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Olayinka Oyegbile

In search of the ballad singers

To be a poet is a condition, not a profession – Robert Graves


Poetry as an art has been with man from time immemorial and various forms and nuances have been brought into it to make it more contemporary and very relevant. It is in this light that the world has witnessed and continue to produce great poets who have at their own times and ways defined great poetry. From written poetry to the contemporary performance poetry etc.

Although in recent times around the world, poetry, like other genres of literature has been suffering a bad fate, but it is perhaps right to say that poetry has been at the short end of the stick. The reason is that readers’ attention span is becoming shorter by the day with the advent of social media and other forms of communication that have liberalized the world in a such a way that was unknown or not foreseen.

However, despite that, the world continues to evolve into new things and new ways of addressing pressing matters of life. In is in this light that Abu Sultan’s collection of poems titled The Ballad Singers, comes under scrutiny. In the fifty-eight or so poems that made up this slim volume, Sultan has been able to address a gamut of issues that deals with various issues, themes and concerns.

In the first poem which is titled Prologue: Waist bead of the Niger, the poet through a popular musical lyric tries to convey his impression about River Niger and sings in a manner that one is ready to dance to the rhythm and get lost in the tonal power of the poem. It goes:

Let us empty this river


Jugbu jugbu



Wonders shall never end

A dog fully clothed

Riding on a bicycle


In The Travelogue, the poet reflects on the futility of rejoicing at the arrival of a guest because at the end of the journey, the traveller would return home and thus create the vacuum that had been there before his/her arrival. In this poem, Sultan delves into the Yoruba world of life that everything that has a beginning must have an end. Taking the warning in his mother’s voice, he warns:

Do not befriend a traveller, mother warns

I make friends easily and quickly

I make friends too easily almost without virtue

I make friends so much that I acquaint a Tapa 

The poem reflects over the effects of having a traveller as a friend who will soon go and leaves one deflated. It is a very down to earth look at friendship and relationship.

In the one titled Poetry, is a short but powerful statement about the place and existence of poetry in Africa or Yorubaland long before the advent Iliad and Odyssey. What the poet did here in this little contribution is to state categorically as others have done in long essays and papers argue that poetry is also African and that we were not taught its arts by the English!

When you see the vulture head of the diviner

Do not rush to think

The vulture is a wood carrier

We may not have Iliad or Odyssey

But we are well read

Go to Baba Miliki or Odolaye Aremu

If you are still looking for rhyme and metre.

In The ingrate the poet takes a swipe at the mouth which daily demands to be fed forgetting that it was well fed yesterday and that today if there is no means to satiate it, it should understand! But as the Yoruba say, the mouth is a god which must be appeased on a daily basis, because it does not remember how well you treated yesterday, today it will ask for more.

It goes:

The mouth is an ingrate

If it were not an ingrate

How can it forget so soon?

Assorted meats

Boiled and roasted chicken

Fried and shredded fish

Grilled and peppered

Just yesterday

The fingers were playing football

With the head of turkey

On a field of pounded yam

Laden with Efo riro dripping with palm oil

As my finger runs down the flank like Odegbami

The nimble feet of Ilerika

My thumb and finger collide with a lot

Of ponmo and warankasi

God is my witness

The mouth is an ingrate

It forgets easily

And so…stinks all the time.


Such are the wisdom and native nuggets of wisdom laden in this slim collection of poems by Sultan. It is rich in imageries, metaphors and many literary and language word power that a reader would not miss getting educated and enlightened from the collection.

In the words of Professor Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah, “I have myself come to love The Ballad Singers as poetry that flows from the heart! The volume starts with a poetic Prologue and ends with a moving Epilogue, with lines in-between that address all topics of daily relevance.” This is a great testimony to the ability of the poet Sultan to convey his message.

Also, Prof Saleh Abdu in his introduction has this to say about the collection, “Abu Sultan’s voice is that of balladeer and the poems of this volume are expectedly dressed in sing-song garments rendition…Indeed, the success of Abu Sultan’s ballad to forge and cement unity in diversity of people across the river Niger divide in Nigeria serves as another pointer to the potentials of works of literature, where technocrats, businessmen and politicians have failed.”

This collection of poems is written with candour and in an evocative voice that touches the heart of some of the issues that have been dogging the footsteps of our country, Nigeria. It is very rich in native anecdotes and lore that would excite a lot of readers who are familiar with them or serve as a beautiful introduction of same to those who are not.

Abu Sultan is the pen name of Prof Muhammed Bhadmus, who teaches literature, film and theatre at the Departments of English and Literary Studies and Theatre and Performing Arts at the Bayero University Kano.

As one of the critics has said, Sultan’s voice is not entirely new in Nigeria poetry world because he has published some under his name before the resort to a pen name. Enjoy it.



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