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Tribute : Elegy to Don Bruce

By Eddie Iroh

ON December 11, 2009, a mere fortnight before Christmas, a truly great Nigerian was returned to mother earth. His name is Famous Chukwudi Usumero, aka Don Bruce, a stage name he had borne for over thirty years of dedicated service in the entertainment industry.

To me he was always The Don. I don’t think anybody bothered to find out his real name. He was just our Don. The only way you would not have known him would be if you have never visited Abuja or never been to the Hilton Hotel, for he was both un-missable and truly unmistakable. In our country that sets store by money and political power, you would probably not call him a great man; he would remain a musician, a showman. But in circles where outstanding talent, boundless creative energy and artistic élan also characterise greatness, Don Bruce must rate as a truly great man.

I was at his show just two weeks ago before I left Abuja for England. As usual he was at his vibrant and flambouyant best, singing, dancing, gyrating, sweating and entertaining as only Don Bruce can. He took time off to recognise all the VIPs who usually attended his shows, and as a tribute to his Delta origin he sang Wa do! which had all Delta indigenes, young and old, on their feet, waving their white handkerchiefs, in jubilant ecstasy, rather than surrender.

He would usually end with my all-time favourite, Otis Redding’s Amen, a soulful ditty that echoed the nostalgic seventies for the old school like us, and underlined how long Don Bruce has been in the business of entertainment. A diminutive man who was truly a giant in the eyes of all who knew him, his two-nights a week show at the Hilton’s Kapital Bar has for nearly two decades remained the pivot of social life in Abuja.

The achievements of Don Bruce is a model for anyone who believes in himself and his Creator. Don Bruce did not study music in a formal sense, but he could compose as well as play every instrument in his orchestra. Of course, rather than go through the stress and challenge of teaching himself music, Don Bruce could have chosen the easy way out.

He could have been an armed robber, an enterprise that might involve a bit of risk, but really required no tasking training and tutelage. Don could also have been successful as a 4-1-9er, which requires much less skill and apprenticeship than armed robbery. He would not even have to own a computer. A cyber-cafe and N100 an hour and he would be in business.

In both enterprises Don Bruce would have been protected by two important factors that guaranteed low-risk. First the Nigerian person has developed a mortal fear of firearms compounded by the insecurity that is prevalent in the land. Armed robbers have thus been known to operate with fake guns and still achieve their purpose. Secondly naivety and greed of foreign adventurers made 4-1-9 a successful and almost risk-free enterprise, such that its operators have made themselves very rich indeed. Don Bruce could even have graduated to the more lucrative business of kidnapping and extortion, where ransoms are unfailing paid in millions of naira. Indeed Don also had every reason to have a chip on his shoulder. After all he was a red-blooded indigene of Niger Delta, the crude oil capital of Nigeria, where every citizen has a right to engage in the current fashionable business of Oil and Gas.
His five children had an inalienable entitlement to Government scholarship and guarantee of a job upon completion of their education.

None of these happened, but they did not distract Don Bruce, however, much they mattered to him. He certainly didn’t allow them to colour his outlook. And so rather than spread murder, mayhem and terror among innocent fellow citizens, arguing, like all disgruntled men, that society should have dealt him a better hand, Don Bruce elected to give joy, happiness and delight to just about anybody who came his way. No one ever left a Don Bruce show without feeling that a burden of sadness, grief, misery, despondency, depression or whatever other affliction he entered with, had departed from him. Such was the magic of the little man who towered above giants. Don Bruce was able to raise his five children literally through his own sweat. He did not get a helping hand from anyone, and if you did him a small favour, as when I gave his daughter a job when I was in office, he made a point of telling everyone he knew and expressing his appreciation.Yet he has done more for me than he would ever know. What Don Bruce has given to Abuja over the past fifteen years that I have known him in the city, is far more than any resident of or visitor to the city can give back to him. I mean, how can you reward a man who saw Abuja residents through the harrowing days of the Abacha dictatorship?

When I came to Abuja first on a two-year project 1994, the population of the city was 250,000. Traffic jams were unknown and the Kapital Bar was the centre of the universe. So in a way, Don Bruce grew with the city which is today more than 2.25 million. He did more than that: he pioneered its social life and helped give the city character. The sheer magic of his artistry, boundless energy on stage, his ability to bring joy and relief to citizens whose lives have been encircled by petrol queues and besmirched by all manner of crises, fear, uncertainty and political tension, cannot be quantified or monetized. It was as if Don Bruce stretched out his hands and said, “Come to me all you that worry about the problems of Nigerian life and living; lay your burdens at the door as you enter my show; be entertained and rejuvenated.”

There are many lessons to learn from the life and achievements of this humble little giant. The first is self-belief and personal growth. Don Bruce did not allow his humble origins to become his albatross and society’s guilty conscience.

He was quick enough to find his niche in life and worked hard to excel in it. Yes, excellence; that is the word I have been searching for: that challenging, endless, sometime elusive but definitely achievable milestone that characterise many great achievers. Being the best at what you elect to do is not easy, but definitely possible. Never being content with mediocre achievement; never willing to make do with how-for-do, and above all ever ready to sweat the extra drop of blood just to do a better job than the next person. Don Bruce was a maestro. Yet he never rested on the oars of his talent and ability. He rehearsed for his shows as if he had never been on stage before. He was a perfectionist who inspired those he worked with to realise that excellence was achievable only through hard work and endless questing for perfection.

In our country that very often extols small achievements and honours mediocrity, this humble little giant from Isoko bestrode the Nigerian nation by the supremacy of his talent and hard work. Armed with dauntless determination, he was able to raise five children, touch countless lives, bring joy to more Nigerians than many who benefited more from the Nigerian nation.

And he never complained to anyone. When my friend John Chiahemen texted me in London on the passing away of The Don, I felt that the least I could do was to pay a deserved tribute to a man I am proud to call my friend, the last of his breed, the Wilson Pickett of Nigeria. Abuja will never be the same again without Don Bruce. I hope the Federal Capital authorities will find a befitting memorial to a true Abuja icon.
*Dr Eddie Iroh, OON, wrote from London


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