Elder’s Corner

Fascinating documentary looking the popular music of Nigeria from the 50s to the 70s. It takes in highlife and juju music, interviewing many of biggest names of their time. And through their musical legacy, seeing the history and character of Nigeria as it emerged from colonialism.

So many things you don’t even know you don’t know. Elder’s Corner is such an eye-opener. I was unaware of what a rich and varied musical landscape Nigeria had in the mid-20th century.

It starts in colonial Nigeria, where jazz and calypso fuse with tradional Nigerian music to make the 5-beat highlife genre, a music for dancing, singing, and spreading the rising sense of optimism that attended the decolonisation movement. Many artists had a socially conscious message to their music as well as a great rhythm.

Similarly you get juju music emerging in the early days of independence, which takes much of the features of highlife and attempts to decolonialise it, reindigenising it with traditional Yoruba sounds. This sense of the deep pride in Africanness and heritage resonated with the younger generation experiencing self-rule for the first time.

The film also looked at the impact of the military coups and civil war, which saw a decline in highlife as a reflection of the decline in optimism in the country. On a practical level, it prevented any live music being played while strife was ongoing, but the horrors of war also put an end for some musicians to their ability to create such light-hearted tunes.

The film wraps up its musical memoir in the 1970s, when the wave of Black Pride across Africa and the whole globe was bringing focus to the rich contribution Black culture and creativity brought to the world. Nigeria hosts Festac, Festival of African Culture and Arts, hosting all the stars from Nigeria, from other African nations, and the African diaspora, including Sun Ra and Stevie Wonder. It is a great celebration of the Nigerian musical landscape, as well as showing its connectedness with global music genres.

However, in its shadow, when outspoken critic of the military government, musician Fela Kuti slated Festac as a propaganda exercise, as well as a money laundering scheme, his home was set ablaze by soldiers, destroying its studio and all the records and instruments stored within.

This moment of ambiguity, where on one level you have Nigerian music being celebrated and uniting people from around the world, while there is repression of expression at home, kinda captures the sense of how people feel about modern Nigeria. The music of that time spoke so of its age. The optimism and the light-heartedness, the return to roots and infusion of pride in African heritage. It kinda of peaks and rolls back as a new age of more nuanced, arguably more cynical perspective takes hold.

Elder’s Corner is a wonderful treasure trove of interviews and musical insights. Great film.