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an obey song

Virtually every Yoruba person of a certain age knows The Horse, the Man and his Son, the 1973 release by Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and His International Brothers Band. It is a miliki number, in the slow tempo Juju style for which Obey has been famous since the sixties. In its languid storytelling, Obey’s style stands in contrast to the propulsive rhythms that have been King Sunny Ade’s trademark during the same time-period.

There’s no better example of this style than the The Horse, the Man and his Son. The song, which unfolds over the course of twenty minutes, with the musical accompaniment of a choppy but sparkling guitar line (which, in parts, owes more than a little to Anglican hymns) and subtle polyrhythmic drums, starts with the following refrain: “Ko s’ogbon t’o le da, ko s’iwa t’o le wu, ko s’ona t’o le mo, t’o lefi t’aiye l’orun o.”

This can be loosely translated as follows: “There’s no trick you can play, there’s no strategy you can employ, there’s no path you can know, to satisfy the people of the world.” or, briefly as, “There’s no pleasing people.”

Obey then sings a wry series of short descriptive songs about the ways of the world: the mockery that comes to those who work hard in school, the envy that even little children fall prey to when one of their mates has a bicycle, the petty recriminations faced by those who try to be upright in the workplace, or the disdain in which a man might be held for drinking Coke at a party instead of beer.

These humorous little stories, about being called names just for doing things differently, are always followed by the chorus line, “O ti bo s’owo aiye,” i.e., “He has fallen into the hands of the world.” It’s hard to convey the sweet and gentle humour of these songs, but listening to the song just now made my eyes a little misty. I began to remember the many late-night parties I attended in Nigeria in the 80s at which I heard Obey being played. I went in the company of my uncles, aunts and cousins; we kids ate jollof-rice and moin-moin while the grown-ups sipped their Star Lager and Guinness Extra Stout.

The centrepiece of the song is the tale promised in the title, that of the man, his son, and their donkey. The title on the album—which is given in English, breaking with Obey’s usual practice, about which more anon—identifies a horse. But the Yoruba word “ketekete” definitely refers to a mule or donkey. The standard word for horse is “esin.” The story Obey tells, and which, thanks to him, remains a living part of the cultural memory of the Yoruba, is as follows:

A father and his son needed to go on a journey, so they bought a donkey. The father, an old man, got on the donkey, and they started their journey, with the son walking alongside him. Someone suddenly accosted them, “Lazy old man! How dare you force a little boy to walk in the burning sun?”

So the father got off, and put his son on the animal. Someone else passing by said audibly, “What a rude little boy. Why won’t he let his poor old father ride?” So the father got on the donkey as well. As they approached a village, they saw a crowd gathering. “Those two heartless riders are trying to kill that poor donkey.”

So they both got off, and walked alongside the donkey. At another village, they were met with whispers. “Are these two crazy or what? They’re walking alongside a perfectly strong animal!” At which point the father said to his son, in the words of the song’s refrain, “There’s no trick you can play, there’s no strategy you can employ, there’s no path you can take, to satisfy the people of the world.”

In the course of some other study recently, I found an engraving of a father and his son carrying a donkey. The print was made at the tail-end of the sixteenth century in Antwerp by Karel van Mallery, after a drawing by Ambrosius Francken. It was part of a print series depicting the same story as in Obey’s, virtually identical in its details, with the exception of the added absurdity of the father and son actually carrying the animal. Well, how on earth did Obey have access to a Flemish folktale?

So I did some more research, and what I found was that the source of the story wasn’t even contemporary to the print, but was actually antique. Specifically, it was the work of the master of stories of this kind, Aesop. I felt a little silly about discovering this because, in retrospect, it is obvious.

The English title—for a song that’s sung entirely in Yoruba—should have given away the fact that the story comes from outside the Yoruba tradition. And the neatness of the fable, as well as its use of an animal protagonist, is absolutely characteristic of Aesop. Then again, it’s characteristic of Yoruba tales, too.

It turns out, though, that the Aesop manuscript tradition has the animal as a donkey in one case, and as a horse in another. Chauncey Finch argues that the horse was probably the earlier version, with the donkey substituted in later, perhaps in late medieval times, so that the additional comic element of the father and son carrying the animal could be included.

Finch’s article indicates that the earliest surviving documentation for this story is medieval. The fable, therefore, is probably not by Aesop, but is in the category of writings known as Aesopica (imitations of Aesop). Those who want to read more can hunt down the Transactions of the American Philological Society Association, vol. 108 (1978), and look up the article, “Aesopica in Codex Pal. Lat. 1378.”

In any case, so seamless and idiomatic is Obey’s storytelling, and so integral is the song to my idea of modern Yoruba music, that the idea that it had an external source had not crossed my mind until now. My guess is that he picked it up in a British colonial schoolroom sometime before Nigerian independence in 1960, perhaps in a textbook edition in a collection of Aesop’s fables.

The question now is who will go and inform the Senegalese and the Cambodians and the many other peoples who have versions of this tale that “their” traditional story was actually invented by a long-dead Greek slave or (as is more likely) by an obscure medieval humanist? Maybe no one should tell them. If there’s one thing I have learned, it’s that there’s no pleasing people.

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