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Story of Ulli Beier

Ulli Beier landed in this country on October 1, 1950 and while the precise date—October 1—may be merely fortuitous and of no significance, the period around 1950 is of great moment. By then, Obafemi Awolowo and his Egbe Omo Oduduwa had self-transformed from a cultural organization into a political party, but even now that the Action Group party is remembered mainly for its great deeds in the Western Region, it is still important to remember its cultural origin. Secondly, obviously, Awolowo and his co-founders of Egbe Omo Oduduwa did not start on a tabula rasa: there had been a Yoruba cultural renaissance—or an attempt at one—before them.

But rather than look up to the new Western-educated Yoruba elite who were bent on modernizing the society from without, Ulli went back to the source of the cultural fire, as it were, for his own edification, education and illumination. Hence the first half of my title: ‘Among the orisa’, for it was to the orisa themselves and their human representatives on earth that Ulli went.

Soon after settling down on the temporary campus of UCI at Eleyele, Ulli started exploring his new environment—by foot. Leo Frobenius had given a wonderful description of the Sango shrine in Agbeni, and it was one of the first places he asked directions to and visited—only to discover that the shrine was no more. Within his first few months, he made friends with Dr. Awokoya, whom he accompanied home to Ijebu one weekend. Once arrived in Ijebu-Ode, Ulli immediately disconcerted his host by asking to be taken to a babalawo!

Dr. Awokoya was part of the new Yoruba political elite bent on ‘modernising’ Yoruba society as fast as possible, and babalawo for him represented the tradition that the westernizing elite was escaping from. He therefore had great difficulty acknowledging their continued stubborn existence, and certainly most uncomfortable actually being seen in the house of one! But so persistent was this white man with his awkward request that he had to take him to one—with all the reluctance in the world. Ulli duly met the babalawo and was impressed, not by whether the man’s divination was accurate or not, but by a combination of other things: the priest’s modesty, the sheer music of the language in which he chanted (of which, of course, Ulli did not understand a word!), and by the simplicity and luminosity of the whole process. That experience was the beginning of a special relationship with Yoruba religion that Ulli had all his life.

That life-long relationship is encapsulated in Ulli’s oft-repeated statement—which he still repeated to me in 2008 in Sydney: “If I had been born an African,” he always said, “I would have been born a Yoruba man, and if I had been born a Yoruba man, I would certainly have been a Sango worshipper.” First in Ilobu, then in Ede, and finally in Osogbo where he stayed longest, Ulli was friends with all the baba mogba, all the elegun Sango, and the ordinary worshippers of this deity. But contrary to the fiery and oftentimes destructive personality of this deity, Ulli found the actual worship very calm and calming. He attended every ose Sango (the ‘weekly’ devotion) that he could, contributing his own modest means to maintaining the shrines. The worship, he said, was always simple, brief, and soothing. His ‘adoption’ of Sango may have been due partly to the influence of Oba Laoye, the Timi on the throne in Ede when he settled there, but I think it was also because he and Sango were ‘kindred spirits’ in certain respects: for instance, Ulli too had a fiery temper which he kept under control most of the time, but which occasionally flared into a scorching fire. Also, the Ede-Ilobu-Osogbo axis was famous for Sango worship right up to the 1960s and the oba of these towns were great patrons of the religious cults—as well as of the arts in general. Given all of this, it was almost inevitable that once he became part of the Duro Ladiipo theater, the story of Sango’s reign as Alaafin of Oyo would be dramatized by the company, flaming temper, tragic suicide, deification and all. The production of Oba Koso, on which Duro Ladiipo, Ulli and Georgina lavished so much theatrical and artistic ingenuity, was clearly a labour of love for a soul-mate.

And Ulli’s relationship with the Sango priests and worshippers was really intense. Of the numerous elegun Sango between Ede at one end and Ila-Orangun at the other in those days, he was especially close to two: Bandele of Otan-Ayegbaju and Ajofoyinbo of Ila-Orangun—the ‘oyinbo’ for whom the latter danced being no other than Ulli. Both were frequent visitors at his 46 Ibokun Road residence in Osogbo, with the latter in fact staying several days at a stretch. His description of Bandele’s possession dance was always vivid, and his photographs of Bandele in trance are some of Ulli’s most memorable pictures. In the two dancers, he always said, he saw the two sides of Sango: while Bandele came out roaring and danced very energetically to bata, Ajofoyinbo’s dance was always gentle and sinuous, thereby portraying the suffering, tragic Sango.

But it was not Sango alone that Ulli felt close to among the Yoruba deities. Of the over seven hundred photographs that he took and lovingly preserved (the negatives and slides of which are now in the archive of CBCIU Osogbo), more than one hundred are of the different Yoruba deities—their icons, priestesses, priests and festivals. There is a particularly memorable one of the priestess of Sonponna in Ilobu. The face of the priestess, so vividly captured in the picture, is actually the ‘face’ of that deity of suffering for, contrary to popular conception, Ulli believes that Sonponna, though the deity of small-pox, is more the Yoruba embodiment of the inescapability of suffering—physical and emotional—in this life, and how to cope with it. Evident in these photographs are not just the eyes of a good photographer, but a person who loved and respected the people he photographed. Indeed, Ulli said several times that he never could photograph or interview his subjects the first time he met them; he always needed to come back several times and get thoroughly acquainted with them before he could start intruding his camera on them.

Next in number to the photographs of the deities are those of Yoruba oba, particularly those of his friends, mentors and teachers: Timi Laoye of Ede; Oba Moses Oyinlola of Okuku; Oba Adenle, the Ataoja of Osogbo; Oba Adegoriola of Ikere-Ekiti; and a few of Ooni Aderemi. This of course was not surprising, for Yoruba oba in those days were truly the custodians of culture. While Oba Moses Oyinlola, though a Christian, celebrated all the festivals of his town with great gusto and conviction, Timi Laoye, an accomplished dundun drummer for whom Ulli arranged a tour of Europe, took pains to explain the deeper and more arcane aspects of the culture to Ulli—he even sponsored Ulli into the ogboni society. Lack of time would not allow me to go on and on about this aspect of Ulli’s life in Yoruba society, but what is important to stress here is that, in a way, Ulli led two parallel lives in Yoruba society.

There is the life of Mbari Club Ibadan and Osogbo Art Movement (which really was Georgina’s baby, Ulli being no artist though a lover of art—“From childhood,” he said, “I could never sleep in a room without at least one work of art hanging on a wall”) that everybody knows, which is also the life of all his equally famous writings, magazines and numerous other publications, especially the anthologies of Yoruba poetry and of modern African poetry in English. But deeper than all of that, and of more value to Ulli personally, is the other life: the full immersion in the life of Yoruba oba institution, in the Yoruba orisa tradition and its variety of priests and festivals and poetry, and in the lives of ordinary people (both in Ilobu and Ede, he lived right in the market place).

It was among the traditional Yoruba intellectuals that Ulli Beier felt truly at home, and that his ever restless spirit found rest, nourishment and fulfillment. He kept the two parallel lives strictly separate for most of the time; but perhaps they met once—in the theatres of his two great friends Duro Ladiipo and Kola Ogunmola. His collaboration with the former in the production of Oba Koso is well-known, but not so well-known is the fact that it was Ulli who translated Hugo Hoffmansthal’s Everyman for Duro’s company; Eda, the resultant Yoruba adaptation, remains Duro’s next most popular play. That Ulli chose this medieval play to translate with Duro and put it on his stage showed how observant he was of his adopted society: after more than a decade living in it, he was beginning to see how crass materialism and sheer hedonism were creeping into the society.

There is no space here to give a detailed account of his equally deep friendship and association with Kola Ogunmola, so suffice it to just mention that he played a decisive role in getting foreign grant for Ogunmola’s Yoruba stage adaption of Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard, a work in the realization of which the theatre arts department at Ibadan and the artist Demas Nwoko (a member of Mbari Club) also played crucial roles.

In view of all this, though it may sound like nitpicking to do so, I still must correct the popular impression that Ulli was ‘a scholar of Yoruba culture’ in the sense in which we understand that term. Ulli came more or less as a refugee from Europe and found welcoming arms among the Yoruba people who also happened to have a very great culture at that point in time, and who were extremely tolerant. This was the life he met in 1950 and lived for almost a decade. But by the end of the 1950s, Ulli began to discern that the great culture was already declining fast: each passing year saw fewer and fewer followers and spectators at the festivals and ose Sango or that of any other deity. The combined forces of colonialism, western-style education, Christianity and Islam, all together termed olaju in Yoruba(wrongly, in my view), were beginning to take their toll. These forces were too great to be resisted by any one, least of all Ulli. But their strength, he thought, could in fact be used to modernize the culture from within. This thinking motivated the other life—the life of Mbari, Mbari Mbayo, and of publications like the magazines Odu and Black Orpheus.

This was at home here in Nigeria where all that Ulli desired to do was to give something back to a culture that gave him so much. Abroad, all his efforts, both then and subsequently in Papua New-Guinea and in Bayreuth (as first Director of Iwalewa Haus), as well as in Sydney, Australia was to let others see, know and appreciate what he found in that culture.

Ulli Beier’s literary productions are more or less well-known: the excellent anthology of Yoruba poetry and, the no less pioneering anthology of modern African poetry in English which he did with Gerald Moore; another anthology of essays on modern African literature; plus the founding, editing and publishing of Black Orpheus and Odu, both of which, we now know, he did virtually alone (otherwise, how come the two journals died the moment he left?)

Less well-known, however, are the numerous essays he wrote and published in magazines and little journals all over the world, all of them specifically on Yoruba culture, society and traditions. It is on these I wish to concentrate in this last part of my paper. But again, I need to preface that overview of the essays with a few remarks.

Writing about any aspect of Ulli Beier’s life-long relationship with Yoruba society, I have come to conclude, is not an easy task at all. To start with, that relationship was as multifaceted and multilayered as it was intense and unique. Then, it was a relationship of emotional involvement in which he viewed his own cultural identity as that of a Yoruba man.

The well-informed books and essays he wrote about several aspects of the society were only by-products of his immersion in the culture at the higher level of Yoruba kingship institution, Yoruba traditional religion and its festivals. The involvement at this level meant that he never could write about these things with the objectivity of a disinterested academic: all his writings were one long and untiring advocacy for the society he had made his own by choice. So this presents anybody writing about him and his writings a huge problem - especially if that person happens to be Yoruba: how do you write about a man who wrote so glowingly, and with such obvious conviction and passion, about your own society - how do you write about such a man without descending into hagiography? This is a particularly important question if one considers that our missionary-colonial Western-style education was (and remains) designed to lead us away from our society and culture and here was a man who took it upon himself to show us some things that could lead us back. And at any rate, since he was not a ‘scholar of Yoruba culture society’ (a term he himself always quick to reject), it means that his writings were not for ‘fellow scholars’ and, indeed, as will be seen presently, he neglected all the rules of scholarly writing. His writings, rather, though well-informed and even researched, were for the information, education and edification of the general reader.

But first, a brief discussion of the circumstances surrounding the writings. Ulli Beier was an intellectual, but a non-academic in the conventional usage of that term. In this wise, he might simply be described as a non-academic intellectual. Throughout his active years, he chose to remain at the margins of whichever university he found himself working in. He remained a generalist who wrote only on what interested him—and he was interested in everything Yoruba. He was also a non-conformist in what he wrote and how he wrote them. It was this freedom from academic conventions that allowed him to write about Yoruba society the way he did. Here was a man who did not come to study the society but adopted it as his own while his marginal position gave him the freedom to write about it as an interested insider.

Ulli Beier came to Nigeria with a selective cultural baggage: while thoroughly disenchanted with Europe and rejecting many things European, he nevertheless was a great lover of baroque music; his father had taken him to all the great museums in Berlin, Paris and other European capitals, and so he was deeply steeped in the ancient cultures of the Near-East; he was also conversant with much of contemporary European literature, art and theatre. But once he settled down and, as it were, fell in love with and adopted Yoruba society as his own, he underwent a permanent transformation, the stages of which can be outlined as follows: from the mono-perspective of an outsider to the dual perspective of an insider-outsider (an insider who never lost the outsider ways he brought in—he never ‘went native’), to that of an insider who latter acquired multiple perspectives, but with the Yoruba insider-perspective as the measure of all others.

Thus, although very familiar with the culture of his native Germany, and although he had more than passing familiarity with those of India and Papua New Guinea and Aborigines of Australia, it was from the perspective of his Yoruba cultural identity that he gauged them all. His initial marginal, insider-outsider position in Yoruba society allowed him to see Yoruba society differently: to value things in it that the natives themselves no longer valued, to draw his Yoruba readers’ attention to, and promote, things that they wrote off as of little or no consequence, and to not take for granted practices and traditions that his friends thought would always be there. He of course could not arrest the changes that were taking place, but he could at least write about those things that were being overtaken as a witness. In other words, his motivations were almost the exact opposite of those of the normal academic.

The sheer quantity of Ulli Beier’s scholarly writings is truly prodigious—and equally breathtakingly varied. As far as Yoruba society alone is concerned, he wrote on virtually every aspect of it. He wrote on Yoruba myths and their psychological significance; on Yoruba deities and their shrines; on Yoruba attitude to dogs and dog magic; on Yoruba kings and their festivals; on D.O. Fagunwa’s novels; on the difficulties of translating Yoruba poetry into English; on Yoruba sculpture; on electioneering campaigns and campaign songs; on children’s songs and toys; on Yoruba textile production; and on and on. One characteristic of the essays is that of the passionate belief, till the end of his life, in the values and ethos of the culture, especially in its capacity to generate change and growth from within. Another is that all came out of just plain curiosity and empathy, and all are suffused in the light touch of geniality and gentle humour.

The essays span a period of about 30 years, most of them being written between the early 1950s and the mid-1980s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, and in Bayreuth, Germany, Ulli Beier continued his work on the society by engaging in long, ruminative, retrospective and searching dialogues with Yoruba intellectuals like Wole Soyinka, Biodun Jeyifo, Rowland Abiodun, Sophie Oluwole and others. As Director of Iwalewa-Haus of the University of Bayreuth, he also facilitated artist-in-residence visits for some of the original Osogbo artists, when he encouraged them to write their autobiographies. In other words, a kind of socio-cultural account of how Yoruba society has changed between 1950 and the 1990s can be gleaned from his writings alone! His essays constitute an account of a man who saw, learnt and did much, and who also witnessed changes much more drastic than anybody could ever have imagined between 1950 and, say, 1980. There may be a tinge of romanticization in some of his essays, but there is no indulgence in sentimentalism and nostalgia in them.

Ulli Beier’s singular cultural base, Yoruba society, gave him an emotional and ethical perspective from which he continued to approach and judge all other societies, as well as personal engagements with them. He thereby proved that the ethnic can be universal—that in fact, there is something universalistic in Yoruba culture, as another scholar of the society, J. Munoz, has argued in a book, and as Yoruba religion in the new world is tending towards now in the second decade of the 21st C. In this matter of the potentials of Yoruba culture as a ‘universal culture’ it was in the area of music that he made his greatest efforts. In Germany, performance by Yoruba dundun and bata musicians in one of the ‘cathedrals’ of German classical music was an annual ritual. He got them to play with musicians from countries like Norway, the USA, Germany, Indonesia, Egypt and India in yearly public festivals (to which he also brought musicians from Senegal and The Gambia). It is also there in his critical essays on Leopold Sedar Senghor and Richard Wright.

Because Ulli Beier’s cultural integration into Yoruba society was not among the then emerging Western-style-educated elite but among those who still embodied it in their daily practices, it is also a different kind of intellectual perspective. In this, he was lucky, for Yoruba culture, always stronger in orthopraxis than in orthodoxy and doctrine, provided him much food for intellectual contemplation on its verbal arts, religion and institutions.

The essays written in the 1950s and 1960s reflect the political and intellectual climate of the period. The Yoruba cultural nationalism that had started so optimistically toward the end of the 19th C had all but petered out; Yoruba historiography too had been reduced to rival local historiographies in which individuals from different Yoruba sub-ethnic groups and towns produced pamphlets meant to redress the omissions or ‘wrong’ accounts given by Rev. Samuel Johnson in his monumental work. In this narrow-minded politicization of Yoruba history Ulli Beier intervened with his critical essay “Before Oduduwa,” and the result was a renewed general interest in the pre-colonial periods, followed by more vigorous scholarship in them.

In several of his essays Ulli Beier also took a different tack in attacking the subtle but more powerful erosion of the African’s belief in himself, in his history and culture, that Islam and then Christianity and Colonialism had wrought. Indeed, precisely because these new religions and politico-cultural realities created a new elite in whose interest it was to naturalize and promote them, their more deleterious effects were glossed over while the ‘evils’ of the indigenous religious system were exaggerated. Ulli Beier did not of course announce his counter-project in the essays dealing with this aspect, but simply pointed to what materials were available and where to look, and how they could be used in the much-needed projects of historical reconstruction and cultural self-renewal. The essays on Oduduwa, on Yoruba myths and their possible psychological use attest to this counter-project of his.

Odu, the journal which he founded and edited, was a cultural journal specifically devoted to Yoruba studies and meant for a Yoruba audience. The numerous essays he published in it were accordingly not only about that society but also addressed to it. As the essays were not meant for the A&P (Appointments and Promotions Board) of the university, they are characterized by a semi-informal style and intimate tone: here was one Yoruba man addressing other Yoruba people with the aim of getting them to ‘do something’. Odu also published articles and poems in Yoruba—this at a time when the craving for English was already on, and to ‘speak vernacular’ in schools was a punishable offence.

As many and varied in subject as Ulli Beier’s essays are, there are unities in them: unity of subject; unity in the personality of the author. Recurrent in all of them is a personal tone (which I have already mentioned): the warm, friendly tone of an insider sharing his knowledge, experiences and encounters with other insiders. The personal pronoun with which he most often addresses his reader also discloses a personality that just wants to satisfy the curiosity and hunger to know the society whose every aspect so deeply fascinates him—and to share that knowledge with others. For instance, only a person so deeply fascinated could have written two articles on Yoruba people and their dogs: “Yoruba Attitude to Dogs” and “Dog Magic of Yoruba Hunters,” or for that matter, “Children in Yoruba Society”.

Finally, there is what I would call Ulli Beier’s ‘humanism’. Implied by this term is also that idea of the Renaissance Humanism, for the breadth and interests of Ulli Beier were wide indeed. But, more appositely, what is meant by it here is his deep and abiding interest in human beings: human beings as distinctive personalities and individuals, rather than human beings in the abstract. If the essays reveal the personality of Ulli Beier, that is because they say much about the individuals who embodied or shouldered the burdens of the institutions and traditions he wrote about. Who these individuals are is of as much interest to him as the traditions, institutions and practices that are the subjects of the essays, be they Yoruba oba, priests and priestesses of the various orisa, or children. The numerous photographs he took also testify to this. He could, for instance, have written academic papers on the Yoruba Travelling Theatre based on his intimate connection with Duro Ladiipo and Kola Ogunmola, or on the Osogbo Art Movement. He chose, instead, to write devotional memoirs on the two. It is perhaps this interest in human beings as persons, more than anything else, that makes his essays very readable narratives and not grand theories or impersonal analyses.

Any sustained consideration of Ulli Beier’s activities and essays is bound, at some point, to be confronted with a question: of what use are ‘studies’ if they cannot add to or improve the cultural, social, political and even economic life of the society or people so studied? The question, indeed, is almost inevitable, for here is a man who did not come to study anything, but whose practical contributions to the society have been so seminal. Also, the question forces itself on us because the concrete contributions for which Ulli Beier is justly famous contrast so starkly with whatever routine academic studies in Africa have been able to achieve—especially by African scholars themselves in the area of culture. To raise the question is to portray Ulli Beier in a better light, so it must be quickly noted, perhaps, that he had a paradoxical advantage: he came to Nigeria equipped only with a B.A. in English Literature and a Diploma in Linguistics—in short, not yet a specialist in any field, his mind was still open to all things. But the reason why he took the Diploma course in fact explains those later concrete achievements better: so as to be better able to teach children with speech handicaps in London (he would, in Nigeria in the early 1950s, try to use art as therapy for mentally-disturbed patients at Aro Mental Hospital, Abeokuta). In other words, from early in life, he had always wanted to put whatever academic knowledge he acquired to practical use.

Academic studies ‘for its own sake’ in any particular field of course has an illustrious history in the West, for even scientists whose discoveries lead to technological inventions, advances or improvements do not start with such practical use in mind, no matter how vague. In the West, however, the university is a cultural institution fully integrated not only into other cultural institutions, but also into the social, political and economic ones. But even then, different Western nations have, from the beginning of the Renaissance, found the need to create separate agencies for the development of the arts: art schools, music schools, acting and dance schools, etc. Universities may do critical studies of the arts, but the discovering and nurturing of talents are left to such agencies. Ulli Beier quickly found that the colonial university he came to in 1950 was by its very constitution hostile to native culture in all its forms. Hence the founding of Mbari Club, Ibadan (plus its organ Black Orpheus), the organizing of a Yoruba conference, the founding of Mbari Mbayo in Osogbo and the active support for Duro Ladiipo and Kola Ogunmola and, finally, the founding of Osogbo Art movement and the nurturing of the young artists who constituted the movement.

It may be as a result of retrospection long after these events that Ulli said that one motivation for these activities was the desire to give something back to a culture and society that was giving him so much. I personally do not think so, and, in any case, the lesson is there for us all to learn: in the present state of both our culture, doing studies alone will never do; we need to also be putting something back. Ulli Beier’s advocacy essays constituted another way of putting something back.

What Ulli Beier and the Yoruba cultural nationalists before him were embarking upon was a gradual secularization of Yoruba culture in all its aspects—and this is why ‘renaissance’, rather than ‘revival’, is a more suitable term. But now the wheel seems to have turned full circle, for the trend now is in the opposite direction: the pervasiveness of religion, especially Christianity in our society, has meant giving all the orisa and what they stood for such horrible names as are alien to their nature.

The ethical, philosophical and aesthetic essences embodied by these orisa which the cultural nationalists and Ulli Beier were trying to distil and make available to everyone, have been abandoned, together with the distinct cultural identity that they gave Yoruba people. Even our language, on which the early nationalists fought and won a big battle against the missionaries around 1893, will soon become a threatened language. While ‘culture’ is on every one’s lips, there has been a narrowing and constricting of the term—and, worst of all, a separation and compartmentalization of it. We have moved from names like Esubiyi and Agbebi to horrid contraptions like Jesubiyi, Peculiar, Precious, Jesunifemi and Jesuferanmi. What is in a name? you might ask. If Ulli were here, we might ask him: he, after all, was the ultimate signifying monkey who signified on names like Akanji Arabagbalu and, most culturally enigmatic of all, Obotunde Ijimere.

Extracted from a Speech written by Prof. Wole Ogundele.

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