The Griot, Single As The Eye Of A Needle

JAJAH ONILU (SEPT 1955 – JAN 2012)

By LEROY CLARKE

Some of us are too noisy and more voracious than over-pixilated billboards. Too busy-busy to gather things that moss the prow of our intent with that careful turning or tuning that lends patina to unmistakable character and purpose of our being. Not Jajah, that patriarchal descendant of a Kingdom he evoked in a steady lance-like stride across our earth. Virile, he swore a handsome light that charged his eyes, radiantly fixed to horizons he was chosen to announce.
Was he ever a boy? When Eye met him in the early seventies, this twig of a young man was already a legend shot forth by scalpels that gave Behind De Bridge its no-nonsense profile of bottle and stone and razor and fire. Pound for pound will buy you no favour. Yet, among the clashing armours of cuss and the broiling rivalry that was assigned by the die thrown far from home;, there he was, a craftsman and entrepreneur, self, made safe from the hardness and abnegations of poverty that rendered no respite.
Migrations, spilled from Middle Passage, Inheritors of the void will stalk that rocky balustrade to Laventille (Lavantee), the open trek to Behind De Zero! On the beat, beating out a path; canals, drains, ravines, galvanize fences, beds of stone, broken teeth in mud, in asphalt; beating child and woman, beat beating scriptural time to no surrender! Sounds emerge from sepulchral nights, nebulae of frictions between hand and earth and sky, shadows break their silence: voices ripen their Obeah, knowledge dawns with fresh names to sound -Calypso and Pan are born of Bongo in that limb-bending squeeze of Limbo rites.
No prodigal, his feet remained tied there to his Grandmother who had rooted him in Orisha praxis, until a few years ago, when he took to a valley in the green hills of Caura where he would seal his legacy. Farmer, yes, but inclined to semiology in that sense of deepening his meditation on his inter-relationships with things, but now, stemming from the tuber or seed, the slip or sucker he planted.
In a relatively short time, his countenance reflected the vastness of redeemed spaces; legendary caravans, full in their height between sky and earth; audacious feasts for the Eye, commingled in gratitude for sun and rain -Africa, unchained, sings her utmost word!
Naturally exultant, he was seldom distracted by any furore; as single as the eye of a needle, he wrought his way with the uncanny stealth of a Griot. A fierce silence went before him that warded him from listless engagement with anything or body that did not match his upbeat disposition to building and shaping things. In and through those acts his spirit flowed with the ebullience of organic ease, at one with a variety of tools (some invented by him) that were really extensions of his masculine intuition to stir and to call forth the soul spun forms and sounds of reed or shell or skin; avid to unconceal the mysterious fossil from what is blatantly given to nature’s splurge. His were expressions of homage to Word that was in the beginning and will be with us, as in any thing, in the end.
As it is with Pointer Men, in their own circuit, in flight, Jajah appeared almost elemental, chimerical and absolved from the chaos of his age. His disposition will yield a life-long vocation to which he was impeccable in the gathering of things of our random interests, and, with the adroitness of bird and insect in the shade of his Science, his Obeah, his Art, he revised the rituals of knowing by becoming familiar with his deeper hunger to emblazon his senses with a reach into primordial climes where, under the manners of a solitude that caught up with him, he was now the practised emblem of his longing.
Some of his touches gave the female wearer of his jewelry an infant charm or the air of a sojourner’s wisp; with the men, there will always be that flavour of return to a frontier, bristling with the sweat of expectation and the adventure of conquest. His Art languaged a tribe believed to be lost of everything. He was that tribe re-founding itself. All his was pledged to a Great Age remained solvent in his memory against the acids of history.
A Libran at fifty-seven with two of his three children, young men, Iyinde and Modupe, seeds fallen close to the tree, he pushed them forward; from his band Jewels of Nature Organic Percussion has sprung Baba Iyinde’s Rhythmic Roots. All ready the old wise man of the Drum was recognized as King Jajah Oga Onilu, Grand Master, emissary and initiator of a durable language, permanently ranked among our noble percussionists.
This season has bared its scythe: four have been pruned naked to us in Death’s importunity and ready embrace of a shadowless victory. Immortals, they are now the herald of our memory: Pat Bishop, Geraldine Connor, Ralph McDonald and Jajah Oga Onilu. Farewell!

The Elder, Chief Ifa’ Oje’ Won Yomi Abiodun. LeRoy Clarke.

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