Bollywood Gone Africa: Harafinso

For our last in this mini-series of the cinematic ‘woods’ taking or providing inspiration to Bollywood, we travel to Kannywood, in northern Nigeria.

In the early 1990’s I was working for some months on the borders of Iran and Iraq. We lived in tents on a sort of heavily mined DMZ on a plateau in the dry dun hills that rose steadily into the Zagros mountains. The nearest city, to which we repaired once a fortnight or so, was Suleymaniah, the largest centre of Kurds in Eastern Iraq.

On one trip into town I swung through the crowded bazaars in search of a particular brand of cigarette.  The constricted street led into a small square which was crowned with a cinema hall.  That evening’s show was a potboiler from India called Insaaf ke Tarazu (Scales of Justice). I had been aware that Bollywood films were popular beyond the borders of India but this was the first time I had actually seen Indian heroes and heroines doing their moves and making their faces on posters in a foreign land.

A few months before arriving in Iraq, I had spent a long time in Pakistan working for the UN; I was interviewing refugees from Iraq and Iran for resettlement in the West. One Iranian young man took the interview in flawless Urdu.  I was surprised and impressed and asked him how he had become fluent. I suspected he might be a local student and was trying to rort the UN system to get to Europe. He insisted that he’d learned Urdu from watching Bollywood movies on TV. One day, he hoped to return to the sub continent to try his hand at acting.

Raj Kapoor’s giant hit of 1955 Shri 420 , had been a major hit in the Soviet Union and other East European countries. Across the Middle East and South East Asia, people who otherwise spoke not a word of Hindi, could rattle off entire dialogues from Indian films.  Indeed, for the developing and recently Independent former colonies of Asia and Africa, the films of Bombay were a sort of cultural security blanket, far more important to popular culture than the films and heroes of Hollywood which were causing similar waves in post war Europe.

And like jazz, that American music that found such fertile ground around the world, the playback singer based music of Hindi cinema, was the soundtrack for millions of African, Middle Eastern and Asian youth growing up in the 50s-70s.

So I wouldn’t say I was surprised but rather entirely pleased to discover through today’s featured record, Harafinso: Bollywood Inspired Film Music from Hausa Nigeria. Put out by the excellent cultural warriors at sahelsounds this record gives the world the chance to listen into contemporary popular music from Kano and Kaduna and the Islamic lands of northern Nigeria.

I’ve posted an outstanding article on how the popular culture (literature, film and music)of this conservative Muslim area of Africa has been glocalized by local entrepreneurs/artists through Bollywood and American hip-hop music to create a platform for them to express, explore and fashion an identity that is firmly Hausa but connected with the wider world.

I quote from the article to provide a quick history of how Bollywood came to inspire Kannywood (Kano being the biggest metropolis of northern Nigeria).

Before the advent of commercially available Hausa video films in 1990, the main cinematic interest of the Muslim Hausa of northern Nigeria was Hindi cinema brought to northern Nigeria by Lebanese distributors after independence from Britain in 1960.  From 1945, when the first cinema, Rio (often called Kamfama, after the fact of its being located initially in a former French Military Confinement area, now Hotel De France) was opened in Kano, to 1960, film distribution was exclusively controlled by a cabal of Lebanese merchants who sought to entertain the few British colonials and other imported non-Muslim workers in northern Nigeria by showing principally American and British films.

Despite strict spatial segregation (from 1903 when the British conquered the territory to 1960), the British did acknowledge that the locals (i.e. Muslim Hausa) maybe interested in the new entertainment medium, and as such special days were kept aside for Hausa audience in the three theaters then available. The British, however, were not keen in seeing films from either the Arab world, particularly Egypt with its radical cinema, or any other Muslim country that might give the natives some revolutionary ideas. Indeed there was no attempt to either develop any local film industry, or even provide African-themed entertainment for the locals.

After 1960s there were few attempts to show cinema from the Arab world, as well as Pakistan, due to what the distributors believed to be common religious culture between Middle East and Muslim northern Nigeria. However, these were not popular with the Hausa audience, since they were not religious dramas, but reflect a culture of the Arabs. And although the Hausa share quite a lot with the Arabs (especially in terms of dress, food and language), nevertheless they had different entertainment mindsets, and as such these Arab films did not go down well.

The experimental Hindi films shown from November 1960 proved massively popular, and the Lebanese thus found a perfect formula for entertaining Hausa audience. Subsequently, throughout the urban clusters of northern Nigeria, namely Kano, Jos, Kaduna, Bauchi, Azare, Maiduguri, and Sokoto, Lebanese film distribution of Hindi films in principally Lebanese controlled theaters ensured a massive parenting by Hindi film genre and storyline, and most especially the song and dance routines, on urban Hausa audience.

Thus from 1960s all the way to the 1990s Hindi cinema enjoyed significant exposure and patronage among Hausa youth. Thus films such as Raaste Ka Patthar (1972), Waqt (1965) Rani Rupmati (1957), Dost (1974) Nagin (1976), Hercules (1964), Jaal (1952), Sangeeta (1950), Charas (1976), Kranti (1979), Dharmatama (1975), Loafer (1974), Amar Deep (1958) Dharam Karam (1975) and countless others became the staple entertainment diet of Hausa urban youth, as well as provincial cinemas. It subsequently provided a template for future young filmmakers.

Bollywood, therefore, Indian, values were preferable to those of Hollywood as a source of cultural sampling for several reasons: gender roles depicted in Hindi films were similar to those of Hausa society; clothing (long flowing robes/saris) seemed similar and; frequent and positive references to Allah and Islam seemed to cement these values.  Though the original lyrics of the Hindi songs were not widely understood (and often far more racy and suggestive than mainstream Hausa society were comfortable with) the rhythms of the music were copied beat for beat, and the lyrics simply changed into Hausa.

It’s a fascinating story about how music is both globalized and localized in the same place at the same time.  Have a good read and listen to this unexpected chapter of Kannywood.

Track Listing:

01 Girma Girma

02 Ololufemi

03 Harafin So

04 Tofi

05 Muna Cikin Sanyi

06 Fashion

07 Kassim

08 Baban Rigga

09 Aure