Shata Ikon Allah – A Review

Here is a review of our book, “Shata Ikon Allah,” a biography of the late Hausa musician, Alhaji Mamman Shata. It was written by a journalist I respect very much, Adamu Adamu, and was first published in his Friday Column in the Daily Trust newspaper.

Shata Ikon Allah – A Review

June 23, 2006

On June 18, 1999, Alhaji Mamman Shata Katsina, the songbird of Hausaland, died, aged 76 years. His death in many ways marked he end of an era that began with him and ended with him—the era of plebeian, as distinct from royal, praise-poetry. It was an era that he almost created out of relative obscurity and came to dominate in the fashion of an unbeatable colossus. With more than 3,000 compositions, Shata had to his credit more than the entire recorded output of all Hausa praise-poets put together. He had sung to the praise of the high and mighty, the lowly, even the outcasts, of Hausa society; and he had sung in praise of Nature and natural phenomena. It had even been said that there was nothing or no subject that Shata had not sung about.

He was an idol to millions, an irreverent artist to many; but to the end of his life, he remained an enigma to everyone. Most of those who would read this book grew up to find Shata a permanent feature of Hausa-Fulani popular culture, and a major presence on the cultural scene; and a rendition of any of his famous classical compositions, which the authors define as the pre-1980 pieces, would almost instantly throw them back into nostalgia. It is impossible, for instance, to listen to Magaji Mai Ido Daya or Mallam Baba Na Hannun Dama without going back to the North of Ahmadu Bello’s time. Even in that era, Shata never hid his love for women—in every sense of the word; and in Kilishi Jikar Dikko, Mai Kyautar Doki Na Farko Sai Ummakati Kanwar Amarya, Delun Kunya and Jikar Mairo Maimuna, Jikar Mairo Munari, among other compositions, we saw Shata at his best as the poet-chaperon for the public women of his time.

In “Yawon Duniya Mafarki” and “Gulbin Bahar Maliya” he came across as an oral travel writer; and in Kadan Musawa, Dajin Rugu and Dawa Da Giwa the maestro turned wildlife expert. He could be whatever he wanted to be. And most of these classical pieces differ in melody, in decorum and in poetical propriety from Shata’s later compositions. In his depiction of his own greatness the former Shata was more poetic and his language more elevated than the often gutter language of his later Bakandamiya:

“Warga-wargan namiji,
Mai daci kamar bula,
Mai santsi ya dan-zago,
Mai kaikai kamad dame,
Mai kaushi kamak kafa,
Na Bilkin Sambo—Shata,
Muhammadu ikon Allah.”

Yet while there was this marked deterioration in his compositions in later life, it was not as a result of a failure in his ability, because it was in these later years that Shata composed what to many was his greatest composition. And it was also in later life that Shata would sing Lafiya Zaki, when for a moment you thought he was a royal kotso musician. The deterioration was perhaps the result of a change of attitude by him to this profession, which he neither inherited nor formally learnt; a descent from the seriousness of a practiced paragon to the abandon of a master who now sets the rules, and, without doubt, it was also the result of the toll that inebriated intemperance was fast taking on him. It would indeed have been such a pity if this great artist of dogon zamani would finish his term and leave the scene while his rich and interesting life was not captured by any one. Because, besides scattered attempts and some unpublished university degree theses, there was no definitive biography of the legend.

And then suddenly there appeared Shata Ikon Allah!: Rayuwar Alhaji (Dr.) Mamman Shata Katsina by Ibrahim Sheme, Yusuf Tijjani Albasu, Aliyu Ibrahim Kankara and Ali Malami. In its 600-odd pages in three parts, comprising of 12 chapters, transcripts of interviews with the associates of Shata and 11 appendices, the book has attempted to fill this void. The writers must be congratulated for their courage in believing that amateur biographical writers could take on this most accomplished of artists, a personality the complexity of whose life would have challenged even veteran biographers. Yet, the result is a well-researched and eminently readable book.

Part One is the biography proper of the artist sympathetically drawn by the authors, but not necessarily in chronological order. Part Two is a record of the interviews with those who were close to Shata. The interviews were rich and revealing, and the readability and richness of the book would have been greatly enhanced if these had been worked into the main biographical narrative.

But what they gave us was a sanitized and laundered Shata in whom we saw nothing of his famous infractions and aberrations, and how he had often traduced upon cultural sensitivities. Even if mentioned, it was with only a quick gloss. We therefore was nothing of the irreverence and indiscretions of a tipsy artist and his sacrilegious disrespect bordering on blasphemy as in Asha Ruwa, Ba Laifi Bane,in which the purist would see God forbidding liquor and Shata giving license to it. Or, in his unacceptable and unpardonable graphic depiction of the sex act using the chant of “Wash-Shamsu” as supporting rhythm in Gagarabadau Namiji Tsayayyen Dan Kasuwa, perhaps his greatest song, itself a libelous defamation of the traditional ruler of his village.
All this, however, will not be excuse enough for those who, on getting to temporary power, descended heavily on artistic expression in general as a reprehensible thing. In implementing what they said was the Shari’ah, some myopic religious zealots took serious exception to Hausa praise-poetry and temporarily attempted to ban it. If they had understood the Shari’ah not only should they have preserved and promoted the practice of praise-poetry; they should have, among other options, for instance, funded even the study of Itshekiri popular culture, for the sake of the advancement of knowledge and possible use of the language for future da’wah work. But to them even the praise-poetry at home is anathema.

Even if some aspects of Shata’s personal and professional life would be indefensible, what he represented—an artist at work—must be defended against all shortsighted prejudices. But there was no attempt in the book to situate Shata within the intellectual legacy of Hausaland praise-poetry. It was not just an issue of fame. There is no question about it: Shata was the most famous of all makadan Hausa and would remain so for a long time—perhaps forever. This was obvious and had been stated several times by the authors, by Shata himself and by his admirers.

But this narrative of his life should have gone ahead to pose and answer the other side of the question; that is, whether he was also the greatest in the possession of intellect. No biography of Shata should have left that question properly unanswered. Yet even without the book asking the question, His Highness Alhaji Muhammadu Bashar, the Emir of Daura, had answered it, in his Ta’aliki (Foreword) to the book where he said, “Kamar yadda aka sani a ciki da wajen kasar nan, Alhaji Mamman Shata mawakin Hausa ne wanda ya fi kowane mawakin Hausa hikima…” And the authors themselves have asserted, “Littafi ne wanda aka rubuta game da rayuwar mawakin Hausa wanda ba a taba yin irin sa ba, kuma babu irin sa yanzu, ya Allah ta wajen basira ne,…”

These assertions are indeed difficult to sustain in a society where Narambada flourished. Shata himself was once asked this question in a Radio Television Kaduna interview, I think, in 1974, as to who was the greater of the two—between him and Narambada. And even with Narambada dead, Shata wouldn’t concede ground; and he answered, “Dukkan mu mu na da fasaha, kuma mun shahara; amma na fi shi shahara,” meaning, ‘We are both talented and famous; but I am more famous.’

This last of course was true, but Shata never came round to saying who was the more talented. It would have detracted nothing from Shata if he had acknowledged that Narambada was by far greater than him in talent. In the book, a little of Shata the egotist is in evidence, in particular where he was quoted saying he was a miracle by God, which was true, but the world didn’t want to hear it from him.

In some aspects others always bettered him, but his greatness was so supreme that any one-upmanship against him was never more than a drop in the ocean. For instance, Shata’s starry-eyed admiration of America’s Apollo space programme contrasted sharply with Gawo Filinge’s more cautious and more critical standpoint. And Filinge’s question to Shata was never answered. Shata enjoyed three distinctions not enjoyed by at least the three classical greats—Ibrahim Narambada, Salisu Jankidi and Aliyu Dandawo. Shata had greater clarity of phonation; he had spontaneity and he had the greatest number of compositions to his credit. One could hear and accurately catch everything he said. This could not be said of Narambada, perhaps the most difficult of them to decipher. And because of the nature of “amshin Shata” spontaneity was possible for Shata; and, for the same reason, it was out of the question for Narambada and the others, in oblique reference to whose genius—including his own—Musa Dankwairo said,

“In na kulla waka, a kara min;
Mu hudu duk azanci garemu,
Kaka mutum guda za ya zarce mu?”

Though Shata could spontaneously sing compositions, the fact remains that all subsequent renditions of his impromptu songs showed considerable and continuing improvement, attesting to the fact that in the end, even for Shata, it was practice that made perfect. The three greats had fewer compositions than Shata chiefly because they were no “makadan gayya,” as Narambada put it. They performed for only one man, or one institution; and Shata was there for whoever paid or took his fancy, especially those who were genuinely interested in him, and they were in their thousands. Though in their humility the authors have not forcefully put forward the many merits of their book, though this has been done for them by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu, the reader will not fail to realize that this is a very important and potentially great work.

The book can claim the pioneer status of the definitive Shata biography; and, this must be stated, because it is, in this case, a merit, that it is the authorized and untampered official biography that has the approval, cooperation and blessing of the subject. But it was a disservice to their own cause to have published the book privately. While there might have been convenience in the fact that the publishing company belonged to one of them, the authors should have considered several factors before settling on vanity publishing. First, this is a work that will have been readily taken by any publisher approached. And, it can not be unknown to them that today publishing is more than delivering material to printers. Second, the class in which Shata belonged as a subject for biographical writing is such that it requires only the very best of publishers. The picture reproduction and display and general finishing of the book, for instance, can do with a lot of improvement. There is also the question of aesthetics, facts-checking and proper editing; and, above all, there is the all-important matter of publicity and marketing and the wider international connections of the more established publishers which would have been used to good advantage.

What Sheme and Company have given us is an affectionate portrait of Mamman Shata. After reading the book, you suddenly realized that despite all his eccentricities, Shata was human after all. Besides his talent, the other qualities that came out most forcefully were his generosity and his antipathy to any hints of indignity and disrespect to his person. The book is rich in instances of the faithfulness of his friendship, the non-discriminating patronage of his generosity and; though he would be remembered as a friend to many women of easy virtue, he believed strongly in the marriage institution. It was a sympathetic—perhaps too sympathetic—treatment of the maestro; no one could finish reading this book without an overwhelming feeling of empathy with its subject, with feeling that one wished he knew the master well.

Using Shata and his life the authors have spun a true yarn—an interesting, detailed, painstaking and accurate reportorial that is in reality the story of contemporary Hausa language and its speakers. Billed for public presentation Saturday, July 1, 2006, the book will, no doubt, miss the presence of Shata and Jarman Kano, who would automatically have been the Chief Launcher; but the legion of Shata lovers, the beneficiaries of the outpourings of his genius over the years, and the lovers of Hausa language and linguistic scholarship in general should do this event proud.

It was a long life that ended well. Shata was a man who believed in self-reliance and who depended on his intellect and talent and on his hard work and luck. Though he depended on the proceeds of praise-poetry in the initial stages of his life, and to the end he was beholden to patrons, he was, in fact, a fiercely independent spirit. And despite his many sacrilegious eccentricities, Shata was at heart a believer and perhaps even a fatalist. As a disappointed would-be benefactor, his acerbic barb, here thrown reportedly at a powerful, non-forthcoming royal patron, represented Shata at his previous best:

“Kai mai son ka yi alheri,
Allah ba ka abin alherin,
Ka yi alherin mu ji dadi.
Kuma kai mai son kayi mana rowa,
Allah ba ka abin yin rowar,
In kai rowar mui zafi,
Iyakat ta dai mutum ya yi rowar,
Ba ya hana mu shiga aljanna.”


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