Actor and producer, Mr Adebayo Salami (fondly called Oga Bello) needs no further introduction. Having established himself in the Yoruba section of Nollywood at an early age, Oga Bello can easily be described as one of Nigeria’s veteran actors. He talks to NEWTON-RAY UKWUOMA about his love for the movie industry, among other things.
It’s either ‘Oga Bello’ or ‘Uncle B’; what is the story behind your stage name?
In 1970, my group was to handle a show for the (Nigerian Television Authority) NTA 10, then in Victoria Island. It was a 20-minute comedy show called Comedy Train. While we were casting for the show, I was given ‘Uncle Bello’ because the producer knew I came from Ilorin, Kwara State. That was how the name came on board.
Was the show in Yoruba?
No. It was in Pidgin. We wanted it to cut across. The segment was given to us by Oladele Bank-Olemoh, the producer, and it was anchored by the late Art Alade, the father of Darey Art Alade.
No. That was not the beginning of my acting career. I started acting in 1964 with the group, Youngsters Concert Party. It was a dance drama group. Youngsters Concert Party later became Ojuola Theatre, and we joined the British Council as a theatre group. This was a group of young people who had nothing but talent and passion. We toured a number of states in Nigeria showcasing our cultural heritage. Our first major outing was the Festival of Arts organised by the Lagos State Arts Council in 1970. I took a major role in the play that saw our group to the first position.
When did you do your first movie?
It was not a movie. We started with stage drama, not movie. You see, the history of film industry in Nigeria started with stage drama. It started with Alarinjo, before we graduated to television. My first commercial stage drama was Banye Banye; that was at the Global Foreign Hall. We did the same Banye Banye in 1969. I remember very well that the chairman of that night was Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle.
What is the title of your first TV movie?
That is the one I told you at the NTA 10. We started from NTA 10, to NTA Ilorin then to NTA Ibadan.
How was beginning like?
It was fine. I had a great time. We thank Almighty Allah for giving us the strength to overcome all the challenges. We could have gone under had we not overcome all the challenges. I think the most important things are to be prayerful, focused and disciplined in anything one does.
We would like to know one challenging experience you had that still instructs you?
I have had a lot of experiences. Do you want to talk of the days we were robbed on the way? We did travel theatre too. During the periods of travelling, there were series of accidents. Sometimes when our vehicle went bad in the middle of the night, we slept beside the bush. I mean, loads of experiences. But we thank God today. I don’t like to talk about these things that God has made me overcome. I like to put them behind me so I can move forward.
Do you also think it is important that younger people get to know these things?
Yes, but all young people need know is that there are challenges in everything worthwhile. There can be no meaningful success without challenges. One has to believe in what one does.
How did the travelling theatre metamorphose into the Yoruba movie industry as we now know it today?
Really, the film industry has its origin. I mentioned earlier that we started with stage performance, later to television. In order to commercialise it, we travelled round the country, hence the traveling theatre. I have performed in Maiduguri (Borno State), Sokoto, Yola (Adamawa State), Warri (Delta State), Onitsha (Anambra State), Cotonou (Benin Republic) and Ghana. Later, when technology improved, we changed from stage performance to film production. It was Ola Balogun who shot the first commercial Yoruba film and the title is Ajani Ogun. It featured the late Adeyemi Afolayan (Ade Love). That was how it was. Then, if you had your money or idea, you could shop around for talents and you had a movie made. That was how the Yoruba movie industry transformed to what it is now.
Like you said, language is important to cut across all peoples. What was the language you used during the traveling theatre days?
It was Yoruba. There is nowhere Yoruba communities are not found. Even in Maiduguri, Yoruba were there. However, those who did not understand Yoruba would come and watch the dance. We made sure the dance interpreted the message of the drama. Those who missed the drama enjoyed the dance. We made sure we composed the play to meet the needs of the host communities at least in the area of the dance.
Beside the dance, were there other major changes in language to accommodate the host community?
My brother, Yoruba is our language. It is filled with our culture. So, we cannot drop it for anything. That is why we are there up till now. If we throw away the language, we also would throw away the culture. Do you want us to embrace another person’s language? We know how to do it. Anything entertainment started from Yoruba. We have a good identity. Our culture is very rich. We are trying to propagate what is ours.
How would you assess the level of development of the Yoruba movie industry today?
It is going up fine. It is growing also because we are original. If you watch Yoruba films, compare them with any other film, you will know that Yoruba film is very original in terms of the story line, dialogue and interpretation.
Can you throw more light on the word ‘original’?
What I mean by ‘original’ is that we don’t adapt stories. We have so many stories to follow. Others may try to adapt foreign stories to their own, but we don’t because our culture is rich.
Are you saying adaptation is wrong?
Adaptation is not wrong, but you have to be original. For instance, I can take Femi Osofisan’s play in English and adapt it to Yoruba. That is not what I am saying. But if you are taking a foreign material and try to adapt it here, you will miss out on cultural relevance of your own culture. We appreciate foreign culture too much and that is what is affecting our lives at the moment. For instance, some people put on suits because they want to imitate the White man – even in hot weather. Is that our culture? There is an inherent culture in Igboland; there is in Yoruba and also in Hausa. We have to project our own culture.
Speaking about language, would we have understood one another today without borrowing a foreign language?
That is the problem of our history. Indeed, it would have been difficult. English is our official language. And we have our own mother tongues. We cannot stop speaking English. It has become a kind of property. I am saying that we should make use of our culture. It is currently going away due to this foreign influence. You see how Osun Festival, the Calabar Carnival and so on attract people even from outside our country. We should appreciate what we have.
You talked about other people appreciating our culture. Is it possible to have an entirely Yoruba cultural movie done in English language?
You are talking about a Yoruba movie in English language. It is possible. I have seen so many plays like that. I am working on one English movie now.
What is the title?
I only have a working title for it: Don’t show them is the title. Oduduwa, which is a play that tells the history of Yoruba, was produced by an Igbo man in English language. I happened to be part of the directing crew. Andy Amaechi and I directed it. We have been doing it. There is nothing wrong. It is mere language.
How many movies have you acted in so far?
Since 1964, don’t you think I would lose count?
Which movie would you regard as the best of all that you have done?
Well, I don’t have any favourites. As soon as I’m through on set, I don’t trouble myself with my work. I leave the comments to my fans.
Which one was more appreciated by your fans?
A lot of them.
Which is your latest film?
We call it Aye Kale. The inspiration behind Aye Kale is a Yoruba fable about an ant called Aye Kale. Aye Kale is a black ant that loves children so much that she dies guarding her children. The message is to guard your children jealously. Aye Kale dies because of her children. Parents should take care of their children. And while your parents are taking care of you, you should also not forget your responsibility as a child.
How was growing up without much technology like?
As you can see, we survived. Every generation takes care of itself. We lived. We are also adapting to the current situation. Where you start up in life is very important. God understands while he wanted us to grow up without laptops, phones, cars and all. I also think the best way to live life is to adapt to the situation you find yourself.
How was your childhood like?
I didn’t have the best things. Talk of the environment, food and everything. I was not born with the proverbial silver spoon. It was difficult for my parents to send me to school. They didn’t support my passion; that is, acting. I basically trained myself. There were times there was no food. All of these made me serious and focused. I later left my parents in Ilorin to my uncle’s house in Lagos at the age of four. When I finished school, I worked at the Federal Ministry of Housing. Even with my job, I was acting.
At what age did you start acting?
It was about 12 years when I started acting.
What do you think is the challenge facing Nollywood?
I think infrastructure is our major challenge. I believe we can get there. Already, I hear a lot of things are being done about it now.
How do you cool off after work?
Most times I am here, at work. Some other times, I listen to music.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I love Fuji, Apala and Juju. I don’t listen to all this hip hop things.