Demystifying Ọmọwúrà: Review of Tunde Kelani’s “Àyìnlá” – ‘Joba Ojelabi

Stories have been an integral part of human culture since the dawn of time.

So, when veteran filmmaker Tunde Kelani (TK) announced his next film was about the life of Àyìnlá Ọmọwúrà in December 2020, it felt like a major cultural moment. Not solely because it was TK’s return to the cinema since his minor film, Sidi Ilujinle, an adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel. It was the mythical status of his latest subject.

Àyìnlá Waheed, son of Yusuf ‘Anígilájé’ Gbogbolowo, was the Abeokuta-born and raised Apala maestro with a 22-album strong discography, murdered in a bar room brawl 47 forty years ago. On one front, the life of Mr. Kelani’s subject is fraught with grey areas and controversy. 

There are still several unanswered questions about who Àyìnlá Ọmọwúrà was and more importantly, the circumstances of his death. In May 2020, Festus Adedayo released Ayinla Omowura: Life and Times of an Apala Legend, a comprehensive biography on the late musician.

Telling a story like Àyìnlá Ọmọwúrà’s is no easy feat. This is due to a number of reasons, primary among is the illiteracy and background of the late musician. The late Ọmọwúrà is alleged to have shown notable apprehension to digital documentation during his lifetime, leaving scant details upon his demise. This is perhaps why, despite the several taglines describing Kelani’s film as a musical biopic, TK affirmed that the film is not one.

Produced by Jade Osiberu, credited for Nollywood films like Isoken and Sugar Rush, Ayinla stars Adedimeji Lateef (who plays the lead role), Debo Adebayo, better known as Mr Macaroni, Kunle Afolayan, Bimbo Manuel, Ade Laoye, Omowunmi Dada and others.

The film opens in Itoko, Àyìnlá Ọmọwúrà’s ancestral home in 1980, the year of his death and takes viewers through notable events that formed myths and gossip about his life: from his patronage of traditional spiritual charms to his love for women and of course, his bad temper and tendency to violence which inadvertently led to his demise. The screenwriters come up with fictional plots leveraging on some of Omowura’s biggest hits and his proposed London tour to create colourful scenes. 

Although, this quickly gives the film away as more fictional than factual. For instance, in Ayinla’s final performance in the film, he sings a number from his Volume Seventeen album which is largely popular for being the reconciliation announcement between himself and his lead drummer Adewole Alao, with whom he had a rift. Keep in mind that in an earlier scene, he had performed ‘Ẹní Robi Sími’, a number from Volume Fifteen on the premise of an enquiry from a journalist about his alleged kidnap. Both albums were released earlier than the timelines in the film. 

Confirmation of this speculation for any true follower of Ọmọwúrà’s work is in the cinematic Ayinla’s performance of the popular “Bó wúmì ma fòyìnbó korin” track from 25 x 40, the late Omowura’s Volume Twenty album under EMI records, which was released after his death. Except Omowura did not mind giving his live audiences a taste of some of his unreleased music, this performance was unlikely to have happened. TK’s film is audacious because there is not a lot of antecedent with respect to musical biopics in Nigeria and mainly because of the lacuna of information that exists in the Àyìnlá Ọmọwúrà story.

The Àyìnlá film is significant for being the first of its kind in the Nigerian scene. A lot of people from all over the world would see Ọmọwúrà only through the character Mr Kelani has created and this is why the gaps in the plot are hard to ignore.

What the film lacks in biographical fidelity, it makes up for in performances, costuming, locations and props, etc. There is no controversy at all in describing Ayinla as a musical. Right from the first scene, the audience is immersed in the melodious baritone and drums that are characteristic of Omowura’s Apala music. This tempo is maintained through a significant part of the film. The implication of this is that there are no dull moments for the audience, at least until the melancholy of tragedy sets in. 

TK also makes a cameo appearance in a scene where Omowura is to be interviewed by representatives from the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service (WNBS), Ibadan. Just as is told in popular gossip, the interview is unsuccessful as Ayinla leaves in anger after being asked to go wear an undergarment. However, a blunder is seemingly committed in the execution of this scene: As Ayinla walks out on the interview, he retorts, “Ti n ba pada wa sibi, ki iya mi pe mi ni orun.” which can be loosely translated to, “If I come back here, let my mother call me to heaven”. In real life circumstances, this would have been impossible because when Omowura died in 1980, his mother was alive.      

Adedimeji Lateef is exceptional in his role. While it is beautiful to watch the actor give life to Eegunmogaji, he is unable to fully recreate Àyìnlá the songbird. Lateef struggled with some of the lyrics from the songs performed, depending on camera angles and skillful editing to escape these ungracious moments. The actor shows more effort than the actors playing the roles of Ayinla’s backup singers who arenot in sync with the songs all through the film. This irks, considering the pivotal role of backup singers in the Apala genre.

Another flaw of the film, in the context of its seemingly popular description as a biopic of the late Ayinla Omowura is the number of missing characters and perspectives to the life of the real Ayinla Waheed Omowura. For one, while Adewole “Onílù Ọlà” Alao, lead drummer and original founder of the Omowura band, is represented in the film, his name is almost not mentioned throughout the film apart from mentions from Omowura’s numbers. This is also the case for Ayinla Agbejapa, Omowura’s spiritual consultant, and several other characters in the musician’s life.

The several works exploring Ayinla Omowura’s life have highlighted characters like WillandPower, Kollington Ayinla, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister who went from being the chairman of the Omowura fan club to becoming a major rival of the Apala artiste, despite both musicians singing in different genres. 

Omowura, like some other musicians of his time, was allegedly fond of marijuana. This trait is expunged from the Àyìnlá film, giving the superstar a lesser gangster appeal than other accounts. But then again, there’s only so much that can be done in the 110 minutes.  

The film garners some sympathy for Bayewumi, Ayinla’s manager and killer, whose character is renamed Bayowa and is played by Debo Adedayo MrMacaroni. While there are several accounts and accusations on the dispute between Omowura and Bayewu, who was eventually hung for the murder of the former, the Àyìnlá film portrays the duo’s disagreement as being caused by a woman, a speculation which also exists in the real-life context.

In all, Àyìnlá is a beauty to behold; literally and figuratively. Tunde Kelani has yet again created another timeless piece, one that even Omowura himself might enjoy if there are any large screens on the other side–with a joint in hand of course!

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