Sunday, March 4, 2012

The first time Wole Soyinka heard Lead Belly

So like we were saying, Poetry Scores has commissioned a score of Wole Soyinka's poem "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" by the experimental music group Bicycle Day from Istanbul, and we have scheduled an Art Invitational where artists respond to the poem on Friday, May 18 at Mad Art Gallery. 2727 So. 12th St. in St. Louis.

Soyinka is the Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria, and we are very excited to have his personal permission to score one of his early prison poems, written as a war captive during the Nigerian Civil War.

I use our projects as an excuse to embark on some independent scholarship. In August 1996 I wrote a lead essay for The Nation magazine in New York, "Coffin for an Oligarchy," about Soyinka's then new book Open Sore of a Continent. When my editor (the late) John Leonard accepted my pitch, he directed me to review the new book in the context of the man's entire career. I read everything by Soyinka available in the U.S. up to August 1996 to write that thing.

By now, of course, I've forgotten most of it, so rereading Soyinka feels like a fresh experience. This morning I am reading Art, Dialogue and Outrage, a 1988 collection of essays expanded for republication in 1993. Since we are producing a musical adaptation of one of Soyinka's poems, I was keen to read some fragments of music criticism scattered in these essays.

Soyinka is remembering his early days as a Nigerian student in England at the University of Leeds, 1954-9.

After years of listening to English bands play "Irene Goodnight" at student hops, I heard, for the first time, the original version of that song by Ledbetter -- known more commonly as Lead Belly. This could not be the same song -- that was my thought. This cry from a ghetto of pain, of humiliation, mixed through some magical formula with an affirmation of tenderness, hope and yet harsh despair, surely this threnody, counterpointed by the downbeat chords of a twelve-string guitar, was not the same song as the treacly, deoderated "Irene Goodnight" with which these English bands ended their ballroom dances.

This is probably the Lead Belly version Soyinka heard:

And the "treacly, deoderated" skiffle band version would have been closer to this:

Soyinka also recalls his poetry being scored -- by none other than Fela in 1959! "I have never forgotten those trumpet improvisations," Soyinka writes. Wish we could hear them!

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