Bola Opaleke: Songs and Dances as a Cosmopolitan Village

Hamed Nada (1924-1990), Untitled, 1963. Source:

In the endlessness of life’s cyclical wheel, in the dangerous neutrality of man’s mortal effulgence, and or the cowardly barricade of the conflictual rhythms of his existence, he often misappropriates songs without adequately supplying the right dances to them.

“Don’t sing a song,” he said. “If you cannot find the perfect dance for it.”

Those were the exact words by my father (translated from Yoruba) in 1991 after I’d told him I wanted to join the Nigerian Army so one day I could be a military president. Years later, I would still, in my head, shuffle the judgmental finality of his words, probe at its proverbial complexity and perplexity, and ultimately resign from that variegated prodding of the wheel that will never cease to turn. A song is a song is a song, and a dance is a dance is a dance. Period!

In 2009, I met a young man. Erinfolami (Fola for short). He was ten years younger, but a constellation of stars whirled around him like a glittering blade in the afternoon sun. Though only I could see that, it seemed.

Whenever music is playing, Fola would move close, listen so very attentively. He, always, cannot help himself. Every sound, to him, comes with a distinct memo, and every song with a precise note. I had never before then seen a mathematician of sound and voices and words. He gave almost the same attention to noises as he did to songs or chatter. He was not one to respond to a question, or talk without first measuring the length and breadth of every locution involved. To the rest of the world, that is too slow. And when you’re not quick to open your mouth they say you’re sick. In all of these, Fola seldom speaks. He prefers to weigh the calories in every sound he hears before deciding what voices to pitch them with in the dietary list of his frontal lobe. Always, he would only whisper to himself, frown or smile, but never speak.

We became friends because I was drawn to his peculiar silence. Because I have my silence, too. Because sometimes when I open my mouth nothing comes out. And I figured it would be something to know how he has managed his silence without unleashing any noise upon the world that appeared too eager to leave him behind.

Fola was born with autism. He was partially blind and has never spoken. And when I say spoken I mean the common language of here. He spoke. Only people did not know how to listen to him. An incident comes to mind:

One Sunday morning, after I returned from church, I sat with him on the balcony of his grandmother’s house. He seemed agitated about something but I did not know what. I tried several gimmicks to calm him down. After a while, I noticed he was reaching for the Bible in my hand (with his eyes half-closed) and pulling my other hand toward my mouth (he does that all the time so it was hard to think why this was any different). Something moved me to put the Bible in his hand and to stop talking. I did. At that instance, he smiled. Smiled in a way I had never seen him smile before. For well over five minutes, silence stood before us, like the Law, and we acknowledged it dutifully. Over time, I realized silence, to him, is synonymous to prayer. Whenever there is quiet, he would assume that a sacred communication is going on, and so stays quiet. He very seriously honored every one of these moments dedicated to his communion with God (or so I thought).

Fola passed away the Harmattan of 2014; part of me passed with him. But I had already learned so much from my friend that never spoke. Two days before, in the hospital, our now common silence accompanying us, I very urgently wanted to sing a song for him but no song came that was perfect for the occasion. I instead hummed the lyrics of Nigeria’s national anthem (you can imagine how bizarre it was to an audience of one, and a special one at that). He squeezed my hand so hard as if calling my attention to that awkwardness. But I knew him enough to know what he was saying, instead, was “Thank you” because he heard every word I did not say (or sing).

After that episode, I bounced along with the conundrum of fate. Though, I have discovered a very important lesson of life. I might never find a special friend like Fola again in my lifetime, but I found how everything on earth can be called by a name we give to it, not the one it wants to answer to. In man’s impressive vigor of discernment, he could not understand that certain silences are prayers. And that though the destiny of the ear is to collect sound, not every sound collected can be given what it doesn’t want to receive.

My father said, “Don’t sing a song,” and I did not understand what he meant. “If you cannot find the perfect dance for it”

I have always looked at songs with certain brash depravity. Like a slave groveling in the servitude of the shackles, picking up crumbs before the taskmaster’s feet, I watch how hard people tried to manipulate songs into the dances that they are not, and sometimes reluctantly joined the wagon of that latched ruination. Who has ever caught up with a song racing away? Because not every song flies, man must learn to put his ears to the floor; mop up every exclamation mark in it to prepare a stage for its perfect dance. By the way, not all dances are done with the feet. The entire world is a cosmopolitan village of silences, and of songs, of dances that mostly never fit.

In this scarifying and unending nomenclature, there is still that unbelievable void filled with life’s emblem of impermanence which is (itself) unfathomable void. Therefore, the mind of man having been conditioned to look up to the teacher, the musician or the poet for a glossy explanation of how musical language works, and how a song can be interpreted through the syllables of its rhythms and tone, is more enchanted with the physical manifestation of sound as a riposte to the evidences of dance and or gesticulation.

The teacher, perfecting the act of commandeering the abundant hugeness of her conjectural mastery of historicity, news, and invention, frames every old truth in new lie. Yet it sometimes works. Like the carpenter who hammers at the wind to remind people of the handiness of his skills, the teacher paces, articulating her often solitary tongue in the authoritative scholarship of “the knower” of all things. She tells, what is music and, what is dance. But even this “god of knowledge” cannot see the songs and dances as a cosmopolitan village of silences.

Finally, the poet. The potter of words, and weaver of songs. He strides majestically in his illuminatory pleasure toward a world he had created for himself (with the hope that this world will not be only for himself) where songs and dances will be one and the same. Hypnotized by the natural endowment of the language of birds, he sees the trees, the seas, and the sky as metaphors. His only explanation for dances is not songs, but echoes, just as the only explanation for flood is not rain, but rainbow. Still, man asks: what is music without the poet? In this village, he is the loudest, silent member.

So, having come this far, shall we talk about the musician without first mentioning the drums and the trumpets? I have seen different people of different cultures and races sing different songs, but almost none has been able to find the perfect dances for their songs. They think when they move their bodies it is dance. They think when they hear a sound it is song. The oceans of the world and the forests of our time speak but nobody could hear them above the din. No one in the world realizes that silence is a prayer to self. That you cannot teach or be taught any song without first finding its perfect dance. The musician jives up and down, masking his ignorance in the opulent gyration of a survivalist. He names his songs and dances but the songs and dances find no perfect name for him. The cosmopolitanism of it all is intriguing.

The earth no longer prays. It sings. Our planet is singing. All across here, we hear different songs from different corners but find no single dance that fits any of the songs. The ensuing silence is magical.

They say music is always in motion, but so is everything that carries sound with it, or within it. Some songs are made to scream, others only whisper. Yet each has its dance that answers when called upon. No one ever called upon silence. Silence calls upon itself.

My father said, “Don’t sing a song,” and now I hear what in those words were not said, “If you cannot find the perfect dance for it”.