When I lived in Ibadan, there was these jazz sessions at Premier Hotel which took place every weekend (can’t remember now if it was Friday or Sunday nights). It held in a ballroom on the ground floor of the hotel and featured an ensemble that played non-stop for about four hours, late into the night. The music swayed from highlife to jazz, and sometimes to juju, but always within a range of danceability. Guests who sat around the stage in different arrangements often got up from their tables to dance, alone or with their guests. There was always food and drinks.

I attended a couple of those sessions while I was a student, with friends and colleagues from the university. It always provided a kind of relaxing end to the week. We had nice stimulating conversations, got our fill of good music and food, and exercised the stress away. The location, on top of the hill at Mọ́kọ́lá, also provided not just a beautiful overview of Ìbàdàn at night, but also a very relaxing access to cool breeze. By morning, one felt refreshed and ready to take on the next week.

Yesterday, I had an experience very close to that, which brought the memories back. It was at 16 Kòfó Àbáyọ̀mí Street, Lagos, on the eighth floor of a building I never knew existed there, with a relaxing view of the Lagos Lagoon, and a high-up-enough location to soothe a most exhausted traveller. The event was Títílọpẹ́ Ṣónúgà’s poetry concert event titled “Open”. Gate fee: 5000 naira. It is the first of a three-part performance show slated around venues in Lagos.

I don’t know if “concert” is the right word, because the poet approached it like a soulful conversation between an artist and her audience. But the word still closely captures some of the show’s best aspiration. In a space that felt intimate because of its size, the lighting, and the mood, an artist performed to an audience, and the result was delightful.

I haven’t been to many spoken word concerts. My contacts have been limited to more public spaces like the halls of the June 12 Cultural Center in Abẹ́òkuta where poets from all around the world have performed to a much larger audience during the annual Aké Festival, and to YouTube channels and TED Talk videos, where poets with verve, rhyme, and sass have dazzled with inspirational and stimulating turns of phrase and soulful rendition of their work. There are a few other avenues that have popped up over the years though. I know, at least of Taruwa, which (I believe) featured open mic events for amateur and established spoken word artists to come impress an audience. But this one felt different, perhaps because it also included an element of music necessary to move even the most inexorable skeptic of the beauty or relevance of poetry in performance.

Accompanying Ms. Ṣónúgà last night was a bass guitarist, a pianist, and a man on the drums, along with a certain Naomi Mac whose voice carried the soulfulness demanded of the intimate occasion with ease and grace. With their accompaniment, the show was fully realized not just as a celebration of the power of the word or Ms. Ṣónúga’s poetic capabilities but as a ritual of mass catharsis; an artistic triumph.

The poems performed came from some of Títílọpẹ́’s recent works, a few of which I’d read on other platforms or heard in other places. Perhaps it was deliberate, a way to get the works performed again in a perfect setting of her choice, recorded along with the audience reactions. Some I was hearing for the first time. What united them was the theme of the evening: an openness to possibilities, in love, in life, and in public engagements. Navigating the tale of personal heartbreak, the process of finding love, coming of age, political instability, societal dysfunction, naivete, lust, love, and consent, the poet details her personal artistic response in a voice and style that is as open as it is reserved. (In a notable poem about a seeming first sexual encounter, for instance, the poem ends “he knows the punchline to this joke, and I’ll never tell“).

In the end, it was as much a beautiful intimate gathering as it was a much needed artistic intervention in a city space much in need of a lot more events of this character. We need plenty more.

_____

More about the last two performances here. Títílọpẹ’s earlier work “Becoming” was reviewed here. Photos 1 and 2 from Titilope Sonuga’s Instagram page.

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