By Anote Ajeluorou
Nigeria’s stage performance might never be the same again by the time Saro, the Musical would have run its course. Its producer and writer, Bolanle Austin-Peters, founder of Nigeria’s cultural centre, Terra Kulture, is ready to unleash Nigeria’s often-neglected cultural prowess on the world in a musical drama in the status of Broadway. Excerpts:
Nigerians’ taste for everything foreign is legendary and veers on the ludicrous, so much so that it’s at the heart of the country not being able to produce anything of value for the world to applaud or patronise. It’s also at the heart of Nigeria’s under-development tag in every aspect of national life, which might take ages to overcome. It is the same in the cultural sector where cultural productions and artists from outside the country enjoy huge patronage while local but better cultural productions and artists are shunned and overlooked in terms of sponsorship or patronage.
Such cultural productions as South Africa’s Umoja and American import, Fela! on Broadway are just a few such foreign cultural imports that enjoyed massive corporate and individual endorsements in Nigeria. Also unforgettable is Guinness’ Michael Power and Nigerian Breweries Plc’s flooding of the country with American hiphop artistes fairly recently. Corporate bodies fell over each other to showcase their products because they were foreign cultural productions and artistes with no better offering and talent than what Nigerians in the sector can offer given the amount of patronage they enjoyed.
However, one crossover woman, who trained as a lawyer but has since been totally sold to the slippery terrain of Nigeria’s art and culture, has stepped up to take the bull by the horns, as they say. Mrs. Bolanle Austin-Peters is poised to rewrite the rules of cultural engagement with her pet production, Saro, the Musical, a wholly Nigerian musical drama in the stature of Fela! on Broadway. For her, it’s about time Nigeria steps up the beat of cultural production that will make the world to stand in awe and wonder…
She has done it success with her outfit in upscale Victoria Island, Lagos, Terra Kulture, unarguably Nigeria’s foremost cultural centre that promotes Nigerian art and languages. Saro, the Musical is the story of the Lagos she grew up in, which is easily a metaphor for the ambitious and the many stories of iconic rise to fame and stardom, as encapsulated by a set of determined youths, who, armed with their raw talent and ambition, are ready to take on the world.
As the executive producer and creative mind behind, Saro, the Musical, Austin-Peters explained the idea behind that might perhaps be Nigeria’s biggest cultural export, “I am not going to over intellectualize this. I woke up one day and wrote the story, which I believe is very relevant to our society, and to our youths. I looked around me, what is the story of the average Nigerian? What is the story of the average settlers of Lagos? Most people here are not indigenous Lagos people. Most of us came here, just like America the land of Freedom; and that was what I decided to explore. If you look around, everybody wants to come to Lagos; there is something about Lagos. When they come into Lagos, all of a sudden they become Lagosians. And I wanted a story that reflected music and dance. It is that simple. So, in showcasing our music and dance, I needed to weave a story around it.
“The most natural thing that came to my mind was to come up with a story of people that make up Lagos. In trying to do that, I said to myself, ‘who best can represent a true Lagosian?’ There are different types of people that represent Lagos. You have the Saros, the Aworis, the indigenous Moslems, the Afro-Brazilians, etc. You know, the Saros spoke to me simply because they are free slaves from Sierra Leone. More importantly, my mother-in-law is also of that stock.
“So, it is just an easy way of representing who Lagosians are and also talking about the free spirit that these people brought with them. And being a music lover, I see music as a form of freedom. I express myself through music; I love to dance and I love to listen to music. In the writing of the story, I had to create emotions; that is why you have the love story, the success, the failure and just all that depicts the everyday scene you find in Lagos, hence the beach, the police, the motor parks… all those things that make Lagos what it is are all the facets we are going to feature in this play”.
For an eclectic collection of people in Lagos to be represented on stage would present an amazing spectacle, which is exactly what Austin-Peters intends for her audience both in Nigeria and worldwide. For her, delivering fun to audience members is key, but in a way that is executed with perfect aplomb, especially with the kind of music on offer. And, as she put it, “We have a musical director, we have somebody who is going to do the sound engineering and the sound direction, all of that is there in the technical bits. As a music lover, I have an ear for music. I selected 90 percent of the music that we are using. What I have done is to look at our music over the years. Our music ranges from Highlife, Hip-Pop, Afro-pop, Jazz and fusion of all kinds of music.
“Yes! That is what I have done. I have tried to create different scenes that have the different forms of music. We try to celebrate the old and the new. So, you will see music from Victor Olaiya, music from P-square, you will see music from Lagbaja, music from Sir. Victor Uwaifo. You are going to see even Ghanaian and Zairean music. You would remember a time they were dominating us in the likes of Awilo. There will be a performance in Saro that will fuse all these different kinds of music; showing us how our music has evolved over the last 20/30 years, but it will be done through storytelling and dance!”
For Austin-Peters, Saro, the Musical is about making global artistic statement for maturity of Nigeria’s cultural production, that indeed the country shouldn’t be dumping ground for foreign cultures when something totally authentic can be sprung from within. It’s why she cast her net wide to get the best hands for the all-defining made-in-Nigeria show
“Looking at Nigeria generally, most of our educated people can thrive or succeed anywhere in the world,” she noted. “In Hollywood for instance, there are so many Nigerians under various pseudo names but acting or directing or doing all sort of things. Some of the cast members that we have are people who have worked abroad. We have one or two persons who have been in Broadway Shows. We did a very elaborate selection process. It took us about a month or more to do all the auditions, to sift through the hundreds that turned up for the auditions.
“90 per cent of the cast members are trained dancers, singers and musical artistes. They actually studied their vocations in school -- some of them in America, some in England and some in Nigeria. We are not dealing with rookies. They are not there by accident because we wanted to be sure we get the best and to get a theatrical package that we could roll around the world.
“I’m not looking at Lagos as the audience only that is why I am so particular about the interpretation of what I have written. It is very clear to me what I want to achieve. It is very clear to me the quality of people I need to take to where I want to be. If you go through the CVs of the cast members, you will be so amazed at the quality of people that we have”.
Not being new to cultural production the magnitude of what she has conceived, Austin-Peters is undaunted by the task ahead, as she said, “I do not know where I got the strength from. You know my belief? If you want to be great, you have to do great things. You cannot afford to be timid. Running Terra Kulture has also taught me that if you want to establish a business, you must have a certain level of strength of character. In an industry where it is not easy to come across money and in a situation like ours in Nigeria where you don’t get government funding, we have to internally generate our own funds to be where we are, nine years after; it is not a fluke.
“This has built a sense of strength in me coupled with my belief in God. I am not somebody who shies away from big dreams. My dream is this: to produce the best and the biggest stage production Nigeria has even seen. If it is going to cost $10m, $20m or more, I don’t know but it is not going to be less than $1million. Do I have it? No! Will I find it? Yes! That is the attitude!”
Apart from financial challenges, the executive producer said other challenges abound for a project of this magnitude, saying, “You are as good as your team. In any company like Terra Kulture, I am as good as the members of staff that work with me. If they are useless and hopeless, we are not going far as an institution. Team building is extremely important and the quality of your staff. That was why I told you that the selection process was elaborate. Am I going to spoon-feed an actor on how to play his role now or the music director on how to arrange his music? No way. We went for the best. The music director, Ayo Ajayi, is the best. The executive director, Makinde, is the best. The other directors -- Kenneth and Gbenga, I have worked with them; I have studied them over the years at our long running project Theatre at Terra, and they are phenomenal at what they do. Kenneth is good at stage and Gbenga is good at dance. Like I told you, the cast members are fine. We have partners that have come onboard since we started.
“There is Z-mirage Multimedia Company; there is no other technical company in Nigeria that rivals them. The CEO, Alhaji Teju Kareem has agreed to be our partner because he shares the vision. This is something he has always wanted to do as well. Then we have a formidable media team directed by Jahman Anikulapo, which also is a pretty comprehensive body. Really, at the end of the day, if you have very intelligent, sophisticated people in terms of their vision, the sky is your limit. So, the only hitch that we might have is funding. We can be sure of that”.
Crew members for Saro, the Musical include Makinde Adeniran as Executive Artistic Director, Kenneth Uphopho and Gbenga Yusuf as Directors, Ayo Ajayi of MUSON Centre as Music Director, and Teju Kareem as Technical Director, with his Zmirage also as Technical Partner.