RHYTHM WEDNESDAYS: REFLECTIONS ON THE ANTHILL DAYS AT NSUKKA
By Nnorom Azuonye
Many nights these days, after I have put the kids to bed, and kissed my wife goodnight, I return to the computer workstation to either try to write, or do some other work and find that I tend to drift away for short crawls through vast grounds of my memory, exhuming to my welcome surprise, many enchanting moments made exceptional by many charming people I have had the privilege of meeting.
Recently, Gbubemi Amas has put up some pictures and information on Facebook. Apparently he has been involved in a film production in Ireland with Kalu Ikeagwu who is now better known as a Nollywood actor. In 1989, Ikeagwu and Obi Emelonye took turns to play R.I.P in Esiaba Irobi’s Hangmen Also Die. Seeing good old Amas still doing the art thing was very nice indeed and I went through my files in search of Rhythm Wednesdays: Reflections on the Anthill Days at Nsukka. I wrote this piece in 2003 when Ike Anya and Unoma Azuah planned to publish a book - Umu Nsukka: The Children of Nsukka – a celebration of the university town with stories, memoirs, poetry etc. For some reason, I failed or forgot to send it to the editors. Reading it again in 2009 has made me laugh, and it has made me pause to cherish a man like Gbubemi Amas for his part in building and running the Anthill at Nsukka.
I drank Gulder straight from a sweating brown bottle in my room. It was a nice room in the Boys’ Quarters at 606 Odim Street, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. 606 Odim Street was the residence at the time of my eldest brother Chukwuma. In 1987, Chukwuma was a lecturer at the university’s Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages. As I enjoyed the lager, Chike, my other brother, sat at the desk in a corner of my room. Drinking his Maltina slowly, he read my poems as they emerged from my Brother electronic typewriter, which worked off a bunch of batteries as there was power failure at the time. Chike had, only months earlier, graduated from the university’s Department of Fine and Applied Arts, and was a Youth Corper at Enugu. A part-time poet himself, Chike seemed to enjoy my work, mostly sonnets – I was obsessed with sonnets in those days. He was quite unsparing in his critiques, and I took it all in good faith.
“Do you go to Anthill?” Chike suddenly asked.
I laughed. I laughed because Anthill meant nothing to me. Frankly, I thought he was being facetious. What would I be going to an anthill for? Was I an ant? My mind was cast back to a conversation I had years earlier with my late brother, Chidi. It was about ahu - a melon cake popular among the Isuikwuato people. Some people call is Egusi or Egwusi akpuruakpu. The crux of the joke being that one day, Nne Chukwuma; my mother had bought some ahu from Aho Nta Market at Eluama, and after eating one of those delicious cakes, I had shouted out at Chidi, who was liberating himself in the toilet, “Hey Chidi i ga-ata ahu?” Meaning literally, will you chew (eat) ahu? Incidentally, ‘ita ahu’ also means to lose weight. It was hilarious, honestly. Chidi did not know that Nne Chukwuma had bought some ahu, and he thought I was asking if he would lose weight. Probably annoyed, he shouted at me, “Takwaa ahu” that is, you lose weight yourself.
After we had both laughed ourselves silly, Chike explained to me that The Anthill was a music and poetry club with poetry readings and live music every Wednesday. Incidentally that day was a Wednesday, and he took me to The Anthill in the evening.
The experience was surreal. As we walked through the gate, the smell of suya slapped me around as if I were a naughty boy, but pleasantly so. I swallowed buckets of saliva and wanted some straightaway, but Chike thought we might get some later. We went inside where I met this guy called Mike Adiele. Mike was an eager kind of fellow that managed to come across both as welcoming and very busy. You know he could but could not spare a minute. Chike introduced me to Mike and the first thing Mike asked as he thrust his hand at me for a brisk shake was what I fed my beards. I had a full bush at the time. Funny guy, Mike, he had some one-liners that I remember till this day. After introducing me to Mike, I met a few other people that evening. There was this small chap with budding locks that everybody seemed to respect, he shook Chike’s hand, and Chike said to him, “Olu, this is my brother, Nnorom. He is in the theatre arts department.” Olu shook my hand, somewhat perfunctorily, I felt, and mouthed something like ‘see you around’ and walked on. Then I met Big George but Big George was in a bit of a hurry; he was going right up to play the guitar. I sat down and listened to Big George and then Mike Adiele began to introduce the different poets. They got up, stood in front of the small seated audience in the intimate room with nets suspended from the ceiling. The poets read their poems and got applauded and they sat down. Up till that point, there was nothing performative about the poetry. The people just stood there and read their lines off pieces of papers. Then this light-skinned guy stepped up, sat down with a guitar and sang what came across like a cross between jazz and soul. I recall thinking, Damn! His voice sounds like silk rubbing against a black man’s hair.’
“That’s Amas Grill,” Chike said.
“With a voice like that, why isn’t he recording albums?” I asked.
“He does,” Chike said, “I think he has made one or two albums. Actually I think his album is called Grill”
“Didn’t you say his name was Amas Grill”
“That’s what he is generally called.”
Later that evening, after Suya and beer, I met Amas and told him what I felt about his singing, and promised to read some of my own poems next Wednesday.
For the next two years, I read at the Anthill virtually every Wednesday except on the Wednesdays I had rehearsals that clashed, or if I was out of town. I had some amazing experiences when I heard poets like Olu Oguibe, Esiaba Irobi and one Okigbo guy. I forget his first name now, but there was a rumour he was related in some way to the late Christopher Okigbo. I recall a certain businesslike purity in Oguibe’s readings, a theatricality in Irobi’s readings, a take this punch in your face style in that Okigbo guy’s readings. Eni-Jones Umuko knocked me silly with his poems in Pidgin English. Wednesdays were mad.
The Anthill also played host to Tunde Fatunde and Uche Nduka. It was a big deal when guest poets came and it was I think during the visit of Uche Nduka that I came in contact with an Association of Nigerian Authors publication, I forget which one now, but I read things there by some Nigerian poets in the Lagos/Ibadan axis that I had never heard about, including the late Izzia Ahmad. I remember then thinking that one day I might read and discuss poetry alongside some of those people in Lagos, London or New York. I was dreaming, even then.
I had some successful readings myself, such as “Save Your Roses” (1988) – an 80-line dialogue poem between lovers in the twilight of their romance. I had written it as requiem to one of my own relationships that had just ended. Uzoamaka Nnaemeka-Agu, my classmate and daughter of a Supreme Court judge, who is now a lawyer herself, was happy to play the female voice. It is funny, that fifteen years later, I can recall her voice rip through the night:
“…then Juliet drank the cup of fools.”
To which I barked:
“…and Romeo was a greater fool.”
I would give anything to find the script of that poem. It probably is in the suitcase in my cousin Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo Edochie’s house in Lagos, or in a Ghana Must Go bag of books and papers I left at my brother Ndubuisi’s house at Aba many many years ago. Save Your Roses was also included in Random Whispers, my unplublished collection that contained most of the poems I read at the Anthill and at the Cultural Centre Board, Calabar. I gave a copy of that collection to Dr Ada Ugah in 1991 for comments, but never retrieved it after youth service. Dr Ugah and I discussed my poetry after I played the Seer in the stage adaptation of his Novel in Verse – Colours of the Rainbow. I later lost my other copy in London during one of my moves from one accommodation to the other. I had bound only two copies of the collection. Hopefully, when I retrieve my luggage scattered in Aba, Kaduna and Lagos following my 1997 journey to the United Kingdom, I might find lose copies of the poems. The ones I read at the Anthill will always hold a special meaning to me.
Have I painted a picture of total Anthill bliss? Yes, Anthill was great, but I had a disaster which I still remember with a lot of shame. No I am not ashamed of it now, but for some reason I remember exactly how ashamed I had been that night. You see, although I always went to the Anthill with the scripts of my poems, I never ever read from the scripts – except for a handful of poems I wrote in Igbo language which I was unable to memorise. One great evening, I was presenting the poem “What Future Are We Talking About?” and could not get past the first few lines. It was a complete disaster as I went on like a scratched record:
The clouds are heavy with rain
Harrowing hints of hate
Rage like burning weights
On the wings of my dreams
I forgot the rest of the lines. I began again:
The clouds are heavy with rain
Harrowing hints of hate
Rage like burning weights
On the wings of my dreams
I forgot the lines again. At this time Eni-Jones Umuko and Olu Oguibe sitting in the front row urged me to read from the script. I said no with my eyes, and in the third attempt I remembered the lines and redeemed myself somewhat.
That experience that showed me that my memory was not infallible made me more sensitive to my work as an actor in the following years. It also meant that no matter how many times I rehearsed my lines and got on stage, I always made an allowance for my memory to fail me. Thankfully though, through the plays “A Dance of The Forests”, “Once Upon Four Robbers”, “The Slave Wife”, “Kinjeketile”, “Who’s Afraid of Solarin”, “Scars That Mar” and “Hangmen Also Die” among several other plays, I only had a memory hiccup in one play, Emeka Nwabueze’s “Guardian of The Cosmos.” It is also the only play I have been in that I do not recall lines from.
As suddenly as the Anthill was introduced to me, it also simply went off the map. I seem to recall that I spent more time on the road in 1989/90 for theatre activities that for a four-month period or so I just did not go to the Anthill, then one Wednesday I went there and it was shut.
I grieved for the loss of what I fondly called Rhythm Wednesdays. I missed my friends such as Ifeyinwa Egemonye who sang a few times there. Goodness, Ifeyinwa was beautiful and sang very well too. I recall that one night I was reading a poem and she sat in the audience eyeballing and distracting me. I remembered Oscar Wilde’s statement that the best way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it, so then, I made an impromptu poem to her right there:
(for Ifeyinwa Egemonye)
When such a bright face
In the dim light I see
The claws of love the tigress
Dig deep into the dark of my world
To bring out the light of my life.
Later that evening I wrote it down for her on a piece of paper and it remains unedited to this day. I walked her and Ifeoma Meka, her room mate back to Okpara Hall. The two girls smoked like locomotive engines, and since at the time I also enjoyed a stick or two of cancer everyday, I didn’t mind too much. I also remember the singing partners Obi Emelonye and C.J. (I am sorry and ashamed that I do not remember C.J’s full name.) Considering how many meals, and drinks I enjoyed with CJ, how many times I visited him, he visited me, or we visited Emeka Uba together, or the parties we attended together, I never got to know C.J’s full name. I remember other Anthill greats like Obiora Udechukwu and Emman Usman Shehu.
I remember the Rhythm Wednesdays of Anthill with a hopeful sadness, like unfinished business of school sweethearts that drift apart when their parents move to other towns leaving no forwarding addresses. Such sweethearts hold on to the memory of their love, young, uncorrupted, unconditional, unsmothering, unquestioning, loving others the best they could, yet trusting that life could not be so unkind to keep them apart forever. I have always hoped that someday, while I am yet able to read a poem, Anthill shall rise again, the rays of her songs’ sunshine undimmed.
Rhythm Wednesdays was first published in Sentinel Literary Quarterly Vol.2 No.3, April 2009