At home with Labo Yari

The day before yesterday I paid a visit to Labo Yari, one of the best (though uncelebrated) minds of Nigerian/African literature, at his home in Katsina. I scarcely visit Katsina without going to see Malam Labo, who is enjoying his retirement from government service.

For those who didn’t know Labo Yari, here’s a quick introduction: He is the author of several novels and short stories, including “Climate of Corruption,” which was the first novel in English language to be published in the whole of northern Nigeria (in 1978, which shows you just how late we were in coming to creative writing in English), ‘Man of the Moment’ (1992, a novel), and ‘ A House in the Dark’ (short stories), all of which were published by Fourth Dimension Publishing Company Ltd., Enugu. As an everlasting admirer of Yari, I funded the publication of his latest literary work, ‘A Day Without Cockcrow & Other Stories’ (Informart Publishers, Kaduna, 1999).

Yari is among the first generation of Nigerian writers. He was one of the founders and is among the life patrons of Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA (the others are Chinua Achebe, T.M. Aluko and, I think, Mabel Segun). In terms of creativity and contribution to Nigerian literature in English, he is easily in the league of the Achebes, Alukos, Ekwensis, Soyinkas and Elechi Amadis. But, sadly, he is not very known like his peers because he is relatively reclusive and away from centres of mass media like Kaduna and Lagos where journalists would have been celebrating him adequately. Personally, I blame ANA Excos from inception till date for not engaging icons such as Yari. When I was on the Exco of ANA, I made sure to take Yari to the Abuja convention of the association several years ago, where he attended his second convention (the first being in 1982, I think, when ANA was founded).

Yari does not shy away from publicity, he just happens to be too far from the centre of media, and literary editors are lazy and given to arm-chair journalism. I happen to be the first person to have interviewed Yari, way back (I think) in 1996 when I was the Arts Editor of the ‘New Nigerian’ newspapers. Yari told me he granted his second (yet-to-be-published) interview to Sumaila Umaisha, the present Arts Editor of ‘New Nigerian,’ about a month ago. I am looking forward to it!

A friend escorted me to the house of the great man of letters, whom I always enjoy visiting. The friend had told me that Yari had been asking after me, saying any time I came to Katsina I should please see him – as if I wouldn’t.

We spent about two hours chatting, mostly about the state of Nigerian literature, his own writing, contemporary Hausa music, and Nigerian politics. He exhibited an incredible insight into all of these things, and more. We began by his informing us that someone is doing a PhD on his literary works.

Earlier, over the phone, he and I had been discussing about what he considered “piracy” by the Michigan State University Press, who have re-published his novel, “Climate of Corruption,” without his permission or that of Fourth Dimension. I had been maintaining the position that probably Michigan ( had struck a deal with Fourth Dimension which he didn’t know about. I was of course considering the “Nigerian factor,” more so with the knowledge that the Enugu-based company is owned by his friend. During this visit to Katsina, Yari told me he had finally contacted Fourth Dimension and they had told him they didn’t know about the Michigan thing. The question, he says, is that does a reputable organisation such as Michigan just pick an African author’s work and publish it without his/her permission. And what would the author, who is chained in his village by poverty and other incapacities, do about? Is there any organisation to which the author could complain? We mentioned the Nigerian Copyright Commission, and Yari simply laughed.

The three books of Alhaji Labo Yari originally published by New Dimension
A Day Without Cockcrow, whose publication was funded by me

I challenged Yari over his relative inaction since the publication of “A Day Without Cockcrow,” and he replied that he has just finished working on a hefty new biography of Alhaji Muhammadu Dikko, the powerful Emir of Katsina installed by British colonialists when they conquered Katsina and removed the then Dallazawa emir. Dikko was the chief warrior of the ancient emirate when the British came, and he struck a deal with them. The only biography of Dikko’s was authored in the last century by Walin Katsina, Alhaji Muhammadu Bello Kagara, and isconsidered an establishment whitewash. The biography by Yari has already been printed, and a lot of people are awaiting its release. It promises to be very controversial, judging from some of the content the author divulged to me. On my mention of the word ‘controversial’ he quickly denied that it would be so, saying the whole book is based on factual information such as Colonial Reports. Still, I am certain it is going to ruffle many feathers in Katsina and elsewhere, for it challenges many perceptions about the sarauta (traditional rulership) system.

Labo Yari has not travelled for writers’ meetings for long. He says he is not sure whether he will attend the World Book Day events being organised in Calabar, to be held between April 23 – 30. I guess this is due to the fact that he was simply invited on phone.

I am still reeling from the insight of Yari on Hausa music. We were discussing the vogue of Hausa music when I mentioned that the trend today was rap music in Hausa. I referred to the long article Prof. Abdalla Uba Adamu is going to publish in the May 2007 edition of Fim magazine, which is late in coming, where the university don traces the history of Hausa hip hop and rap, linking it to divas such as Barmani Choge who Abdalla says was the first Hausa rapper. Yari insists that rap music is nothing but “gambara” music! Remember Audu Gambara d’an Mamman? To fa! Prof Abdalla may need to ponder over this, ko?

Yari recalled that during his days in the Native Authority service in the 60s – 70s (NB: he was in Information Dept.), many American researchers had visited Hausa land and picked models of Hausa music. They must have gotten rap from Hausa land or another African society, he said. He said rap music did not originate from America, but from Africa.

All this means we may have to rethink our position about The Fatback Band and others like Sugarhill Band, which are regarded as the originators of hip hop and rap in the U.S.

His views about politics? Extremely uncomplimentary.

Whatever we may think about Labo Yari’s position, we cannot detract from the fact that he is a keen repository of Hausa culture. His books, most of which have remained unappreciated, are proof of that. Go and read them.

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