I did not write Shata’s biography for money – Sheme

The first page of the interview
The first page of the interview

Today, Blueprint Weekent, the Abuja-based newspaper, published an interview its Arts editor, Ibrahim Ramalan, had with me earlier in the week. Ramalan had been at my neck for this interview ever since my book, “Shata Ikon Allah!” was published recently. I have reproduced it here:


I did not write Shata’s biography for money – Sheme

A few weeks ago, Ibrahim Sheme, a former newspaper editor who now heads the media and publicity office of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), issued a 921-page biography of the famous Hausa musician, Alhaji Mamman Shata Katsina. Sheme is a novelist and poet who once served as the national publicity secretary of the Assocition of Nigerian Authors (ANA). What goaded him into writing the biography of an oral singer rather than a “big” politician or businessman? What were the challenges he faced in compiling and writing the book? Which lessons did he learn from this work? He answered these questions and others in this interview with IBRAHIM RAMALAN in Abuja:

To some people, Mamman Shata was only a famous Hausa oral singer. Who really was this personality called Shata?
Alhaji Mamman Shata is generally considered as the foremost Hausa musician. He lived between around 1923 and June 1999. He was born in Musawa, a town in present-day Katsina State, where he began to sing for fun as a young man before he transformed into a professional oral singer. He used the “kalangu” type of drum for most of his life, which some drummers beat for him, accompanied with a group of choristers. In his life, Shata was mainly a praise-singer, singing for all categories of people, but he also sang on other things – such as animals and social issues like marriage, relationships, education, drug addiction, alcoholism, tourism, the Nigerian Civil War, etc., as well as on occupations like agriculture, trading, prostitution, soccer, commercial driving, hair-dressing and journalism. He even sang on the American space programme, specifically the first moon-landing in 1969. So widespread and impactful was his music that Shata was awarded an honorary doctorate degree in letters by Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. As a troubadour, he visited several countries in West Africa and was also in England, the U.S. and France. He was also a successful big-time farmer and politician.

The title, ‘Shata Ikon Allah’, seems to attribute or attach a mystery into the personality of this great man. Could you explain the rationale behind the choice of this title?
‘Shata Ikon Allah’ simply means “Shata, God’s Miracle.” I did not create this truism. It was one of the emirs of Kano, Alhaji Sir Muhammadu Sanusi (reigned 1953 – April 1963 ) who used to address the musician with those words in an appreciative manner whenever he visited the palace to pay his respects to the monarch. The emir had found in Shata an incredible personality due to the depth of his creativity, sagacity and prowess. So, as the singer bowed in front of the emir, as the palace courtiers watched with interest, the royal father would be heard saying in a soft but clear voice, “Shata ikon Allah! Shata ikon Allah!” And the words went round, soon becoming one of the praises by which people called Shata. So, picking that as the title of the book came easily because it fitted with my own perception of the musician. And I should add that the title was suggested to me in 2006 when the first version of the book was published, by Dr. Aliyu Modibbo Umar, the former minister who was also a benefactor to Alhaji Shata.

Biographies are mostly written for politicians, great businessmen and are mostly done in anticipation for material gains. What then is your obsession with Mamman Shata?
I’d rather call it affection rather than obsession. First, it was my father who introduced me to Shata at his home in Funtua. I came to understand that they knew each other for a very long time. I had known Shata’s music as a child, like most Hausa people, because it was a regular feature on the radio and our parents used to play his music on cassettes in their tape recorders. So, meeting him physically was a great eye-opener. At that time I was someone given to consuming all sorts of books, just as I was  making a steady progress as an emerging writer from this part of the country. And it occurred to me that Shata was a unique artiste, a poet, whose life story should be documented in book form. So, after several visits, I sought his understanding and permission to write it, and he agreed. I recorded my first interview with him in 1991.

At the back of my mind, I was aware that such biographies were being done on mostly politicians, businessmen, emirs and retired top civil servants with the main purpose of making money from the book launches, but that was not my target. The money part did not bother me at all. That’s why when my co-researchers were worried at the length of time it was taking for me to finish writing the book I did not bother at all because my aim was to bring out a well-researched and well-written book, one which would go down in history as a book of reckoning. And I guess that’s what happened.

The second page of the interview

Sir, your first attempt at co-publishing Mamman Shata’s biography was 12 years ago. What informed the going solo and the need for its review or revision?
I started working on the biography alone in 1991. Then in 1997 I was introduced to one Aliyu Ibrahim Kankara by Ibrahim Malumfashi, presently a professor at Kaduna State University (KASU), Kaduna, as somebody who had also begun to write a biography of Shata. Malumfashi said the young man had requested to introduce him to me and see if we could merge our works to produce a single volume. All of us lived in Kaduna. When we met, I agreed. 

Subsequently, I took Kankara to Shata in Funtua and explained the development to him, and he said it was alright by him since it was okay by me. A year later, we merged with two other guys from Kano who were also working on a biography of Shata. Four of us worked, conducting interviews, for the book. I was the leader of the group as main researcher and lead writer. The biography was published and launched at Arewa House, Kaduna, in 2006 – seven years after Shata had died.

But we saw that we did not make much money from the launch. So we decided to rework that book by conducting more interviews and making corrections in the book where necessary so that we could bring out an updated version which we could release into the market. Copies of the one launched were about 600 only and there was none for the bookshops. Given Shata’s popularity, we figured that we would make big sales. 

Unfortunately, however, my colleagues did not cooperate on that new projection. They did not contribute a single word since then. In fact, Aliyu Ibrahim Kankara, now a PhD holder and lecturer at Federal University, Dutsin-ma, Katsina state, went solo and published a biography of Shata, whose content was mostly taken from the 2006 book, and released it into the market. That was after he had agreed to hand over his manuscript to me for the updated version I was working on. He had even given to me more than  half of the manuscript with some photographs and I was working frenetically to finish the work.

At first, I was deterred but decided to go on. So, twelve years since the first version, I was able to bring out this one a few weeks ago. You will notice that it still carries the names of all four of us, but with my name given more emphasis as the lead writer.

How is it unique from the previous one?
It is different in many respects. First, the volume is larger – 921 pages as opposed to the first one which had about 600 pages. Even the quality of printing, finishing and presentation is different. The content is where most of the difference lies: the information is more up to date, with some errors of facts that appeared in the first version corrected, more interviews, more insights into the life and times of Shata, more photographs, more colour pages, etc. And you should know that this version has subsumed much of the  content of the biography Dr Kankara produced in his own name because he had asked me to merge it with this version before he strangely issued it under his byline.

Right from the conception of the idea up till the last drop of ink on this biography, have you experienced any back-stabbing, discouragement or any other challenge from within or without?
I met encouragement mostly. Many people who knew about the 2006 book wanted to have a copy, but it was not in the bookshops. And they knew about the quality of anything I write. So they kept urging me to bring out that book. That explains the rush at which readers welcomed this new version; everybody wants to grab a copy.
Initially, my disappointment was with those who pledged monetary donations at the launch of the book in 2006, including the chief launcher, but refused to redeem their pledges up till today. That opened us to insinuation and even open attack by some children of Mamman Shata who thought we collected the money and refused to give them a share of it. But knowing that we didn’t misappropriate that money, I didn’t care much about that.

However, my biggest disappointment came from the direction of Dr Kankara on two occasions. First, I was highly challenged by his decision to publish the biography in his name only, knowing that he took most of its content from our joint work of 2006 and knowing that doing so would be plagiarism. As an academic, he stands the risk of having his reputation questioned and impaired. But he went ahead and did it. For me, it was a big literary backstabbing of sorts. The second occasion was the outburst he launched recently after he saw the updated version and an interview I granted to a Hausa newspaper in which I faithfully narrated the history of the book. He made a lot of wild allegations and made several attempts to rewrite the history. I had begun to take him up in a rejoinder because I did not want history to judge me unfairly when so many people I respect begged me to stop.

Having successfully stuck to your guns in spite of these challenges, what great lesson or lessons did you learn?
I have learnt lessons in single-mindedness, good focus and forgiveness. Never derail in your work because of financial constraints or backstabbing. Maintain your focus. And, then, move on after the successful completion of your project. Above all, try and not make the same mistakes of the past; learn from your own history.

What efforts are you making in terms of distribution or visibility to the potential readers considering the country’s poor distribution network?
I and some friends have done some publicity in the social media where we created awareness about the book. I printed posters and handbills too. The book is now obtainable in many reputable bookshops in cities and universities. But mind you, the copies are not that many, so we are expecting to sell them within a few months. But I am hoping to receive orders for bulk purchases in order to recoup some of my investment. I paid some millions of naira of my own to have the book printed, and I want to get that back if possible.

What is your call on other writers to tow the path of documenting the lives of great men like Mammna Shata for the benefit of the posterity?
There are so many Nigerians who have achieved greatness or heroism in their fields of endeavour. It is the duty of writers to recognise those men and women and try to document their stories for the benefit of not only the present generation but also the future generations. Those achievers are not only in the spheres of politics or business or the civil service but also in the arts, religion and philanthropy, among others. Some are not even the so-called big people but unsung little men and women stuck in the critical areas of human cohabitation.

The important thing is that one should not seek to do it for the sake of making money but for historical documentation, for readers to benefit from the insight of another person’s life.

Finally, achievers should also write their own stories, i.e. bring out autobiographies. If you can’t write or have no time, appoint a ghost writer. Do not hide your story and take it to your grave. Doing that would not help the society; you would only leave room for speculation. Families should also not allow their fathers or mothers take their stories away to the great beyond without taking them out of them and putting them on record.

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