One other man who can look back with contentment at his lot is Mr Tunji Oyelana, actor, musician, theatre instructor and entrepreneur. He is 70 today, October 4, and his family will be rolling out the drums in London to celebrate a truly distinguished artist who has remained true to his art. In my other life as an artist, Mr Oyelana or Uncle Tunji, as we called him, was one of those memorable figures who linked the past to the present for curious young ones. He made a great mark on the public imagination for more than two decades as an actor, and musician and instrumentalist. In the 60s, Tunji Oyelana was one of the original members of Wole Soyinka's 1960 Orisun Masks. He calls Soyinka "Oga." He was one of the original Soyinka actors travelling all over the world to interprete roles in such plays as Kongi's Harvest, The Road, Madmen and Specialists and Opera Wonyosi, to the delight of audiences.
But he also later burst out on his own as an ethnomusicologist, producing folk music which ruled the airwaves in the 70s and 80s with a group famously known as Tunji Oyelana and The Benders. Many of his albums would qualify as classics in their genre, deploying native wisdom, folklore and wit, mixed with sparse syncopation and antiphony, relying heavily on the human voice and its inflections to lift the spirit. Radio stations loved to play his music and listeners derived much pleasure from them. In the 80s, Tunji Oyelana also acted on television (NTA Ibadan particularly), perhaps the most famous of his engagements in this regard is a sitcom titled Sura de Tailor in which he played the lead role. Many would recall the theme song of that programme which soon caught on with viewers: "Sura de tailor, oko Adunni, the friend of Major, expert in Toro, danshiki, and buba, also English coat and trouser o.... Sura de Tailor is your frie-n-d."
As an actor on stage and on the screen, Tunji Oyelana took his art seriously and he enjoyed his choice. In the 80s at the University of Ibadan, he was an artist in residence in music at the Department of Theatre Arts. Mr Nelson Oyesiku was in charge of classical music, Mr Oyelana, folk and comtemporary music, and Dr Esi Kinni-Olusanyin (formerly E. S. Kinney) taught the theory of music. Professor Adelugba handled Performance Theory as part of a course at the graduate level titled Theatre Arts Theory and Criticism. It was an impressive mix of theory and praxis. In those days, there was quality interaction between town and gown and in the professions, students gained an opportunity to be taught by both scholars and practitioners.
That was then when the school was ahead of industry, but today, one evidence of the collapse of the education sector in Nigeria today is how the industry in many professions is now ahead of the universities. Graduates arrive
in their chosen fields of practice only to discover the sheer outmodedness of the instruction that they had received. At Ibadan in those days, Mr Oyelana as a professional artist helped to provide practical instruction in music. He was the music director for many of the departmental productions, scoring lyrics to beat and putting young students through; he was a great collaborator in the production process. I recall working with him in a number of productions where I was either an actor or stage manager including Opera Wonyosi, Another Raft, Eshu and the Vagabond Minstrels, Red is the Freedom Road... and so on. He was a very patient instructor.
We used to have special rehearsals for songs and in the Osofisan productions in particular, there was always either palmwine or beer for the directors, or a trip to the staff club later, and in-between play and work, the songs would suddenly find rhythm on the tongues of actors with Oyelana's guidance, making the entire production process so delightful. Oyelana's ability to work with playwrights and directors to bring songs to life for performance was commendable. Once the songs became rehearsal anthems, he would quietly withdraw, his job having been done. Of him Dr. Muyiwa Awodiya, a theatre teacher writes in his book, The Drama of Femi Osofisan: A Critical Perspective: "Tunji Oyelana's originality and creativity in music have won him great admiration and patronage among Nigerian dramatists. His ancient rhythms are inventively blended with modern melody to give authentic tunes, devoid of any cheap popular jargons. Tunji Oyelana has inspired and collaborated with great Nigerian dramatists like Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan and Bode Sowancde to record theatre music."
Professor Femi Osofisan, in 1989, also paid tribute to Oyelana as follows: "Tunji Oyelana's voice has to be heard to be directly savoured. It is mellifluous. It seems to flow from ancient sources. It recalls a time from very long ago. It is the voice of a poet, and that is perhaps why each of his songs is a poem. It is this quality that has given my plays their splendid assets, and made Oyelana one of my principal collaborators...Tunji Oyelana taught me the usefulness of music in the theatre...he became my preferred musician, the one I gave my working scripts to spontaneously fill in the music for me. That is why his music signatures are all over my work..."
Osofisan is right about the poetic candour of Oyelana's music; he is not a commercial artist seeking cash for talent, but a composer and musician using music to prod the memory, to entertain and to dignify culture. And yet in the late 80s, this man of talent packed his baggage, wife and children, and relocated to London where he now lives. He and his wife, Kike Oyelana, run a restaurant/cultural centre known as EMUKAY on Camberwell/Albany Road in South East London. Many of the young men and women who throng EMUKAY probably would not know who Oyelana is, and nothing about his life as an artist, what they probably see is the old man by a corner of the entrance door, tapping the keyboard and belting out soulful and inspiring rthyms until the early hours of the morning, with only a short break in-between.
In better organised societies, a man like Oyelana would not have been allowed to emigrate. He will still be at home in the university environment helping to nurture the younger ones, or on television and the stage doing what he enjoys doing as an actor and theatre musician but alas, Nigeria continues to donate many of its best people to other countries where they are in many cases under-utilised as I think Oyelana is in England even if outside EMUKAY, he is a much sought after speaker at cultural events. Many of the young ones at EMUKAY these days may not know who he is, but EMUKAY is an active rendezvous for many Nigerians visiting London. It is where you are likely to run into Professor Wole Soyinka, Oba Adewale Osiberu, the Elepe of Epe, Chuck Mike, Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi, Dr Bode Sowande, Otunba Olusegun Runsewe, Peter Badejo, OBE, Rufus Orisayomi, Segun Odegbami, MON, Tunde Fagbenle, Golda John, Sola Sobowale, and other artistes all in one night!
The likes of Duro Onabule and Tunji Oyelana who made their mark within the space of the last 49 years and whose lives point to great possibilities of the Nigerian land, continue to keep the hope alive that whenever this country begins to function again, the harvest could be even more bountiful. Happy Birthday sirs.