Ayonmike, Handel and the African


I received a phone call on September 16, 2015, from someone who turned out to be Joe Ayonmike. He was commenting on my article of that day titled “Britain at Sunset” He said he usually picked a thing or two from my columns, but on this day, I used a word he had never heard before: “morganatic” He jokingly said he prides himself as attending the best schools, including one of the best universities in the world; the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and lived in England, so was surprised to come across an English word he never knew existed. He asked the school I attended. I replied: “Araromi Baptist School, Lagos and Methodist Boys’ High School, Lagos” “University?” “Ife” He joked: “So you never schooled abroad and are teaching those of us who did” We laughed.

The family is one of the most prominent and I asked him if he was Chief Ayonmike, the Itsekiri leader and noted writer. I was referring to the popular JOS (Johnson Oritsegbubemi Sunday) author of books like “A History of Warri” and “Warri: A Focus On The Itsekiri” a hardcover book I had read. That he said, was his elder brother. I researched into my caller. He was then 77, had worked in the industrial and oil sectors before moving to the new city of Abuja where he built the first Five-Star hotel which was opened in 1986. He was also Managing Director of the hotel when he decided to run as mayor of the city, which at that time, was the equivalence of a state governor. Years later, he told me about his experience. He was well connected, popular and amongst the fourteen aspirants, was the front-runner. Then, a close friend told him that the government of the day, did not want a minority from the Niger Delta to be the first mayor of Abuja, and he would be asked to step down. Shortly afterwards, his party chairman called and asked him to step down explaining that “the powers from above” did not want him as mayor. He said he called the bluff. Went to the Gwawalada Area of the city. By the time he returned, his bedroom had been machine gunned.

He abandoned both his ambition and his dream of settling down in Abuja, and took refuge in his Warri home city. Therein 1992, he founded the Warri Choral Society(WCS)

I accepted his invitation to be his guest and also meet with his elder brother. But Chief JOS Ayonmike passed on at 90 on October 4, 2017. This year, Pa Ayonmike threw a jab; would I attend his eightieth birthday or wait until he also passes away before visiting? I promised I would, but could not make it. He then invited me for his 61st Concert holding at the MUSON Centre, Lagos on September 22 with the theme: “Handel Is An African”

The theme startled me. George Friederic Handel was as European as any could be. The famous symbol of the Opera was born German on February 23, 1685, naturalized as a Briton in 1772 and passed away on April 14, 1759. He was so revered that he was buried in Westminster Abbey where the noblest of the English are interred. Handel with 50 operas and 28 oratorios (a story in music performed without action, costume or scenery) is considered by many, as simply the best. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) prolific composer and a symbol of classical music said: “Handel understands effect better than any of us — when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.” Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) one of the best composers in human history said of Handel: “He is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” So how could Handel be an African?

Ayonmike admitted as much at the Lagos Concert when he said in making such claim: “ Some English people will tell you, you need to have your head examined” But he said in the process of performing 18 of Handel’s 28 oratorios: “ I discovered that a thread runs through all of these which is typically African…I discovered there is a thread that runs through Handel’s works, and this thread is African…I have had this empirically verified through two concerts in Warri, and reported same to the Handel Society and British Council, both in London. The Society has not agreed with us wholly, but from this our performance, you may agree that he is an African”

With that, the two-hour concert conducted by his wife, Chi-Chi Ayonmike, PhD and Senior Lecturer at the Delta State University, commenced. It was a memorable one performed by a 60-member orchestra. The women were beautifully attired in colourful Nigerian attire, and the men, in a traditional top and black trousers. All wore black shoes.

    There were three traditional dancers including a lady who in slow, sometimes fast, dance steps of the Niger Delta, accompanied by twists and turns in the air, and acrobatic displays held the audience spellbound as the Agip Recital Hall exploded in angelic voices.

    As continuous applause rented the air, the chairperson of the occasion, Dr. Dere Awosika, a retired Permanent Secretary said: “ we need to promote what our history, what our culture stands for. The dancers have demonstrated angelic dancing from heaven to earth” Professor Josephine Mokwunye, Coordinator, Music Programme and Head of Theatre Arts Department, the University of Benin, in assessing the concert said: “What he (Ayonmike) did was to merge the Western World with the African World. He has come to blend two different cultures so seamlessly. He has shown that Handel is not just an African, but a Nigerian. See how the dancers merge into the melody; dancers merge into the sequences. Africans look at classical music as alien, and they alienate themselves from it. This is a new beginning for African music and a new beginning for African musicology”

    Odia Ofeimun, international poet, thinker, dance drama expert and former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) said he had never experienced classical music performed as an African dance drama: “I am truly convinced that Handel is an African” I have read some of the origins of Handel’s compositions and found many authorities who revealed that he borrowed much from many compositions. Researcher, Richard Taruskin in 2005 concurred. In 1985, John H. Roberts agreed to Handel’s: “basic lack of facility in inventing original ideas” but added that this does not “diminish Handel’s stature” My conclusion is that Ayonmike is right on the African influences of Handel’s works. It will not hurt if the Warri Choral Society is assisted to reveal this in London before an English audience.

    Owei Lakemfa, former secretary general of African workers is a human rights activist, journalist and author.

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