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Steppin' into the Screen: Elder's Corner - A documentary about Nigeria's music & history

You’ve probably heard a lot of Nigerian music in your lifetime - maybe even without realizing it. Fela Kuti comes to mind of course, some popular compilations like ‘Doing It In Lagos’ on Soundway records. Personally, I didn’t really know a lot about the country or its history but I did know a little bit about the music coming from Africa’s most populous country.

So when I could watch an early online screening of Elder’s corner, I was excited and ready for a decent dose of Nigerian music knowledge. This documentary takes you on a historical and musical journey, honing in on the incredible pioneers (the Elders) in the Nigerian music scene.

Elder’s Corner is a documentary, but it's also a story of the universal human experience. A story of persistence & overcoming downturn. A story of belief, spirituality & roots.

“A flowing river which forgets its source will very quickly run dry” - Yoruba proverb

Siji Awoyinka (director) was born in London from Nigerian parents. The documentary tracks his 10 year-long journey, going back to his roots and discovering the Elders of Nigerian music. He says: “If I can get a sense of these people, I can get a grasp of the country and my sense of belonging to it.”

In the process, he shows us the, at times horrible, history of Africa’s most populous country. We learn the harrowing tales and the uprising of their independence from the founding fathers of Juju, Highlife & Afrobeat. Starting in 1950s Nigeria, we see that the country is under colonial rule, the documentary then takes us all the way through the period of independence, the dark times of Civil War, and ends with the oil boom period in the 70s.

Through the stories told by the Elders & their music, we learn about Nigeria’s history, shaped by a rich oral tradition whether it be through folk tales and/or music. As per usual, music is a product of its surroundings and in Elder’s Corner as well, we see the impact every period had on the music.

After WW2, the country's traditional folk music was fused with influences from the West (USA, Carribean & England). Highlife was born from blending the magical haphazard nature of Jazz with the harmonious horns heard in Calypso music. It's music that connected with people in the deepest part of the heart. Culture was translated into music for people to hear, and feel.

British colonial rule came to an end with Nigeria's Independence in 1960. Highlife music was a unifying force throughout the country. Bandleaders assembled musicians from all over the country and recorded in different dialects to reach wider audiences.

However, after independence, there was a period of Civil War that deprived people of going out at night or going to clubs. Musicians had a hard time playing their music, which was a necessary escape. Hopes and dreams of an entire generation were dashed in the tragedy of war, a pivotal moment in the nation's history and for a moment the music stopped, altering the lives of some of its brightest stars forever.

A recurring theme in Nigeria's history was that of class struggle, which peaked in the Oil Boom period. Festac 77 - a global celebration of black (cultural) pride - took place but locals couldn't attend even though artists were flown in from all over the globe. Fela Kuti, one of Nigeria’s most popular musicians (and political commentators) wasn’t invited.

A notable absence in the documentary were the Nigerian women in music. The Lijadu Sisters are one exception.

By listening to the soulful stories told by the Elders, you get a sense of their lives through these different periods. All throughout we hear their wonderful music and Siji Awoyinka even demonstrates how he brings the musicians back to the studio to record an album, hold tight because the release date is sometime later this year!

Elder’s Corner will be screened on July 10th in Melkweg, Amsterdam, courtesy of the Africadelic organisation. This screening will also be the official Dutch premiere! I highly recommend you to go and see it, as Siji Awoyinka's 10 years of work resulted in an absolute MINT (see Film Condition Board below) audiovisual tale.

At its heart, Elder's Corner is a voyage of return and discovery, an epic tale of survival, using music to reconnect the past to the present. In Nigeria's powerful oral tradition, vital historical information passes through generations by story telling, proverbial sayings and songs. Music forms an essential part of this tradition, a platform showcasing to the world who we truly are. - Siji


James Brown
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