He found a bench on the street. He knew he had to sit down to play the kind of music he wanted to play. So he sat down on the bench. Lela’s mother joined them with a look of horror on her face, sensing that trouble was on their doorstep. She sat on the pavement and folded her arms across her breasts. And as the first chords echoed from Taduno’s guitar, her conscience began to torment her.
Slowly, the music spread throughout the neighbourhood, soft and colourful. The people began to gather one by one, cautiously knowing soldiers were nearby. They remembered that the President had proscribed all association through music, but they were enthralled by the melodies that suddenly filled the empty spaces in their lives. So they came.
Among those gathered were Vulcaniser and several others from his street, who had not ventured out of their homes in days. They all came out to listen. And as they did, they shook their heads in wonder and joy.
Judah placed his palms on his little cheeks and stared at Taduno in astonishment: how could his parents ever think of giving such a wonderful man away?
Taduno told simple stories with his music, shifting from one story to the next with glorious ease. He spoke in the tone of a folksinger through his guitar to the large crowd that had gathered and they understood the meaning of the music and the flow of his emotions.
He did not chastise Lela’s parents with his music. Instead he attempted to stir the conscience of all. And so he played beautiful wordless songs that his listeners would remember for a long time.
The soldiers soon showed up, causing many to take to their heels. They came with guns and tear gas and grenades, but Taduno’s music softened their hearts and they lowered their guns and opened their mouths in amazement. Those who had taken off came back when they saw that the soldiers were not attempting to arrest anyone.
Momentarily transformed by the music they were hearing, the soldiers took off their helmets. They wiped the soot from their faces with their bare hands. They wanted the people to see them as human beings, not monsters. But it was nothing more than a fleeting transformation. Soon, it occurred to them that in the end they had to answer to the President, not to the people, and certainly not to some musician, however brilliant he was. And so, they pushed through the crowd and arrested Taduno.
From Taduno’s Song.
Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun is a romance of music, love, and resistance. Heartfelt, occasionally sentimental, it pulls off the trick of communicating the emotional power of music. Many good novels fall apart at the end but this climax draws its bowstrings tight. It’s written in pared-back, international style that reaches out to a wide audience. It’s been published by important houses in both the UK and the USA and earned its author a two-book deal in both markets, and went on to sell to be published in Germany.
In essence it’s about Fela Kuti. Though it follows aspects of the real Kuti’s biography—the regime really did throw Fela’s mother off a roof—the character of Taduno is totally unlike Fela Kuti both in personality and music. Fela played political Afro-jazz; Taduno plays what seems to be a kind of guitar folk music. Fela Kuti was also incomparably wilder than Taduno regarding women and drugs.
Odafe: “This is not a biography. And when in fiction when you carry a real-life personality to create your fictional character, I don’t use the minutiae of real life to create my character. What I do is to take the crux of his vision, and his vision was to transform society through his music. That is the aspect of Fela Kuti that I took for the character called Taduno.
“You find artists that come once in a lifetime. Fela Kuti is such an artist. It’s a fact that no other artist had as big an influence on the Nigerian society like Fela Kuti did, so we could call him a genius in that sense. We could say that he has a unique voice that could be identified first time. We are not talking about an ordinary musician here. We are talking about Fela Kuti.
“Fela is unique. He shared his home with anyone who strayed there. All you had to do was stray to his house and you find a place to put your head. Stray to Fela’s house and you’ll find something to eat. You could count the clothes he had or the material possessions he had. Which is why this story was necessary for me to tell to bring certain revelations to the readers.”
A banner on Fela Kuti’s house in Lagos
Taduno’s Song has a very romantic vision. The hero’s voice has been destroyed through torture, but his guitar playing channels the despair of the poor, the homeless with whom he sleeps rough in a park. Yet, even the people in his old neighbourhood turn on him.
Odafe: “It’s allegorical. When you are an artist struggling to find your form, struggling to find your place in society, it’s seldom that you find many friends. It’s seldom that you find love.
“I went on holiday to Ireland, Dublin, and I went sightseeing to the house of Bono, the U2 musician, and while I was in front of his gate I was reading a passage engraved on the gate and it occurred to me that musicians are powerful activists and that their work transforms society. So my mind went to Fela Kuti and I realized that he did so much through his music to promote social and political change. I decided to write a story premised on his struggles and his music. I realized that his voice was a lone voice in the fight against brutal dictatorship of those days.”
Taduno’s Song was not Odafe’s first attempt to sell to Random House.
Odafe: “I had written the first four chapters of another story and it sent to an editor of Random House. He liked it, and within four hours of receiving the manuscript, he requested the rest of the manuscript. I was still on the first four chapters.
“I told him OK, I was finished, but I wanted to edit, and told him to give me two weeks. So I went out and bought a power generator and wrote three hundred pages in two weeks. But of course when I sent it to him he was not impressed with the rest of the book, as it was a very rushed work.
“That was a learning curve for me. What I did was compare the first four chapters with the rest of the manuscript and saw through my own eyes what I was doing wrong, what I was doing well.
“That experience of writing furiously in two weeks came to my aid because I was able to write Taduno’s Song in three months.”
The speculative element is that somehow, almost magically, everyone has forgotten who this Fela Kuti is. He gets a mysterious letter that tells him his sweetheart Lela has been imprisoned just for knowing him. Taduno goes back to his old house. No one recognizes him, not his neighbours, not his friends, and not Judah, the young brother of his beloved Lela.
The regime has destroyed every copy of his records, every poster, burned his house, removed his name, and this has somehow destroyed the memory of him. But the regime finds they need his music too—they want him to sing praise songs. And they hold Lela hostage to make him.
The now voiceless ex-singer plays for the poor or the homeless, almost magically channelling their histories through wordless guitar. Can he bring himself to praise dictators even to save Lela?
The book compresses so much stuff together—voicelessness, celebrity, politics, the birdsong of beauty and love. But I’m not sure I ever quite squared how Taduno could be forgotten with the regime’s determination to use him for their propaganda.
Odafe: “That’s the aspect that typifies the story as a myth. What I was trying to explore is that when society is against you, they forget you. When you are a threat to the government and the government is after you and your supporters, then everybody shies away from you. The government pretends you no longer exist because it’s afraid of you. You continue to inhabit the space in their mind so that they never know rest.
“Taduno, once so very famous, is becoming anonymous, unknown. I think it tells us how our art, our vision, could alienate us from society.”
GR: “It’s like his spirit has moved into a different body …”
GR: “And nobody recognizes him.”
Odafe: “Sure. Let’s assume Taduno was forgotten, had died. His reincarnation shows how much he believes in his art.
“In society out there, there are lots of people, talented people, who have been driven into a state of homelessness by pursuit of their dreams. These are not vagrant dregs of society, but people who are burdened with the need to transform society for justice, equality, and peace.
“Sometimes the burden we carry on our shoulders in our desire to see a transformed society can drive us into a state where we are vagrants.”
GR: “Have you ever been a vagrant?”
Odafe: “Yes, I say in some way a vagrant, in some way. When you don’t know what tomorrow or today holds, when you are in restless state of existence, with a vision you cannot share with the world because the world will laugh at you, I would say you are a vagrant …
“As a writer in the beginning, I told my friends I am a writer. They laughed at me. So I stopped telling them am a writer. But deep down I was pursuing literary success with every drop of my blood. In that state I would say I was a vagrant because nobody believed in my vision.”
I double-check that he hadn’t ever really been a vagrant, and start trying to explore a bit more about his life. The book is so convincingly set in Lagos. Had he ever lived there?
Odafe: “I lived in Lagos or about four years between 1990 and 1994. That was during the period of the military dictatorship and June 12.”
Western readers might not know that June 12, 1993, is the date of a general election that was annulled by the dictatorship. It is a date deeply engraved in Nigeria’s consciousness. There is a highly regarded graphic novel by Abraham Oshoko about the events, called simply June 12.
June XII is another comic featuring a violent and vengeful sort-of hero named after the date, and developed by Ibrahim Ganiyu and still published by Vortex Comics.
Odafe knew the very different Lagos of twenty-five years ago.
Odafe: “A lot has changed in Lagos in terms of development and infrastructure and in terms of the way the people engage the government. But some of the inequalities and social injustices that Fela Kuti sang against still exist.
“For instance, it’s still difficult for a poor man to send his children to school. It’s difficult for a poor man to get a power supply because all of the rich people use power generators. Fela sang about a society without light, a society without water. You think ‘Oh, we are in the twenty-first century, things should be better,’ but they are getting worse.
“But in the way people engage the government, now we have social media. We have multiple avenues to disseminate news. So people are better able to engage the government. But government remains powerful and that engagement is not yielding the desired result, so we are still facing the negativity that Fela Kuti sang against.”
I keep asking him about his life then and his previous fiction.
“When I was twenty years old, I was still in school in my higher education, at A levels then. I was reading a lot at that point—James Hadley Chase, a lot of crime thrillers, Frederick Forsyth, Jeffrey Archer.
“The first story I wrote was around that period. It was a crime thriller that I destroyed years later when I was more mature. I thought this is not what I want to write so I just burnt it up, a book of about three hundred to four hundred pages.
“By twenty-five, I was studying for accountancy. I wrote a collection of short stories, five short stories which I self-published. But it had no impact. That was about 1992 or 1993. I have the soft copy; I have it on computer. I had to do marketing myself. I had to give out a lot of complimentary copies, to say, ‘Look I’m a writer.’”
That was the era when publishers like MacMillan or Longman’s started to pull out of Africa. What had been a thriving reading and publishing culture, with figures like Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka editing, publishing, or translating works ebbed away under the feet of a whole generation.
Odafe: “I never worked as an accountant. I worked in communications. After accountancy, I studied journalism for a while in Lagos at a journalism school. I worked briefly for a magazine that is defunct now. The proprietor died so it closed down. That was many years ago—Classic magazine. It was a soft-sell magazine like … like News of the World and all that.”
I ask Odafe how it feels to become suddenly so successful and at forty-nine. He avoids answering by joking, “I don’t look my age. I look thirty-five, thirty-six.” It tell him it’s because he so evidently works out. Then he gets serious.
Odafe: “At first I plunged into depths of depression with success, because I felt, ‘Oh, this will be so brief a success after all.’ This sense of doubt, of disbelief—‘Is this really happening?’
“But what got me going was that both Canongate (in the UK) and Random House (in the USA) signed me to a two-book deal without saying a word about the second book. I felt this was a challenge, and it helped me to come up with a book in record time, which I’ve submitted to Canongate.
“It took me four months and eighteen days precisely. There was so much power outage that sometimes couldn’t write for a day or two, so that slowed me down a bit. I was able to send it to them on 19th of May (2016) and I did not get any response for a while. Then one day I got a message on my phone to say that they have paid the advance fee for the second book. ‘So OK they like it.’ I spoke to my agent (Toby Mundy) and he said, ‘Yes, we’ve done it again.’
“It’s about the place of orphans in our society, in a society that believes so much in tradition and the place of a single mother struggling to raise her only child in that evil society.”
The next part of the recording goes in circles as I try to sort out that he’d really called his own society evil. I thought he’d said “Igbo.” Evil?
Odafe: “Yes, an evil society. That tradition exists. Orphans are seen as outcasts. It still exists in Nigerian society of today even though it’s not so prevalent. Orphans are treated as evil. Some say, ‘Oh, they killed their parents,’ so they believe them to be evil children. So they can’t live normally. They cannot interact normally. They are not allowed to play with other children. They are treated basically as slaves. At every opportunity, they are beaten and ill treated in so many terrible ways.
“The story is about a widow who had lost her husband at a very young age is afraid that if she should die, her son will be treated like other orphans in the village.
“I titled it Wake Me When I’m Dead but my publishers … we have agreed to change it to Wake Me When I’m Gone. They think ‘gone’ is more appropriate and on second thought I agree with them.”
He mentions in passing that his wife is a great support to him, which sounds lovely, so I ask him a bit more.
Odafe: “I will make that very brief. Every artist needs support or you lose belief in yourself and what you want to achieve as a writer or artist. When you have a supportive spouse I think it helps. Who understands your need for solitude to develop your art. Who understands the need for you to be persistent to attain success.
“Most spouses would say you are wasting your time trying to be a writer or trying to be a musician. And that would dampen your spirits really. But when you have someone supportive, it goes a long way. Which is what I enjoyed.
“My earlier reference to being a vagrant. For so many years I was a vagrant. Because I was moving within different spaces in society without being able to express myself openly as an artist because many would laugh at me. Many would see me as being lazy or mad dreamer. So I was a vagrant artist, so to say.
“I was going various jobs but beneath it all but every night I would get to my computer to write or write in my notebooks. I was still pursuing and developing my art as a writer without anyone knowing about it. Being a vagrant artist, I could not share my dreams with anyone. Can you imagine someone that’s homeless, a dreamer going around telling people on the street, ‘Look I’m going to be Bill Gates one day, I’m working to become a scientist one day.’ He cannot. Because they will see him as a madman. We experience vagrancy as human beings at different levels and forms.”
Odafe did a range of jobs in journalism or consultancy, freelancing as an editorial consultant. He wrote for Nigeria Link magazine and for The Melting Pot.
Odafe: “I was basically writing news articles and fiction. I was not a reporter, so to say. I was writing features. I remember one particular story I did for Trumpet newspaper way back in the late nineties. Before Obasango became civilian president in Nigeria, I wrote an article ‘Obasango the Second Coming.’ In that article, I predicted he would come back as civilian president and he did. I said the military would like to hand over to someone they can trust, so that they can remain protected.”
We then talk about football, and its influence for good on young people, and which premier league team he supports, and the price of tickets and how fans are short-changed. He suggests a lottery to make an individual football fan a millionaire, then talks about the books that influenced him as an adult. There are four particular books:
“Those that prompted and deepened my art, I would say four. First, Marquez 100 Years of Solitude. The second is Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the third is J.M. Coetzee Disgrace.
“The fourth I won’t pin down to a particular book, but the whole range of his books influenced me and that was Ben Okri (author the Booker Prize-winning The Famished Road).
“I wasn’t located in any particular space of creativity all through my fruitless years. I did a lot of writing, enormous amount of writing. I don’t advise any writer to try this, but I wrote so many stories and destroyed each one of them.
“I would write a story, read it and then destroy. Because I felt it was not good enough. Each time I wrote, I experimented. I see what I don’t like in the first story and I try to improve in this one. And I did that consistently for years. So in that way, I was distilling my art in a very painful and slow way. And that is what permits me to write a story in four months and three months.
“In those years I was plagued by self-doubt. I didn’t like my style, I didn’t like this, I didn’t like that. It was like training, every day, every single day in solitary confinement. And nobody knows what you are doing. So when you now reveal to the world what you are doing, it comes as a huge surprise.
“I wanted a style that would be unique. Not just unique but consumable by readers. I wanted to develop a timeless, universal classic. Whatever I write, I must be sure it’s timeless. Every generation can read and connect with it, of any nationality. Taduno’s Song is talking about tyranny because tyranny has the same face everywhere in the world. Because tyrants have the same ambition anywhere in the world. Classic is a story that you feel is worthy of being read. That’s my goal, timeless, universal classics.”
We talk a bit about his earlier reading.
“My first romance with literature began with Chinua Achebe in secondary school, then Gulliver’s Travels, and Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.
“At six years old? I can’t remember reading much fiction. I had a very difficult upbringing, which I don’t like talking about because as a child I lived away from my parents.
“I attended six different primary schools. You spend six years in primary school in Nigeria, right? Each of those years I experienced a new primary school, so I did not have the time to settle down to make friends. Each year we moved to a different village, a different town. And I lived away from my parents.
“It’s weird. Those years gave me the power to look at things in very fluid forms. I tried to retain things as much as possible from the previous experience. It made it possible for me to write a story that is very complex, but look, there is a thread that runs though it all. So that experience really helped me as a writer.
“It was there that the power of my imagination began to form because whenever I was sad as a child with no parents to console me, I would imagine myself in a place where everything was beautiful. I would try to live the reality to escape my difficult realities. I would imagine a world where I could find happiness.
“I was the best in literature in secondary school, the best in English. I would always get the highest score. I went to two different secondary schools, but that was much better than six primary schools. There were a few very close friends but I left them behind each time I moved, so there was nothing like building a friendship from that stage of my life.
“I have one brother and one sister, but we were all separate. My brother lived in a different place; my sister lived with my mother. My parents were divorced. I was living with parents’ friends whom I didn’t know from before. It was a very harrowing experience.
“My father was a headmaster. My mother was a trader, basically uneducated though she could speak English and Pidgin. My father was very tough, the way he raised us with strict discipline. A headmaster back in those days. He felt that if he was disciplining school people, his own child should get twice that amount of discipline.
“So I was never able to impress him enough; he never said ‘Well done, my son.’ It was always, ‘You’re not doing enough.’ It was like placing a burden on a child. Which is what I’ve avoided most with my own son. What I desired most was to form a friendship with my father, but I could not, say, ‘Hey, Daddy,’ and tap him on his shoulder. I didn’t see much of my mother until I was seventeen. In his final years he tried to sit down with me and have a proper chat, but the gulf was too wide. The intimacy was not there.
“In later years we related in cordial manner. In the end I discovered a good man who could not draw a line between discipline and affection for his child. One should have room in your heart to shower children with affection. But he saw affection as discipline, felt that discipline expressed love, but for a child that is not good enough.
“I’m a full-time writer at the moment. I reached that decision when I got the two-book deal, and then the German publishers did the same, and I thought, ‘Why not go for it?’
“Before that I was working as editorial consultant for the magazine of the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory. I did a bit of printing for them. I did a bit of promotion stuff for them like producing gift items for the Minister. I was getting to the finishing line of my self-training as a writer. I said to people, ‘I’m not a contractor, I’m a writer.’ I would say that. People would laugh, just snigger, and never take me seriously.
“A chap was asking me, ‘You say you are a writer, so are you publishing any book at the moment?’ And I said, ‘No, but I have one that will soon be published.’ And he asked which publisher and I said, ‘Faber and Faber’ and he said, ‘Wow, that is big.’ And he asks me when it’s coming out. And I kept keeping up with that lie. (Laughs).
“My success has made me humbler than ever before. One thing I have realized is that I am very fortunate. There are other writers out there who are very good but fortune has not smiled on them the way it’s smiled on me. I see myself as an artist. I am supposed to portray, typify humility as an artist. I can’t go around carrying myself like a star. Like, ‘Oh, I’m a great writer.’ Whatever I’ve achieved I got from society. Whatever stories I told, I told them by drawing from society, so I need to reflect to society a picture of humility and compassion and simplicity.”