By Bisi Lawrence
This is an open invitation, asking you to relax for one week-end, away from, Attahiru Jega, Obasanjo, Bode George, The Tinubu Tribe, The Saraki Clan, and the Jonathan Ensemble. Come away from the cloying grip of politics, at least for a breather, and meditate on someone, something, or somewhere you love.
I love Lagos. There is no other city I know so intimately, and I have known it all my life. My Lagos used to be from Bishop Street, now known as Issa Williams Street, to the Ikoyi Cemetery. That was in the early forties – I would say 1943, to be precise.
Everywhere I wanted to go, or was permitted to go, was located within that area. It contained my school, the CMS Grammar School; my church, the Church of Christ Cathedral; and my staging ground around Campos Square in the Brazilian Quarters extending to the Race Course, that is the “Toronto Area” area where the Independence Building, the Secretariat which later became the Ministry of Defence, was later erected.
To the North I was able to wander as far as the “Bombata Grounds” which abutted “Isale Eko, a no-go area. “Bombata” was, to Isale Eko, what “Toronto” was to Brazilian Quarters, a local mini-stadium where gusty lads played “he-men” games of soccer that were rough and tough, but not entirely without skills.
These grounds were the nurseries for the great footballers on whose performances the history of the beautiful game was built in Nigeria .. Teslim “Thunderbolt”, for instance, and Sulaimon (also known in the boxing ring as Small Montana) were littered here about the same period in Bombata. Mensah Quashie, “Wosan” Johnson and the like were also raised in Toronto
School-days were golden days with the secondary school boys dressed in white uniforms while the primary school pupils wore khaki of different colours according to their schools. We had great fun, in and out of school.
Apart from taking part in the official school sports programmes, we also had the good fortune of participating in the sports meetings and games organized by the Social Welfare Department in the Community Centres at Onikan and Alakoro, and at the Youth Centres for the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs.
There were also various extensions to social life. There were public performances by Egungun (Yoruba masquerades} which combined raw theatre with magical displays. Indeed, we had a variety of cultural presentations by different Yoruba cults, including Gelede, Igunnu and others. They provided limitless enjoyment for fun-seeking lads, most of whom were in primary schools. But though I was already attending a secondary school that did not stop me from roaming the streets with the Egungun or Gelede groups, to the displeasure and dismay of my parents.
They, of course, showed their disapproval in the customary manner of a furious whipping, which we took in the stride of having fun while growing up. How much whipping could have kept any red-blooded lad of ten or twelve from the finale of the Egungun festival display at “Tabontabon”, anyway?
Then there were the Calabar Street Bands, the forerunners of the music-hall performances, which were spearheaded by the immortal Bobby Benson when the Ambassador Hotel was opened about a decade later. Although the Calabar Bands played the highlife – in fact, they gave that word to our music world – it was left to Bobby to make it popular throughout the country. Bobby’s career climaxed with the Hotel Bobby, a nightclub within which was ensconced “The Caban Bamboo “, an air-conditioned bar for celebrities ..
One would have to write two voluminous books about Bobby Benson to do him justice. Even of that would hardly have scraped the surface deep enough to reveal the outlines of a unique human being who stamped the imprint of his spirit on generations, a man who was loved as much as he was detested even by those who could not but hold him in high esteem. Two volumes? Each would have to be a foot thick.
Yinka Alakija, who is of Lagos, knew Bobby very well: He says:
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. Caban 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, Eliaza Arinze,”Baby-face”Paul and many others.
Bobby Benson was a visionary of the entertainment industry in Nigeria. He actualized his vision through Hotel Bobby and Caban 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 which 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
There had been places like the Empire Hotel and Rex Club before Hotel Bobby. There were even bands like the Chocolate Dandies and the City Orchestra, which featured trained musicians and professionals like doctors and legal luminaries in the band.
They even danced steps like the waltz and fox-trot in those days, 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 the distorted lyrics of his own compositions. 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.
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 (and you know who) 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.
I believe the year was 1957 or ‘58, when I was commissioned – I really should say “commanded” – 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 scherne was to affect vast areas from the island end of the Carter Bridge right to Tinubu Square and down Broad Street to the Kingsway area That covered several municipal landmarks of Lagos including where a dear old aunt of mine had lived for upwards of 75 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 Me Henderson actually knew what he was about. He believed in what he was doing and gradually convinced me that if you will make an omelette, 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… 50 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. But there should be something left behind to commemorate what was but is now no more, since it was so much a part of what has contributed to what is now here, but will also in its own turn be caught in the swirl of change. That is why I found the statutes of Herbert Macaulay in Lagos such a heart-warming site.
The old nationalist’s daughter, Enitan Doherty, attests to the impressive degree of resemblance registered in the one on Broad Street; I have one or two problems about that, however, much as I agree with Auntie Enitan. In the first place, the figure should have been mounted on a pedestal. For a statute it is much too low to the ground in that surrounding.
Secondly, and more important, Herbert Macaulay always wore a black bow-tie, for a very . Intimate reason throughout his life. That white tie on the statue in Broad Street is an abomination. Please make it black.
Just a word for those who took displeasure about comments on Bode George on this page last week. You all read through jaundiced eyes. At no point did I have anything to say about his offence.
I only characterized his reception as a “political rally, which it truly was. He is my friend, even if he seems to have fallen on hard times. That is painful enough bear at this time, but that is just as it is. For the next three weeks, we shall be concentrating on other areas of life, but you can’t get away too far from politics at this time, all the same, though man does not live by that alone.