For the records, I have seen Ayinla twice. Also for the records: I do this for movies I have more than a passing interest in. So it goes without saying that I enjoyed Tunde Kelani’s cinematic approach to the story of the late Apala musician who went by the stage name Ayinla Omowura.
As the story unfolds, I find myself admiring the man (brilliantly played by Adedimeji Lateef), his mannerisms and dedication to his craft. I smiled at the fleeting flirting moments; but the best parts of the movie for me are the scenes where we hear Ayinla’s music as they were originally recorded in the 1970s, creatively curated as part of the film’s soundtrack and remarkably mimed by the lead actor.
I was a boy when Ayinla died in 1980, but growing up I would hear about him one way or another – either in conversations among older folks or through mentions on the radio.
Toast to Iwe Irohin
While the movie (Produced by Jade Osiberu) shows us a slice of Ayinla’s life, his rise to prominence and avoidable death, I couldn’t help catching a subtle yet pointed messaging in the general storytelling, a secondary storyline perhaps.
In a couple of telling scenes, kelani draws attention to the important role of journalism and the journalist in society, to what it means to document people and places for the present and for posterity. Then, as if addressing today’s practitioners, he summarises who the ideal journalist is and what they need to prioritise as they go about their reportorial duty.
And it is most gratifying to see that the larger chunk of that messaging played out inside the architectural bowels of the colonial building which once housed Iwe Irohin the first ever newspaper in Nigeria, established in 1859 in Abeokuta, Ayinla’s hometown and where the film is set.
The building is still standing and I reckon it must have been renovated for the scenes shot in it.
It’s the late 1970s and Ayinla is at the peak of his fame and very much in demand at birthday parties and other social gatherings the Yorubas are known to revel in; he also performs weekly at a local bar, where his fans enjoy his seemingly unending generosity.
Then comes what would have been the turning point of his career: a London tour. A calculating promoter (Kunle Afolayan) is willing to bet everything on Ayinla’s music making waves in the West. He is determined to export Apala music abroad and reap enormously from the rewards he’s sure would result from the musical adventure.
The local newspaper editor (Bimbo Manuel) gets wind of the plans and — as hard-nosed editors are wont to do, wants his to be the first medium to run an exclusive on the game-changer of a project.
“I want you to go in and out of everywhere with Ayinla and his band,” he details a cub reporter, Jaiye (Ade Laoye) who he has had cause to castigate a few times, questioning her dress sense and Marxist leanings.
“This Ayinla, what does he eat? What does he drink? His women…all the stories you can dig up about him,” he continues as the journalist listens, attentive but bemused.
On a normal day, Jaiye is more at home with the music of Bob Marley, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Sonny Okosun.
But the editor isn’t done.
“Take photographs—the works. Interviews, scoops – everything; get close to him, discover his essence, the roots that bore him, his music. His craft, ehn?” he adds and sends the young reporter on her way, with a threat. “..Your job in this place is riding on this one.”
An angry man
Ayinla comes across as a man who would rather rehearse for the next big gig than sit behind a table and be questioned by a posse of inquisitive and irritating journalists.
In one scene (based on actual events), while responding to questions at a press conference, he flares up when a reporter asks him if indeed he had been kidnapped as word on the street claimed.
Ayinla is pissed. “This is what annoys me with all you journalists. If not because I am duty-bound to do this, I won’t be here with you asking me these silly questions,” he barks, promising to respond with a song (which he eventually does).
He would display the same disdain for the media when Jaiye wanted to capitalise on a chance meeting to get an exclusive interview. Ayinla scolds her on the spot, shooing her off.
His new promoter, meanwhile, is his exact opposite. He courts the press. He is well aware that if his venture is to succeed he needs the media on his side and would not do anything to be in its black book.
‘I have a very high regard for you gentlemen of the press, because with a stroke of the pen you can erase a man’s life and legacy,” Ajala (Kunle Afolayan) tells Jaiye who has come to introduce herself as the one given the Ayinla assignment.
Problem is Jaiye has not listened to any song by the subject she has been hnad picked to report, a common occurrence in today’s journalism. The promoter rightly refuses her request for an (exclusive) interview with Ayinla on the spot.
Journalism: A Refresher Course
“If you want to be on this, you must get it right,” he tells her. “You must soak yourself in Ayinla’s music. You have to soak yourself in all Ayinla’s album. If not, you cannot have an interview with Ayinla.’
Back at the office to complain to her boss, and hoping to find his sympathetic ears, Jaiye gets another ear-pulling rebuke.
“You are a professional. Your job is to peel back the layers, and unveil the man and his craft. You do so objectively as well. Go and do your job.”
I got to know that Kelani was directing Ayinla in December 2020 when news filtered out from the set that Area Boys almost prevented the cast and crew from having access to the Centenary Hall, where one of the most important scenes was to be shot.
I was horrified. I expected that the Ogun State government should have given the project all the support it deserved. I expected that being Ayinla’s home state the administration would see the enormous potential of such a film to sell Destination Ogun as one of Nigeria’s pre-eminent cultural cum artistic destinations.