Baba Suwe: A Merchant of Mirth And The Tears of A Clown
Baba Suwe died. Given the information-overload age which we live in now, it is understandable that time did not practically stop when news of his demise broke- as it did, for example, when Michael Jackson died. You know where you are when you first heard. Not to say Baba Suwe is MJ, but such is his import to his craft and to Nigerian television history. Nevertheless, more than a few fans have paid tribute to him as the proverbial curtain fell on his act. His work touched millions of lives of a four-decade period, spanning television dramas and straight-to-VCR productions that entertained many homes in the 1990s, as well as music videos. Baba Suwe was a one-man riot act, a riotous character who you knew was certain to crack you up, and the first comedic rockstar in his mould. So while time may not have stopped at Baba Suwe’s death, but in the minds and hearts and fingers of countless generations of fans, there’s a celebration of the life he lived and the legend that he was.
It is unlikely that when he was born in 1958, in the Epetedo Division of Lagos Island, his family would have imagined that he would reach the heights that he did. The son of a petty trader mother and a non-medically-trained-but-learnt-as-a-vocation optician father; Babatunde Omindina’s ambitions were modest. Lagos Island in the 60s was a fun place to be. Owambes were plentiful and faaji was commonplace. Highlife musicians were the toast of merrymakers while juju and fuji were on the ascension. But there was yet a third dimension to entertainers around at the time: actors and comedians who dressed in outrageous costumes and went around with drums and sekere and gongs, providing amusement on the fringes of actual parties. A few of that type remain today, but if you’re on Elegushi Beach, you might run into them. Or you could go to that place opposite Lagos Airport Hotel where food is sold only at night. Some of these funnily talented characters show up there regularly.
This was what fascinated young Babatunde Omidina. As a child, he spent many hours following these motley crews. However, unlike his friend Gbolahan Anifowoshe who grew up in Agarawu, just ten minutes walk away, Babatunde was met with stiff resistance from his family. By the time Gbolahan was a pre-teen, his father was deceased and his mother was in her 50s already. He fell in love with music and became K1 De Ultimate, King Wasiu Ayinde Marshal, the acclaimed leader of fuji music. Baba Suwe’s father wanted his son to go to school and become a white-collar worker, something that eluded him himself. So he bundled his son and sent him off to school in Oshogbo, four hours away from Epetedo today but twice the distance and thrice the travel time it took back in the days- that the realistic means of transportation was the famous Nigerian Railway Corporation.
Being far away from the exuberant streets of Lagos Island did not dampen Baba Suwe’s affinity for comedy nor his predisposition to be a jokester himself. Fellow students at St. Clare’s Catholic School Oshogbo knew him for his spontaneous fabu and odu (embellished gist and outright fantastic fabrications). Being a funny guy helped stave off the animosity people in the hinterland often had for city boys like himself. On school breaks, he always found his way to his theatre circuits and tried several times to get signed to the Osumare Group, led by Baba Osumare (Ayanfemi Phillips). His widow lives still- the legendary Iya Rainbow). He was refused each time because he was underage. After his secondary school education, he headed back to Lagos and picked up a job as a clerical officer on the fast-developing Victoria Island just across the waters from Lagos Island. He spent very little time there, no more than a handful of weeks before he quit and decided to give this comedy thing a shot. This time, Baba Osumare, a respected theatre leader and acolyte of Hubert Ogunde, couldn’t refuse him and he started travelling with the troupe, much to the annoyance of his father. As a member of the group, Babatunde Omidina stood out: this was a serious theatre group whose plays were traditional and always had a moral lesson. On his own, the newbie was a natural clown and there was no need to cast him in serious roles. However, the comic relief bits that he got; he nailed them to the letter. Soon, more people came to see the plays for his over-the-top comedy than the drama itself. All of this was between 1972 and 1978.
By the early 1980s, Baba Suwe had become relatively well-known in theatre circles. Those days, there were daily plays at the National Theatre and he was on stage almost every day, sometimes with his own band of comedians and other times with the Osumare group. They eked out a living from these plays. Hubert Ogunde didn’t necessarily care for these audiences; his were big stage productions and celluloid shot cinema films. Baba Osumare dabbled in both, so did Baba Sala from whom Ade Love (Ade Afolayan, progenitor of the Afolayan film dynasty that comprises Moji, Kunle, Aremu, Gabriel as well as their aunt Toyin Afolayan aka Lola Idije) started. People like Oyin Adejobi also produced television dramas in the 80s. Baba Suwe wasn’t thinking of this level when he started out, he was simply happy to be doing what he loved and earning a living wage from it. Oh by now, he’d fully embraced the unmistakable character that he would be known for for the rest of his career and life. He adopted it from his friend and mentor, Baba Mero. Baba Mero who practiced his own craft with Ojo Ladipo, was a comedic actor himself, one that Baba Suwe admired and learned from. He told Nigbati TV that he took everything from Baba Mero- from the stylistic name to mannerisms, blackened face, outrageous costume; everything! The only thing he didn’t adopt was the name- Suwe was the name of his first female accomplice (way before his wife Moladun). In several interviews, he referred to Suwe as “his girlfriend”, even though the whole industry knew they were husband and wife.
“Baba Mero was actually my mentor. He was the one I really liked and took after. If you look at my costumes and then visit NTA at Victoria Island to look at my photographs there, you’ll think it’s Baba Mero.” But it appeared that even though he’ll tutor and raise stars like Oga Bello (Adebayo Salami), Baba Mero’s destiny was not to be a theatre success and he fizzled out not very long after.
On the flip side, Baba Suwe’s star took off in the 1980s. A fortuitous meet with an NTA producer made him a household name and introduced him to a generation of television-watching millennials, this writer inclusive. Impressed by his hilarity, he was asked if he could create a thirty-minute playlet that could air on tv. The result? Erin Keke.
Erin Keke was Baba Suwe’s creation and one that made him a household name. In only thirty minutes, he and his crew delivered a drama series that on the surface was slapstick; but contained a number of life lessons- like greed and gluttony were bad, patience is essential, respect for elders and so on. But make no mistake, the star of the show was Baba Suwe. At first glance, he elicited a laugh- who wouldn’t laugh at a character who had blackened his face with charcoal and accentuated his handlebar moustache with powder? And that same individual had on several layers of clothing topped by an agbada, all of it tied together (literally) with a big piece of rope, whose mischief was the highpoint of the play. It was impossible not to laugh at Baba Suwe and Erin Keke became a huge success to the point that it was syndicated to NTA stations in the South West. I lived in Ibadan and vacationed in Abeokuta - we watched Baba Suwe on NTA 4 and NTA channel 12. I could be wrong but I think I caught it also on OGTV.
And Baba Suwe was just getting started…
It is hard today to describe the television programming of twenty to thirty years ago. All tv stations at the time were government-run- NTA, the federal government while others were run by respective states. Programming did not begin until 4 pm and ran until either 10 or midnight. Bear in mind that NTA network news- which state-run television stations also broadcast- was for one solid hour. Therefore, getting your content on tv was almost an impossible task. Nevertheless, Baba Suwe ran Erin Keke for upwards of five years before moving to the fast-spreading phenomenon that was “home video”. He became a regular feature in major flicks and had inimitable chemistry with Moladun Kenkelewu, his real-life wife. By now, Baba Suwe was a bonafide money maker and film marketers fell over themselves to feature him in their productions. From his first big role in Iru Esin to Jensimi, to Perosoko, Akobi Gomina, Kadara Afri-T, Maradona to the Bayowa reign that included cult favourites such as Larinloodu, Lepa Shandi, Elebolo, Obelomo, Baba Londoner and dozens of others, Baba Suwe’s slapstick comedy marked the coming of age of millions of millennials.
More importantly, his persona created a pathway for many others to follow. You might not realize it, but he made it a thing for Nigerian films to have a silly, often unrealistic character who provided comic relief; even in modern big productions like The Wedding Party. There’s always that one actor who plays a gateman or driver but is always dopey. Even across language barriers, film practitioners of other ethnic groups have made that character a regular in their work. Surely there were actors like Chief Chika Okpala of the New Masquerade fame, but he didn’t evolve beyond the NTA stage of the 1970s and 80s, and he was Chief. Baba Suwe may have been limited by his choice of language- he appeared almost exclusively in Yoruba language film- but he’s a pop-culture staple. In recent times, Twitter handles like NollyCircle and YouTube channel VICTOLA have attempted to carry over his ineradicable work to newer and younger audiences. The result is an explosion of meme-worthy clips and continuous admiration of his work. It’s the least he deserves to be honest.
In his death, what he does deserve- or more appropriately his children- is for the Nigerian state via the NDLEA to pay him the twenty-five million naira awarded him as damages for the unlawful arrest and detention carried out against him in 2011. He was detained on suspicion of drug trafficking but no traces of drug was found in his system for the entire three weeks he was detained. An appeal court set aside the judgement in 2013 and he took it to the Supreme Court, only for the case to stall after his lawyer Bamidele Aturu died in 2014.
Even before his death at the age of 63 in his Ikorodu nondescript home on November 22, he had spent much of the past ten years in various stages of ill health, also burying his wife Moladun (Monsurat Omidina) who died in 2009. One only hopes that the sadness expressed by a wide section of the society- including fans and politicians such as (former) Senate President Bukola Saraki and (ex) Vice President Atiku Abubakar leads to an uptick in the residual cheques his surviving children get.
Baba Suwe was one of a kind. His reign as the king of Nollywood comedy, primarily in the Yoruba category, was unrivalled. He was a larger than life character; boisterous than most of his peers, and he created a lane that countless others have toed since. He must never be forgotten.