There are no shortage of good music documentaries — even in the same film festival I’m covering this week on my blog (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects 2020) I saw Shut Up Sona and The Go-Go’s (and there were a few others besides that I missed). Nor is there any shortage of stories from the continent of Africa when it comes to music either — it’s an enormous place of course, with so many different cultures, languages and traditions — but even if African cinema may never have been given the chance to develop as much as that in the west, there has never been any lack of music. A few years ago I reviewed They Will Have to Kill Us First (2015), about music in Mali, for example, but this documentary deals with nearby Nigeria, which as the largest country in Africa has plenty of its own distinctive sounds and traditions.
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, so you’d expect it would have a lot of stories, and when it comes to the arts, its music has provided the soundtrack to so many momentous events. Typically, it’s the work of Fela Kuti who gets the attention — and he is of course a force of nature with the kind of story filmmakers love to tell — but it’s great to see a film which largely focuses on other, less well-remembered, figures from the nation’s long history of music. In that respect, this reminds me a little of Faaji Agba (2015), which shares a few interviewees in common, though Elder’s Corner provides a lot more context. It’s told by an expatriate Nigerian, the writer/director/producer of this film (born in London, living in NYC), who is prompted to make the film by the nostalgia of listening to his friend’s record collection. We see these crates of amazing, obscure and well-loved records at the start, and it’s eye-opening, but the real journey is the one he takes in Nigeria, talking to a lot of the older generation, getting them to reminisce about the origins of Highlife music, of Juju and (yes, eventually) Afrobeat, and also to take about the changeable fortunes of the country, taking in the grand attempts to celebrate the country’s artistic heritage at FESTAC 1977 but also the governmental corruption that was behind that and its subsequent decline, but also the Biafran War before that, through which many of the musicians interviewed lived. As you can guess from the title, this is a film very much a film giving voice to the older generations of musicians, and the legacy they leave behind (a number of them have passed since interviewed for this film), and that’s a story that’s always worth celebrating.
Director/Writer Siji Awoyinka; Cinematographers Kay Hung, Oluwaseye Olusa, Awoyinka, Edel Kelly and Tunji Ladoja; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 8 July 2020.