The Oral Tradition: Performance and the Revival of the Book

by Segun Akinlolu

(A paper delivered at the International Conference in the Writing and Practice of Performance Poetry held at Bath Spa University College, England from 10 – 13 July 2003.)

Poetry is one of the most potent tools through which art shapes cultures and nations. The influence of poets on political thought and action in modern states is well-documented. Poets in almost every culture of the ancient world held prime positions in society in recognition of the spiritual renewal and group identity and cohesion that their works promoted.

In pre-colonial Africa, as recent as one hundred years ago, many tribes had families whose specialty was to learn and transmit the history and beliefs of the tribe from generation to generation. These were the repository of the clan’s common culture who gave renditions in poetic language to remind leaders and the people of their past. Oral poetry was an essential aspect of intra and inter-community communication. Whole villages would gather in a market place to listen to the wandering hereditary poets. These poets, the eyes and ears of their society, soon evolved into stinging social critics, graduating from walking libraries of cultural history to being the conscience of the community and advocates for societal reformation. Many also developed their art into a praise form and became poets of the royal palaces, employed to laud, in specially composed odes, the heroic deeds and the esteemed lineage of the aristocracy. Through these poets, Africans preserved their history and culture for many generations while at same time evolving home-grown political philosophy. Their words and works ensured the definition and formalisation of identity.

With western education, the advent of written literature, and the mass media, the sight of the wandering poet became a rarity. The village poet slowly faded into obscurity as a new kind of poet, trained to write in a foreign language and borrowing from a colonising culture took pre-eminence. To free Africa and self-govern, Africans had to read and learn the ways of the European. This explosion in reading created also a growing market for both native writer-poets and their mentors and idols in Europe. Subsequent generations of Africans mainly read to be part of a new and emerging educated and growing elite and it seemed the further you moved from the old ways, the better you were in the eyes of your peers and society. Libraries, private and public, sprang up. Africa’s romance with the book blossomed.

A few decades on, the story has changed. While many young people still look to western education and tastes for acceptance into high society, the tools of this transition have changed, more and more young Africans are picking their education from the electronic medium. The publishing industry in Nigeria which witnessed an economic boom in tandem with the oil boom of the 70’s is today in a freeze. Growing up in the deeply cultural university city of Ibadan, I was part of a generation of youth that gobbled up every printed word – from the most ragged student newsletter, to the dailies and innovative fiction/romance series both from home and abroad. With the economic downtown and the social and political upheavals of the 1980’s, the book suddenly lost its appeal. A new generation was growing up which borrowed its wisdom not from the printed word but from the oft empty and morally-corrupt lyrics of popular western pop musicians. The 90’s did not fare much better as one brutal military government after another took over and poverty became the lot of the majority of Nigeria’s population. Schools no longer had enough teachers and the few that were left, had no motivation. Parents who could encourage children to read, themselves, were no longer reading because there was virtually no time after the day was chewed up with surviving.

Today, there are perhaps two generations of Nigerians with a deep-seated aversion to reading whose culture does not extend to the enjoyment of literature or anything that might suggest any degree of intellectual exertion. What I have just described is a common phenomenon across Africa, a fact which I have discovered on travelling to a few other African countries and from interaction with writers and publishers from all over the continent. Most of the time, literary workers have blamed government policies for strangulating the publishing industry through high tariffs and poor economic policies, which is accurate, but there is another very important, and overlooked reason: many writers might also have failed their audience in not seeking a producer-propelled solution.

Faced with the reality of a public rapidly losing interest in the printed word, and a comatose book industry – catastrophic for textual poetry which never had much of a followership in the first place – a new generation of African poets is looking to the past for inspiration. A revival of the oral traditions has begun in the urban centres by performance poets who strive to integrate traditional values with contemporary economic and political realities. Employing music and drama as the vehicle for their words, these poets’ fora are diverse: schools, caf├ęs, large outdoor gatherings. They are also making in-roads into homes via radio and television, garnering more devotees as their works become more relevant everyday. The interaction between sight and sound that performance poetry engenders may be the principal reason for its remarkable growth in a short period of time. Or could it be that this is the form in which poetry was always supposed to be presented for it to have an inspiring and enduring effect on the listener? It is worthy of note that a lot of published works are purchased after these performances. Perhaps after watching a poem performed, the audience rediscovers meaning and relevance in the published form? Perhaps this is the key to reviving the reading culture in Africa and wherever else this malady exists?

As a poet I am aware of the uphill task confronting me in my quest to get an audience for my work in the light of the foregoing and the fact that the public perception of textual poetry as an esoteric, intellectual occupation has drastically reduced the influence of poets on modern societies, especially in Africa. Unfortunately, at no other time is the African thinker and poet more important and needed than now. Many young Africans, who through no fault of their own, are deficient in the knowledge of and immersion in their own culture, plough through each day pretending they are something else. With the traditional home and community structure being gradually eroded, an identity crisis has set in and the unending confusion further drives the young to foreign cultures. The cultural invasion of Nigeria has resulted in a seeming corporate amnesia of our rich heritage. If cultural identity is a major input in the development and recognition of states and if citizens of separate states would be equal players in the emerging global village, Africans have to rediscover their diverse cultures and immerse themselves in order not to be further abused as the world rapidly homogenises. Performance poets are well positioned to be some of the best agents towards achieving this goal.

The question is often asked how one hopes to connect the past with our present realities in a foreign language. Our technique is to borrow idioms and imagery from our rich history in telling our stories and in our poems. The songs are often in the local language as well. Performance poetry is more of an urban thing anyway and in these urban centers, the official language is the best way to reach the largest concentration of people. The naturally gifted poet of African extraction who is well steeped in his culture would always find the four corners of a page too limiting. Performance allows the words to grow legs, gives imagery colour and lends credibility to the position taken. The book suddenly comes alive for the reader!

We writers have a major role to play in reviving the book. Gathering at every book fair and major literary festival to bemoan our fate or berate the government for the failure of the publishing industry should become secondary to innovative solutions developed by ourselves. Innovations at all levels of the society must be exercised to propel Africa into a new glorious era. There is a lot of useful material in our culture and rich, glorious past that we can employ free of charge.

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