Baba Suwe: A Song for Sultans and Kings

Baba Suwe and Sound Sultan

By Oladeinde Olawoyin 

Babatunde Omidina’s dark face loomed in the shadows, but his presence brought light and laughter to our faces. In Erin Keéke, the sitcom of the 80s, he limped through the whole gamut of performing arts. Music. Drama. Dance. He even intoned comic melodies, although he did not sound like a sultan of sound. But like the multi-talented Lanre Fasasi a.k.a Sound Sultan, he thrived in comedy performances. He would excel in that genre, becoming king. So let’s indulge in no merry-go-round, and simply hand him his crown: Omidina was Sultan of Comedy.
For those who knew him quite well, Babatunde was no same character as Baba Suwe. There was a gulf between the man and the actor. The man cherished the serious ambience of life away from the klieg lights, ignored fans that craved comic dramas behind the cameras, courted controversies, and was misunderstood by his Ikorodu neighbours. The actor garnered fortune and fame from tomfoolery, made high art of mere mischief, and became a household delight. Ll
Babatunde prinked at social events, danced to Kwam1’s talaso music, made love to his women, rarely smiled, preened like a peacock, and drove through Lagos in his SUVs with royal grace. Some said he cuckolded some other men. We may never know, even though the venerable Baba Olofa-Ina gave life to that myth in a recent misadventure. But Babatunde himself was a blend of myth and irony anyway, and at the height of his glory, many clothed him in the robes of arrogance.
Baba Suwe on the other hand was the eternal fool, mischievous interpreter of proverbs, Opebe’s ally, Jide Kosoko’s nemesis, Mr Latin’s rival, Bola Tinubu’s phantom brother and eternal hailer, and everyone’s favourite entertainer. He was Obelomo, Oyinlomo, Adimeru, Oko Safu, Maradona, Oluaye Marose, Jor Jor Jor, Omo na Bouncing, Kosomona, and related vanities. He was no Baba Sala, the other king whose sun eclipsed along with the tragedy of Orun Moru. Neither was he Baba Mero, or Baba Sabiko, or Dejo Tunfulu, or Baba Ijesha of the teenage rape scandal. He was no James Idepe, or L’Awori, or Ojoge, or Otolo, or Aderupoko, or Pa James, or Pappy Luwe. But he was king. When he met Bayowa of Hello Olodumare fame, he became  Larinloodu, Sonto Alapata, Alani Debe-debe etc. Baba Suwe never died in movie plots, and he had an eternal smile planted on his face, even in moments of tragedies.
So for decades, Nurudeen Babatunde Omidina switched roles. He was Baba Suwe on movie sets, and Babatunde behind the camera.  A comic fool in the day, a never-smiling disciplinarian at night.
It’s the stuff of tragedy that at the twilight of his life and career, both characters disappeared into thin air, leaving the man in the lurch. And so when death loomed, he was neither Babatunde of the regal airs, nor Baba Suwe of comic vanity. He became a frail-looking Nurudeen, his face a pitiable blur. He didn’t smile, neither was he fierce-looking. He exuded distress. The foolish theatrics, the sardonic humour, the stern looks, the airs of grace—-they were all gone.
I once wrote on this page that Yomi King a.k.a Opebe, the king without palace, was the yin to Baba Suwe’s yang. But Moladun Kenkelewu was indeed his partner, both on screen and in the other room. The other day at his burial, Thompson of the ‘Mr Deinde’ fame said that Babatunde Omidina died before he finally died. He died, first, in 2009, immediately Moladun died. But we may never know.
Many said the ghost of Moladun haunted him, and there were tales of complicity and cover-ups. There was also the myth of a homicide. We may never know. But what we do know is that if at all he died after Moladun’s death, he indeed resurrected. He even made plans to jet out of the country two years later. But he met a dead end at the Murtala Muhammed Airport.
The men of the NDLEA claimed he had cocaine in his bowels, but the actor said he had no such contraband. So they forced him to defecate, to discharge the drugs from his nether region. He disagreed, and then protested, á la Odunlade Adekola of the ‘You Wanna She’yeye Mi’ fame, who recently shone in a viral show of idiocy. The NDLEA wanted him to reel in his own vomit. He never did. In the wake of the circus show, Yoruba newspaper headlines screamed “Oyagbeti!”, and his poop took on a separate life of its own. Many wanted to know the colour, the texture, the shape. Fela Kuti would have called it “Expensive Shit”. He was later released, and then he obtained another victory in court pronouncements. He was awarded N25m, but he never got the monetary award. His lawyer, the great Bamidele Aturu, passed on, and Baba Suwe sucked into the shadows of the silence of the courts.
It would appear that Babatunde Omidina began to die the moment NDLEA commandeered him to defecate. Ceaselessly. It was one slow and painful death staged in the full glare of the law. But it was death all the same, dramatic in its newsworthiness, spanning about a decade. It’s one death that played out before our eyes. On the pages of newspapers, in radio and TV bulletins, in the face of rights activists, in Mama Esther Ajayi’s cathedral of saints, in movie theatres, even in the temple of justice.
It’s the sort of tragedy novelist Teju Cole would have called “Death in the Browser Tab.”
Sound Sultan, no blueblood of the Sokoto caliphate, inspired hope. He was one artiste whose works we all held in awe in our sitting rooms, but we didn’t acknowledge with similar energy outside.
When he burst onto the scene with Jagbajantis on the cusp of the millennium, we admired the genius he brought to bear in arty marriage of mathematics and politics. Then came Koleyewon, a reflective take on the state of the nation. And then came Campus Queen, the love magic birthed in collaboration with the great Tunde Kelani. When he sought greener pasture at Kennis Music, and warned about the vanity of exile in ‘Ajo o da bi’Ile’,  his voice sent shivers down our spines, and we cowered in the safety of our homes. We all echoed his brilliance, but we never rewarded it well enough.
The popularity of Twitter has brought about too many ahistorical banalities. And that’s why many poo-pooh the legacy of Sultan and his peers: 2face, Faze, Baba Dee, Tetuila, Trybesmen, and even the Olympic-Touch-bearing Eedris Abdulkareem. When it was time to have a handshake across the Atlantics, Sultan and peers were there as guards. Their efforts birthed a number of projects, many of which defined the success of today’s stars. 2face had a duet with Bennie Man and Reggie Rockstone, and another controversial one with R. Kelly. Tetuila created a monster hit with Tic-Tac. Sultan, Faze and 2face made magic with Haiti superstar Wyclef Jean. It was all a big deal at the time. That was long before the D’banj-Snoop Dogg collabo materialised, or even the P-Square-Akon duet, which many now tout as the watershed moment in Nigerian artistes’ peep into the global space.
At the twilight of his life and career, Sound Sultan’s name rarely materialised anywhere on Twitter trend lists, unlike Wizkid and Davido and Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage. But he wasn’t locked in battles with obscurity either, unlike Eddy Montana and Tetuila and Azadus and Rasqui and Lexy Doo and Mr Kool and Jazzman Olofin. So he was right there, midway between obscurity and limelight, mature and courteous, serving as inspiration to younger artistes. He ran his race with the grace of royalty, free of scandals. Not for him the vanity of instagram clout, nor the theatrics of Twitter ‘vayolence’. Like Wyclef boasted in King of My Country, a sequel, suicide is for cowards and Lanre Fasasi died with his honour.  In that sense he was Sultan—–the king of sound.
Sultan died in America, after a battle with throat cancer. Baba Suwe died in Ikorodu, after his struggles with diabetes and related ailments. Babatunde and Lanre weren’t exactly friends when they were here, but they both brought joy into our homes. Just like Rachel Oniga, Chico Ejiro, Earnest Asuzu etc.
Lanre was king of sound; Babatunde was Sultan of comedy. Lanre did stand-up comedy and was quite brilliant. Baba Suwe attempted comedic music in movies and came out a lovable fool.  Both men are now united in both kingdoms, as king and Sultan, preening like peacocks. May they find genuine rest in that space, far away from earthly vanity.
*Oladeinde tweets via @Ola_deinde.