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Celebrating Baban Larai: The father of film in Northern Nigeria at 82

Equally, not many older people may easily recall that Baban Larai pioneered appearance and film making in the Northern part of Nigeria in the 1950s…

Equally, not many older people may easily recall that Baban Larai pioneered appearance and film making in the Northern part of Nigeria in the 1950s through the 1960s. Baban Larai whose real name is Alhaji Abubakar Abdullahi Song derived the name of Baban Larai from his first feature film in 1951. Born in Song, Adamawa State in December 1932, Alhaji Abubakar Abdullahi Song attended elementary school in Song (1939-42), Yola Middle School (1942-47) and the Institute of Administration, Zaria (1947-48).
Baban Larai as he is widely known became a film star in the Northern Region by a combination of coincidences and circumstances of duty. He began his career as a Clerical Assistant in Kaduna in 1948 at the Northern Provinces Secretariat. At the time, there was no Northern Nigerian government; rather, there were Northern Provinces with the central colonial government in Lagos. The Northern Regional government came into being in October, 1954. His joining of the colonial service coincided with the beginning of rediffusion broadcasting services in the North. That created a need for northerners with good command of the English Language in the system. Based on his capacity, he was posted to Jos to operate the rediffusion broadcasting service. But after a year, he was posted back to Kaduna to continue his clerical work at the Public Relations unit of the secretariat.
His venturing into the film sector came in 1951 when there was the problem of sourcing of cotton for the textile industry in Britain; then, virtually all the textiles manufacturing companies were grounded because of cotton drought. For whatever reason(s), cotton was not being produced and exported by the cotton producing colonies such as Nigeria, Sudan and Congo to Britain. According to Baban Larai, “We provided the cotton which ran their textile factories. So, the British government then said it must do something, otherwise, it would have a major problem with labour; people are going to be out of jobs. As a solution, it gave money to these cotton producing colonies to organize campaigns for the production of cotton”.
On its part, the Nigerian government decided to make a film on cotton production. But there was the need for a professional director and a camera man to direct and shoot the film. The British colonial government sent a director, a camera man and equipment. Obviously, since cotton was grown in the North, the Britons were sent to Kaduna, which was then the seat of power of the Northern Region, in company of some southern auxiliary staff from Lagos, which was the seat of the central government.
Expressly, a film production unit was put together by the government in Kaduna under the Ministry of Information. But there was a problem. They needed someone who understood the landscape of Northern Nigeria, the Hausa Language, which was a common denominator across the North, as well as the culture, custom and tradition of the people. As fate would have it, the onus fell on Alhaji Abubakar Song. He was seconded and attached to the Film Unit to assist in generating a film on cotton production to raise awareness and increase cotton yield among local farmers for export to revitalize the British textile industry. He accepted the challenge, conscious of the enormity of the task, especially being a pioneering assignment for the North.
First, they needed a story to begin with. So, Alhaji Abubakar Song sought the assistance of late Alhaji Abubakar Imam; a second generation northern civil servant, an intellectual, a nationalist and author of Magana Jari Ce. A story was scripted in Alhaji Imam’s Zaria residence and they titled it: Baban Larai. “We wrote the story with the late Abubakar Imam, in his house. I was doing most of the writing as we were talking. He was a genius”, Alhaji Abubakar Song admitted.
The director of the film, Roller Gamble and Robin Steel, the cameraman approved the script written by the duo of Alhaji Song and Alhaji Imam. But there was again another problem of choosing suitable locations for the film. According to Alhaji Abubakar, selecting perfect locations for the shooting was an arduous task. They camped in Zaria and shuttled between Zaria, Giwa and Funtua to pick the locations. And, each time they went and got a suitable location for a particular scene, the director approved, because he knew nothing about the environment and was relying on the instincts and competence of Alhaji Abubakar Song, who particularly took the decisions to identify and point out what was required in the setting for a particular scene. Luckily, it was the farming season; there were abundant actuality scenes of cotton farming. Cotton farms were essentially what they wanted; and they were available. The actors were also willing to be handpicked from the farms. Most of all, there was also immense cooperation from the communities and the district heads, especially of Bakori and Funtua.
The District Head of Bakori graciously organized a durbar for the crew with many horses, as well as donkeys to carry cotton from one farm to the cotton market. The people of Funtua proved incredible; so were the various members of specific communities selected as locations for the film. Alhaji Abubakar Song recalled that the communities willingly helped in the production. All the film crew needed to do was to go to the market square; say what they wanted and the people did so willingly because they felt they were part of the project.
Remarkably, the need for a scintillating song writer, composer and singer for a track sound for the Baban Larai film led to the pleasant media emergence of the late Alhaji Mamman Shata, spearheaded by Abubakar Song and crew when they moved to Funtua where they set up base to shoot the scenes. While that was going on, a major challenge emerged because as the other scenes were being rehearsed, a perfect actor for the lead role of Baban Larai was not found. The search went on but with the onset of rains and planting about to begin, time was fast running out. They must find the right person for the lead role and go on to shoot the film or wait till the next farming season; and this they couldn’t afford.
The search dragged on for a while and the then Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the Ministry of Information, Captain Guy Douglas Clifford, became worried and sought to know the cause for the delay. He was told that the technical crew couldn’t find Baban Larai, the lead role.  Alhaji Abubakar remembered vividly telling Captain Douglas that: “I went to Funtua, I went to Gusau, I went to Katsina, I went to Malumfashi, I went to Bakori, I went to all those places looking for a suitable Baban Larai, but I couldn’t find one. Then Captain Douglas said, ‘can’t you do it yourself?’ I said there would be too much work for me. He said, ‘too much work? Go and do it.’ And that was how Alhaji Abdullahi Abubakar Song acted the role of Baban Larai, while serving as the assistant director simultaneously. And, later in life, not only did he retain the stage name of Baban Larai but became a real Baban Larai having named his first daughter Larai.
Ironically, shooting began with the last scene, which according to Alhaji Abubakar, was the scene for the prize giving to the best cotton farmer of the year in Giwa by late Emir Jafaru of Zazzau. He recalled that combining the role of the assistant director and lead role was challenging. It was even more difficult managing the cast as some of the girls would often fail to show up thereby prolonging the production process for six months.
The British Director and the cameraman left afterward; and from one village to another, with mobile cinema vans, the film crew went to show the film to the people. The campaign had begun. They would go to the District Head’s house and announce their presence. In the afternoon, the District Head would send a town announcer to go round and announce that there would be a film show outside the District Head’s house by nightfall. Some people even slept there, only to be discovered in the morning. That was the extent of the importance of films at the time.
Baban Larai was a film of no joke. It was a masterpiece that brought limelight to Northern Nigeria. The success of the film encouraged the Northern Nigerian government to develop its Film Unit and Alhaji Abubakar rose to become the director of the unit. They continued to produce news reels and small instructional documentaries to inform the people and report the activities of government to them.
At the time, Ahmed Joda, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information between 1961 and 1966, helped to oversee the development of the Film Unit and its equipment with professional cameras, vehicles, cars, among others. And due to the heavy investment, the various categories of films produced were really revolutionary, cutting across areas of child health and mortality, post and ante natal care, girl child education and agriculture. He said that when he made a film on girl child education in 1967, the Northern Nigerian government was worried; people were pulling out their daughters in primary schools and marrying them off. There were other films such as Hausa Village and Lambu a Gida, which won many awards at film festivals held in Germany at the Congress Hall in Berlin on four occasions.  Lambu a Gida was set in Angwan Rimi in Kaduna, while Hausa Village was shot in Rigachukun, a village, but now semi-urban settlement, few kilometres away from Kaduna town. Lambu a Gida focused on how people could utilize spilled water from wells to make grocery gardens at homes. The film caught the attention of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which reproduced it in 46 languages for the global audience.
Indeed, film had made Abubakar Abdullahi Song famous in the 1950s through early 1970s. In his words, film “made me famous; people knew me; I had friends. At the time, Baban Larai became the film of the year.” Today, such a film would still be relevant owing to the comatose of Nigeria’s textile industry.
With the creation of states in 1967, Baban Larai joined the North Eastern State Civil Service where he became a director and later Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, particularly in charge of budget. Later, when Gongola State was created in 1976, he moved to Yola as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Budget. In many respects, Baban Larai can be described as a pioneering achiever whose records and landmarks in the country would remain indelible on the landscape. He retired in 1985. But even after that, he had held many positions in the public and private sectors.
In December 2014, Baban Larai quietly celebrated his 82nd birthday in Yola. He has remained his active self, ever cheerful, humble, realistic and friendly to all; never blinded by any discriminate feature. We shall continue to pray for Allah’s unending grace and mercies on Baban Larai to enjoy many more fruitful years ahead.
Pate, Department of Mass Communication, Bayero University, Kano

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