By Henry Akubuiro
One of the oldest forms of poetry in the world, praise poetry is a form of poetry written or performed in reverence of a person, a thing or gods. The form was popular in the Middle Ages, medieval literature and during the Renaissance period. In ancient Europe, it was used to express worship of or admiration for heroes, kings, or deities. However, it lost popularity as a form of English literature beginning in the 17th century.
Praise poetry has continued to be a familiar literary form in various African cultures. Isibongo, a genre of praise poetry in the Zululand of South Africa, deploys imagery and storytelling related to a person and the history that surrounds him or her. Little wonder, praise poetry is considered a high form of literary art among the Zulu.
Among the Yoruba of western Nigeria, praise poetry, known as Oriki, is an important but hugely unwritten genre of Yoruba literature. Oriki is used during individual or communal ceremonies. It tells of nobility, origin, fame, profession, accomplishments, beliefs, eating habits and discipline about the individual or object associated with the Oriki. From humans, gods, animals, plants and other inanimate objects, the Yoruba has Oriki for almost everything found in their environment.
For centuries, Hausa poetry and songs have flourished, and there is little difference between poetry and song. All Wak’ok’i are sung oral presentation and composition following strict metrical patterns.
Sadly today, as written literature takes prominence, oral performances seem to be fizzling away. The danger is that, if they are not written down or reproduced in modern digital forms, the coming generations of Africans may have little or nothing to remember aspects of their rich cultural heritage. This has been the crusade of Bukar Usman over the years.
Klalid Imam, the cerebral Kano based scholar and poet, has keyed into this vision. Hence, he has compiled and translated Songs for Bukar Usman (A Collection of Panegyric Poems), published by Whetstone, Kano, 2020. The songs were originally composed in Hausa language by Umar Idris (Dan Kwairon Biu), Sulaiman Tijjani (Farfesan Waka), Aminu Ladan Abubakar (ALA), Maryam Baba (Sangandale), Bashir Yahuza Malumfashi, and Khalid Imam himself.
Considering that these songs were composed in the 21st century, they offer us valuable samples of what contemporary Hausa praise poetry looks like and its pride of place in Northern Nigerian culture. In his introductory note to Songs for Bukar Usman, Mariusz Krasniewski (PhD), Head of the Division for Research on Sub-Saharan Africa, Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures, Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland, echoes that the song are replete with sophisticated metaphors, skillful parallels and elaborate forms of lyrical expressions.
An accomplished bureaucrat, author, public intellectual, historian, humanist and philanthropist, Bukar Usman, now in his 70s, has left lasting impressions in different areas of life. He is one Nigerian writer who commits so much resources in the publication of quality books yet donates them at will without commercial attachments. Through his Bukar Usman Foundation, which was incorporated in 2008, thousands of lives have been touched. The 25 panegyrics in this book say it all.
A book in three parts, the poets in the first section endorse the virtues, deeds and the character of Usman, while the second part evaluates the positive roles and achievements of Usman. The third part takes the reader to Biu, Borno State, where Usman was born. Here, you will see the achievements and challenges of Biu and Borno State in general.
In the “Introit”, Imam salutes “the finger that feeds many tongues with honey” with his generosity, books and quest for pan-Nigerianism.
One distinctive characteristic of the panegyrics in Songs for Bukar Usman is that each one begins with a Lead setting the tone for the praise, while the Chorus echoes the exultation. For instance, in “The Stalwart” by Umar Idris, the Lead says: “Dr. Bukar Usman Biu, the stalwart/ Our tutor and our elder/The lion-hearted/Who dares to challenge you?” The Chorus, in turn, affirms the same thing.
This is slightly different in “The Philosophical Bukar Usman” by Sulaiman Tijjani, whose Lead begins with: “The philosophical model/Dr. Bukar is generous/Dr. Bukar is influential/ Dr. Bukar is influential”. The Chorus, in turn, echoes: “I don’t think there’s one like him.”
No doubt, this book is a rich harvest for researchers, scholars and readers interested in contemporary African oral literature.