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  • Introduction
  • Isidore Okpewho

Some of the Nigerian oral artists who gave me the best texts I recorded especially in the 1980s have long since passed on. The best of them all, Chief Charles "Boy" Simayi of Ubulu-Uno in Delta State, is, happily, still with us. Although I have kept in touch with him through friends, relatives, and former field assistants, I have seen rather little of him in the past few years since I relocated to the United States. He is getting on in years, and my information is that his health has not been quite so good. Although as a titled man he is forbidden to hold performances of the kind I had recorded from him in the days before his investiture, I hope he continues to be with us and to bless us with his wisdom for many more years. The last time I saw him, I could not help recalling the graphic observation made by Amadou Hampaté Bâ not so long ago, that in Africa an old man dying is like a library going down in flames.

The conflagration has been going on for a long time, sadly, and there seems little anyone can do about what is, after all, a natural order of things. African governments, it is true, have taken measures to keep alive the traditions of the past through encouragement and even sponsorship of folk troupes as well as the promotion of periodic festivals where the best folk artists may show their skills. But the passage of things can never really be arrested; the best thing about tradition may be, indeed, that it "moves on," maintaining its essence even while changing its outer form. I recall Chief Simayi chastising one of his percussionists in one of the tales he told me. The young man, Dennis Amamfueme, had introduced his percussive accompaniment at a pace that would have suited his own style of narrative performance (he had previously won prizes in two state-organized narrative competitions) but was clearly too "modern" for Chief Simayi. The latter quickly checked his accompanist, reminding him politely, "We're not doing the samba!" Although the young man deferred to his leader's wishes, and although the divergence between them here was musical rather than textual, it is clear that the younger artist was leading the narrative tradition in a direction that appealed more to his generation than to that of the older artist.

Dennis did, in fact, seize the opportunity of one of Charles Simayi's breaks in performance to tell a rather brief narrative for our benefit. In the course of this, I observed Simayi occasionally shaking his head and intermittently sneaking glances at me. I could hardly decide whether the older artist's reaction was a subtle suggestion of immaturity in the art of his younger accompanist or else a sign of professional jealousy of the growing claims of the younger man to our attention. For the rest of the night, Dennis Amamfueme was not allowed to offer any more than an introduction of himself for my records.1 [End Page vii]

Dennis's tale, brief though it was, gave proof enough of why he won prizes in state-wide competitions: there was a certain brio as well as innovativeness in his handling of the trickster tale tradition. The library of tradition, to be sure, cannot be said to be in danger of "burning" in the watch of the likes of him; the works are simply undergoing a new edition under their care. The point is worth stressing, because there may be a danger that the notice served by Hampaté Bâ, timely though it is, will lead us to an unduly apocalyptic view of the fate of our traditions. The old artists are passing on, yes; but we should not ignore the younger ones who may be taking the oral traditions in directions that guarantee their continuing appeal to future generations. We need the resources to give them their time of day.

Help may well be on the way. No doubt in response to urgent voices like Hampaté Bâ's, the international community has come to an increasing realization of the risks posed to the cherished...


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