Friday, July 9, 2010

Lingua Franca

Is it me or something is truly wrong somewhere? Years have gone by and I’m yet to find someone to give me a good reasonable explanation for the belief in some quarters that Nigerian artistes’ delivery of songs in Pidgin English is a sign of illiteracy or better still to put it in their usual word “inability to speak good English”. Even with successes achieved by Nigerian music and musicians in recent years, some people just don’t get it! With due respect to the very many people who earn their living through their white collar jobs across different sectors of the Nigerian economy, I may be right to say only few of them can boast of higher educational qualification than many in the entertainment business and this observation also applies to their general command of the English language. What amazes me however is that when bankers, doctors, advertisers… speak Pidgin English, it is considered a matter of choice, simply code switching or code mixing as the case may be but for an average musician to do the same, he is labeled “razz” illiterate or whatever name you can think of. I don’t get it.

As much as I value speaking right, never wanting to compromise on it anywhere I find myself, I will not be deceived into believing that this is all that defines me, even if it helps to make the best first impression. Without any disrespect to the ladies, I will have to speak from the perspective of a young single and sexually conscious guy. I have met and chatted with many intelligent ladies who struggle with their spoken English, making few errors here and there, what Naija people will call bad English – depending on their “marking scheme” and I’m pretty sure many of us will have few jokes off such experiences too but ladies and gentlemen! Have you met a girl that speaks the entire phonetics in the world but can not maintain an intellectual dialogue for five minutes? The ones that speak bad English with American accent are even worse! Guys you don’t wanna go down there; it is simply injustice to a man!
Ladies please feel free to do the same check and see if you’re not better off with that intelligent guy that speaks that carefully put together English with his Ibo accent than the one with Queen’s or Yankee English but no quality mind or manners or ambition.

I still remember the over blown grammatical blunder of juju musician Sir Shina Peters’ “soonest recover” and the endless issue that was made of it, why then would it be hard for me to truly appreciate the modest eloquence of musicians like Pasuma, Salawa Abeni, K1 and Obesere who’s genre does not even necessarily require the language? As much as I will like to say that being a musician or entertainer is not an excuse for not having a good command of our lingua franca – a language taught in our schools and on which every other subject is taught, rather is the more reason why we need it as music require some elements of poetry, literature and figurative expressions; I am usually forced to come back to the question what really is Nigeria’s lingua franca?

Just the other day I was fixing my car at the mechanic’s somewhere in ibadan, then came along this young – very young boy with a hammer in his hand with which he constantly hit the small wooden box hanging on his shoulder and I beckoned on him to quickly shine my dusty shoes. As his tiny little fingers struggled with the weight of the shoes, I wondered if he had been at this all day or the time being around 4pm it was just another after school work done to support his parents as the child labor thing has always been a common sight in many poor and even average homes – that being a topic for another day. I couldn’t bear the sight any longer and decided to settle my curiosity.

In my usual self I asked “are you in school”?
I got neither a response nor a reaction after repeating the same question twice, then hoping this sounds common, I asked “what’s your name”?
Then he looked up at me, looked back at the shoes and smiled as he continued his task, apparently sorry for a young good looking man showing early symptoms of madness by talking all to himself – my dreadlocks off course did not help matters.

It was already getting embarrassing and not the type to smile about but more of “if ai ssslap you…” but then I still had an idea, I switched swiftly to the famous, wonder working Pidgin English. “wetin be your name”? Low and behold! His vocal cords came to life in a manner that reminds you of Pastor Chris Oyakhilome’s miracle crusades.
“Dawoudi” he replied in his concentrated northern accent.
“Wonderful! what a miracle” I said to myself, then pressed on “you dey go school”?
“Me I noo dey go” Now feeling a little vindicated, I asked him why
“My phapha I noo get…” and the discussion went on.

It is also common knowledge that an average person from the eastern part of the country even with absolutely no formal education will communicate with you in Pidgin English comfortably. Then I ask myself “does it make sense for a recording artiste hiding under the saying that music is a universal language to make all his songs in total English language and fail to communicate with the larger percentage of his society but please a few misguided minds? That is nothing but a myopic sentiment borne out of regrettable propagandas or perhaps deliberate bigotry on the history of the evolution of Nigeria’s pop music! When politicians want our votes; they go to villages to speak Pidgin English and it works! Now someone wants to tell me “pidgin na wowo language”? Even our Honorable Speaker Dimeji Bankole will not speak his Queen’s English to the people in his constituency! For what now?

This is my point; music is about telling a story, sending a message and if the language that reaches your primary market most widely is Pidgin English or your mother tongue, why avoid it? If Jamaicans had avoided their unique patois (patwa) would it have become so globally accepted that we even try to copy it? Whatever language you speak, make sense. That is music.

I learnt an international organization rated three songs by Nigerian musicians among the best 10 african songs of the past century;
- Water by Fela Anikulapo Kuti – sang mainly in pidgin and Yoruba language
- Sweet Mother by Prince Nico Nbaga – another legendary hit song recorded totally in Pidgin English.
- African Queen the monster hit by Tuface Idibia – the only song of Nigerian origin in this class recorded totally in English language.
Ironically Tuface happens to be one of the pop acts that have been worst hit by the Pidgin English criticism but then “nothing dey happen”.

Here the points are quite clear and obvious, pidgin English is not a barrier to international acceptability as long as we keep it simple and sensible; broken English or your mother tongue in music is not a proof of deficiency in speaking English as stated by a popular celebrity couple in an interview some years back, and let me state and be sure it is also not enough reason to say “Nigerian artistes do not go to school” considering how many of us has tried to go beyond the first degree. However, all said and done, make we too stop to dey misfire; the Nigerian artiste needs to draw the line between a formal and informal setting and learn to speak appropriately. Enough said… I think.


  1. "Learn to speak appropriately" Word!

  2. "My fafa i no get..." lol!! great!!

  3. Great point, I agree we should know how to speak appropriately! I'm not from Nigeria but in my Mexican culture we feel the same way. I'm writing a research paper on Nigerian English and NPE, this is very useful for my findings! Thanks!

  4. Glad to know this is useful for your research. Thanks for stopping by.