The Passing Scene

August 8, 2009

*Caban Bamboo *Bobby Benson

By Bisi Lawrence
Here is a piece torn straight from the pages of “Old Lagos”. It is from Yinka Alakija, whose name itself is “Lagos” – like “Carter Bridge”. He writes about an aspect of the former Capital in a manner that, for me, drips with soulful nostalgia. It comes on racy, but please read it slowly.

I write as a friend of Hotel Bobby, better known as Caban Bamboo. The brief I am about to submit is based on my personal conviction. And I hereby state that I have not conferred nor listened to any hearsay.

My approach to the matter of Caban Bamboo is to avoid unnecessary preambles and sentiments. Right now there is a gaping hole or vacant space where Caban Bamboo once stood majestically. The fact as far as eyes can see is that the structure has been pulled down.

I also state categorically that I am not in contact with any party that has any issue to sort out as far as Caban is concerned.

I would like to see a situation where all the parties concerned, that is the Bobby Benson family, the State Government that newspapers purported to have pulled down the structure due to its nuisance value then, supporters of the performing arts, and arts and entertainment writers and broadcasters, get together to utilise the space for the general good of the public.

Caban Bamboo in its glory days transcended and surpassed the purpose for which it was built. It was the indigenous pioneer in the field of combining hotel lodging and night clubbing. Cuban was owned by the indefatigable, affable, enigmatic, first-class entertainer and entrepreneur, Bobby Benson. To write about Bobby Benson is to be prepared to write two voluminous books. For this submission, I can only be brief about him.

Bobby Benson was a man whose influence and character pioneered and dominated the entertainment industry of West Africa, especially Nigeria and Ghana (Gold Coast) from the ‘forties to the early ‘eighties. He was born 11th April 1921 and died 14th May 1983 at the age of 62 years. He was a consummate entertainer and showman, a master of his trade.

He acted in films, on TV and on stage. He also promoted the performing arts. Bobby Benson was a multi-instrumentalist. He played the Baritone saxophone, Trumpet, Drums and Guitar. He was a vocalist and a professional tap dancer.

He worked with and trained many musicians. Most of them later became legendary bandleaders in their own right… people like Dr. Victor Olaiya, Eddy Okonta, Bala Miller, Chief Billy Friday, Roy Chicago (Eliazar Arinze, “Bab-face” Paul) and many others.

Bobby Benson was a visionary of the entertainment industry in Nigeria. He actualised his vision through Hotel Bobby and Cuban Bamboo Night Club. It is quite revealing that Bobby Benson made sure that his outfit was up to international standard.

In the heyday of Caban, it was not unusual to find in the nightclub or hotel, a mix of diplomats, politicians, military top brass, business tycoons, students and the average citizen. Now that the old structure is no longer in place, I would like to see a situation where corporate entities, government, individuals and all kinds of institutions come together to work with the Bobby Benson family to put a deserving structure where Hotel Bobby used to be.

The new place should be a first class modern institution. It should serve as a place for the discharge of social responsibility. It should be designed to teach and encourage the performing arts. A country like Nigeria needs places where the performing arts could be taught professionally outside of the university environment.

The design should accommodate a performing arts institute. There should be a hall to stage plays and musical concerts; a floor devoted to Nigeria Music Hall of Fame, and a grillroom to represent the old Bamboo room. It should be a place where Bobby Benson would have been proud of.

It should be a place that would benefit the public at large. It would be a place of tourist attraction. I move that all who have fond memories of Caban Bamboo, especially those who are patrons of the performing arts, get in touch with Bobby Benson family, and plan on how to execute this project.

It should be run in such a way that it would be generating income, at least, for the performing arts. The edifice should be known as and christened “The Bobby Benson Performing Arts Centre”, (BBPAC). It would make true the adage that the palace that got burnt has been replaced by a more beautiful one. Or it could be a case of the mythical beautiful Phoenix rising from its own ashes. For the sake of all concerned, let us all be a part of “Amicus Bobby Benson Performing Arts Centre” – BBPAC.

That is Yinka Alakija.

I believe the year was 1957 or ‘58, when I was commissioned – I really should say “command” – to write a radio feature on “The Changing Skyline of Lagos.” The LEDB was then in control of the beautification of Lagos – the central part of the Island in particular. The scheme was to affect vast areas from the Island end of the Carter Bridge right to Tinubu Square and down Broad Street to be Kingsway area.

That covered several municipal landmarks of Lagos including where a dear old aunt of mine had lived for upwards of seventy-five years. I was frankly not enamoured of the project. But a command is a command. I was not just working in Radio Nigeria but for Radio Nigeria, and when my boss said go, I ran!

That was how I ran into this Englishman called Henderson. He was the Secretary, I believe, of the LEDB, the Lagos Executive Development Board, the authorities in charge of the change that would be created in the skyline of Lagos. I disliked him instantly. He had a smile approaching a leer all the time. But Mr. Henderson actually knew what he was about.

He believed in what he was doing and gradually convinced me that if you will an omelette make, you simply have to break some eggs. When he eventually unveiled a model of what the new Lagos would look like from a distance, I was completely bowled over.

That is what you now see from the crest of the Carter Bridge. But it was a far cry from that some … wait a minute … fifty years ago? Is it that long already? The Ojikutu family house, the picturesque Tom Jones Hall, those mysterious storey buildings owned by the Syrians and Lebanese merchants that dominated Victoria Road (now Nnamdi Azikiwe Road), have they all been gone for half a century already? Well, that’s time, for you.

But that is also development for you. Then it was the changing “skyline” of Lagos; now it is the changing “landscape”. My aged auntie who wailed about having to relocate to Oke odo (literally “upstream”, which was what the mainland was dubbed by the inhabitants of the Island) soon became habituated to the “New Lagos” life of Surulere. She first complained that it was too quiet, but ended up admitting she slept better of nights.

It is now also easy to forget that the changes, in those days, did not stop on the island but some traces went across the Carter Bridge. It was in that tide that the Ambassador Hotel in Yaba was swept away.

At first, it seemed impossible to think that the Ambassador Hotel would be pulled down. That was where Bobby Benson established the first popular nightclub in Nigeria. There had been places like the Rex Club before it, but that was for a select group of people – the wealthy, the well-known, in short, the elite. There they had bands like the Chocolate Dandies and the City Orchestra, which featured even doctors and legal luminaries in the band.

They even danced steps like the waltz and fox-trot in those days m,, believe me. But Bobby was of the people. They related to him in everything he did.

He was theirs, and they were his. They even lampooned him with distorted lyrics of his own songs. He didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he appeared to enjoy the attention. He wore his clothes for them. He played his music for them. He even played the fool for them. But underneath the buffoon was the creative genius of a pure professional.

When the Ambassador Hotel was going, Caban Bamboo emerged. Someone has said that you have to be prepared to write two voluminous books about Bobby Benson to do him justice.

Did I hear two? I would write that much and would not yet have scraped the surface deep enough to reveal the outlines of a unique human being who stamped the odour of his spirit on generations, a man who was loved as much as he was detested even by those who cannot but hold him in high esteem.

Two volumes? Each would have to be a foot thick.

I was at the beginning of Caban Bamboo when it was still all mud. Bobby would point to a pile of sand and say, “That is where the bandstand will be.”

Then he would point in another direction at a mound of mud and declare, “That is the bar.” The rain would continue to fall unheeded until one could escape into the car with Bobby following a few minutes later, wet all through.

But it all came to life. And then , would you believe who occupied some of the seats where the mud and sand used to be? Would you believe Wole Soyinka” Segun Olusola” Frank Aig-Imokhuede?

They were all there at that time. Some of them even contributed naughty lyrics to his naughty songs. Maybe they would give a thought to a fitting memorial for Bobby Benson in this country that seems to disdain any effort to remember.

Time out.