those who do not know, the Elders’ Forum, beyond celebrating icons in society also initiates qualified celebrities into elderhood in a ritual marked by prayers for the celebrant. Yemisi was initiated into Elderhood by the elders themselves. The trio of Steve Rhodes, Ben Lawrence and Lekan Animashaun performed the ritual. The prayer by the elders was for more strength and the ability to carry on the good works that the celebrant has been involved in.
There was also unanimity that the honour done Yemisi by the Elders’ Forum was richly deserved. Speaker after speaker extolled her talent as an artiste and her forthrightness in the defence of the voiceless.
In her response to the honour done her, the mother of four and grandmother of four sounded a bit overwhelmed. She paid glowing tributes to the Forum, and even suggested that Idonije, should have Ransome-Kuti added to his name because of the long relationship he has had with the Kuti family. This generated an applause and laughter.
Yemisi did not however allow the celebration to eclipse her activist leanings. The activist in her was glaring in her lamentation of the “poverty and desolation” in the country, despite the abundant wealth available.

• Esconsced by the elders

Also, to show that the artiste in her had not been affected by her foray into the NGO world, Yemisi did soulful rendition of a song composed by her grandfather, Ise Oluwa. The song speaks to the indestructibility of the work of the creator and to show that Nigeria is a work of the almighty, she ended the song by declaring in an emphatic voice: “Nigeria will be great again.” It was a moment of profound expression of patriotic fervour and love for motherland.
The event provided the celebrant an opportunity to talk a little about her life. She talked about her children with pride. She enthused on their very successful standing: “I have a son that is an engineer, and a daughter who has a Master’s in International Public Policy, she is currently working in Chatham House, which is one of the number one think tanks in the United Kingdom for international policies, and of course I have a son who is also doing very well with the British Railways in the UK. I equally have a daughter who is an artiste in the UK”.
With nostalgia, she recalled the upbringing of her children: “There have been joyful moments, seeing them grow up and overcoming the challenges of being born into the family they were born into, which is not the usual family. So they have had to understand how to adapt the modern to the traditional, by retaining what is good in our culture, and at the same time be forward-looking people.”
On the struggle for a greater Nigeria, the civil society activist called on the younger generation to start seeing the struggle as theirs, since it was apparent that the older champions of democracy and good governance were already leaving the stage due to age. “ They (the youths) must begin to know what these human rights are about. They must see themselves as humans first of all, because if they do not respect their own humanity, then they would allow people to treat them anyhow. There is no reason why young persons should not achieve their dreams, but the obstacle on our way now is those we have selected into power, or those we have allowed to select themselves into power.”

• Guests at the event: Steve Rhodes; to his left, Chief Femi Asekun; Tunde Osofisan; and Kunle Idowu and other guests

Reacting to whether she has any regrets, Yemisi replied that she has always seen life as a problem solving exercise. “As a unique creation of the almighty, you have been given certain challenges, and it is the overcoming that makes you who you are. If you don’t have challenges in this world, you are nothing and so you must embrace your challenges, not to let them overwhelm you, but to believe that they have come because you are the best person that can solve that problem”.
As expected, the place of the Nigerian woman did not escape her incisive analysis. Sadly, she noted that Nigeria might have to wait some time before it would produce its first female leader. This she surmised is the result of the patriarchal nature of the society, where the man sees himself as superior even if there is evidence to the contrary. “Because of the patriarchal culture we have, we tend not to respect women. They are our mothers, our sisters and wives, they control the men one way or the other, but the psyche of the average man is that he is superior.

• Yemisi and a friend, Tokunbo Akintola-Williams

The night got darker outside, but inside the venue of the Great Highlife Party, the celebration of this artiste, activist and icon continued with pleasant Highlife tunes from the veteran Alaba Pedro… and the party rolled on to near midnight before the last note died off the stage.

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