Fundamentalism’s Toll on Nigerian Music

'Shariahphrenia' Reigns in Northern Nigeria

Religious vigilantes in Nigeria
Members of the Zamfara State Vigilante Group, a group dedicated to enforcing Shariah law, stand in front their headquarters building in Gusau, the capital of the northern Nigerian state (Photo: Ivan Watson/AFP).

There’s a little book you can find in open-air markets of Africa titled, Who Are the Sinful Women, According to the Quran and Hadith. It contains this thought: “Music and dancing have been found to be a great stimulant of carnal sex, a stepping stone to fornication and adultery. It is therefore essential that every Muslim man and woman take utmost care to reclaim and preserve himself or herself from this.”

In the continent that invented rhythm, the passage could seem amusing, like much of the mystical literature that, stemming from every kind of religious tradition, fills the market stalls of Africa. Amusing except that there’s something special about this book. Published in the Nigerian city of Ilorin, the book was purchased at a market in Kano, the metropolis of northern Nigeria and the informal capital of the 12 Nigerian states that have adopted a puritanical version of Shariah law over the past three years—and, in so doing, have threatened the secular identity and constitution of sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous country.

The book’s warning has become reality for local musicians. From Zamfara state to Kano, Jigawa, or Katsina state, performing music has become a risky activity. To be sure, northern Nigeria has a long way to go before it descends into Taliban-style madness. Unlike in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s fundamentalist rule, peddlers of traditional music and Bollywood soundtracks still ply the dusty streets of northern Nigerian cities with their wobbly piles of cassettes. And if you come in from the heat to the air conditioning of a halal fast-food joint, you can still feast your eyes on a suggestive R&B video clip produced by Channel O, the South African equivalent of MTV. In fact, in “Shariahphrenic” northern Nigeria, torn between religious fervor and economic necessity, the bottom line is still the bottom line and the birds still have the right to sing. But the musicians, for their part, are worried.

When the hisbas are in charge

Alhaji Sirajo Mai Asharalle is what you would call a star. A 20-person entourage follows him around, and he sings only for the biggest occasions—those where the host may thank the entertainer by handing over the keys to a new house or car. Among the Hausas, the predominantly Muslim majority ethnic group of northern Nigeria, Asharalle’s stature among pop stars is beyond dispute. Like all the biggest stars, Ashralle’s face is ubiquitous in posters pasted around the region, where singers’ relative importance can be measured by the number of European cars the printer has inserted around the musician’s face. A good Muslim (witness his appellation “al-hajji,” or one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca) who specializes in playing weddings, Asharalle supported the institution of Shariah law in his state of Katsina because he was, in his words, “born in this culture, and every Muslim is in favor of the application of Islamic law.”

It is a view shared by the majority of Muslims in these northern states. But since summer 2001, the singer has begun to wonder: “If these hisbas [religious militias] really want true Shariah, there are much more serious things for them to take on, rather than attacking musicians.” A year ago, in a village in Katsina state, Asharalle—a friend of the governor and the musical heir of the late, revered singer Muhammadu Shata—was arrested for breaking Shariah laws by a band of local militiamen tasked with applying Islamic law. Bayo Ohu, who was then the Katsina correspondent for the independent Nigerian daily The Guardian, recalls the incident: “When the Shariah started, some scholars said Shariah forbids singing, music, but this musician didn’t know that. So he went ahead, and it came to a stage where the man had to be arrested and rough-handed by the enforcers. He wasn’t even taken to Shariah court, and he was put to jail.” Asharalle spent a week in jail before being released thanks to pressure from friends, the press, and a governor who, clearly embarrassed by the incident, took the trouble several weeks later to invite the singer to his daughter’s wedding.

A year later, Asharalle believes more firmly than ever that his arrest had nothing to do with religion. “The hisbas in Katsina aren’t working for the good of the people. They’re terrorizing them!” Asharalle says emphatically. Bayo Ohu, the newspaperman, explains what’s happening this way: “They say this is Shariah, this is our law, and we must implement it. But they don’t really know what is in the Quran. It’s just because they feel they have the power to do it. They are working for some people, some fanatics—Islamic scholars fanatical about Shariah, and they even antagonize the state government, because they think the state governor is so soft or maybe uncommitted to the Shariah issue. So they are victimizing such people as the musicians because it is not only a question of religion or jealousy. It’s political, too, you know.”

Not even in Saudi Arabia

It’s hard to know where the line between religion and politics is drawn in this region where people are regularly exploited and manipulated in the name of one cause or another. It’s just as delicate a task to figure out whose side the hisbas are on—some of them have been recruited from the ranks of the beggars and small-time crooks.

Three hours away from Katsina by car, the singers of the 1,000-year-old market city of Kano find themselves under the same cloud. In this city, where hundreds of mosques have recruited their own hisbas to enforce Shariah law, Hausa musicians are being harassed continuously. “Even in Saudi Arabia, I’ve never heard of musicians being as badly treated as we are in Nigeria,” says the singer Kalengu Sani Dan Indo. “Since Shariah was brought in here in Kano state, my profession has been frowned upon. Fear is never far away when you start to play music.” One day, the hisbas pounced on the Central Hotel, one of Kano’s most prestigious music venues, where Sani Dan Indo was performing. By the time they were through, the damages came to 1.7 million nairas (US$13,250)-worth of broken equipment, he recalls. “But there’s no use complaining,” he adds. “People would think I was mixing music with religion, and that I’m not a true believer. And that could make me other enemies.”

Haladji Waba Yarim Asharalle, who performs songs aimed at a female audience, has come to blows with the religious militiamen on several occasions. “These hisbas, they don’t even understand the religion,” he bellows. “For me, Shariah should stop corruption, prostitution, homosexuality. But those guys, their aim is just to collect and make money by pressure. They just sit there, do nothing, and wait for the opportunity. It is a sort of social revenge. They feel that maybe music not should get so much money, so that since Shariah, hate has been climbing between these people and the musicians. Therefore, I prefer to play mostly in the South even if there is disturbance of peace, lack of stability, and insecurity there, too.”

More and more Hausa musicians are thinking about leaving the North. Southern musicians, for their part, long ago gave up the idea of performing further north than Abuja, the federal capital in central Nigeria. In Lagos, Femi Kuti, the son of the late Fela Kuti, explained it this way: “A band like mine can’t play in the North. The dancers would be stoned to death. I would be prosecuted.” Lagbaja, another star of the Afrobeat scene, is of the same opinion. “It’s pointless,” he says. “More of the time, when it comes to the issue of religion, it is basic manipulation. They can kill you because you have come to denigrate what they stand for. They’re convinced and they believe in it. Why would you bother?”

To get a feeling for the damage Shariah law has done to Kano’s formerly cosmopolitan life, you need only take a walk in the Sabon Gari section of the city. Traditionally reserved for “nonindigenous” people—which means Nigerians not of the Hausa or Fulani ethnic groups—this part of town, where the nightlife once rivaled that of the big cities of the South, now goes dark and quiet after 10 p.m. “Social life has fallen completely because of the fear of the unknown,” says a customer in one of the bars, an ethic Ibo from southeastern Nigeria. “Once it is 10 o’clock, everybody should be going. And if the venues are still here, the bands aren’t there any more. Who wants to risk his investment, coming with his equipment, and being vandalized? It’s more and more difficult to convince someone from the South to come to play here.”

Censor and Protector

“Kano is a commercial city and we have a lot of foreigners and strangers who come around, and we like to keep them comfortable. When you have good social life, you encourage the commercial life. So we are really working hard to call those artists around,” says Ali Bature.

Bature is a censor. His official title is cultural officer of Kano state, and in this capacity he’s a member of the Kano Censorship Board that was created early this year as a response to the introduction of Shariah in the state. “The role of this office,” Ali Bature says, “is to maintain and protect the culture of the people of Kano State. That means we keep people from material they might deem to be immoral, be it in performing arts, films, music, dance, or in writing.”

Since its creation earlier this year, the censorship office has found itself enmeshed in a particularly Nigerian kind of paradox: It’s supposed to censor and protect at the same time. “We heard of those states that started introducing Shariah in Nigeria and that some molestations of artists or performing artists had occured,” Bature says. “But, on the contrary, the introduction of Shariah has helped us to keep things in order in those states. We looked into our own history, found that performing artists are part of the culture, part of the royal system, therefore we cannot just stop it because of misunderstanding of religion. So we have to make people aware that this thing was accepted even during the Prophet’s time. The Prophet even attended some occasions where performing arts, singing, this sort of thing, took place, and he never complained. Therefore, our main target is to protect the performing artist, not to harass them or go after them.”

This attitude appears somewhat surreal, but it’s substantiated by the musicians themselves as well as by foreign observers of the cultural life of Northern Nigeria. “The censorship office is probably the least bad thing that could happen to musicians in Kano,” says Jean-Michel Rousset, former director of the Alliance Française cultural society in Kano. “Even if they don’t have many resources to truly protect culture, they are doing what they can to keep culture from completely disappearing here. It does seem incredible that an office like this would have such a protective mission, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen major contradictions. After all, despite Shariah, there are plenty of places where you can still get a drink!”

Ali Bature was invited to Copenhagen in October by the Danish nongovernmental organization Freemuse, which lobbies against censorship of music and musicians, and he surprised a number of people as he explained his unusual situation. “That is the uniqueness of the Censorship Board of Kano,” he told the audience. “It came out to protect. Maybe in other countries, it is out to cut many things, it is even political. But here, it’s different. When we hear about something, we call the organizers of these hisbas and we explain to them they should not harass or get into physical contact with any artist. The only real challenges we have for now are with the traditional dances that accompany the music. You know, since the implementation of the Shariah, they don’t appreciate men and women mixed in the dance, but we managed to keep it. We still have mixed performances in Kano. This is the only state in Nigeria under Shariah where this thing is still allowed.”

Saturday Night in Kano

It’s Saturday night in Kano. Protected by hisbas working for the government, a crowd of hundreds of people—of both sexes—clusters around the stage where Alhaji Sirajo Mai Asharalle’s band is elaborating its austere music of the Sahel. Lined up one after another, the gorgeously arrayed guests are waiting to come up and stick wads of naira notes on the singer’s damp forehead. It’s a big society wedding, organized by a group of matrons whose husbands do business in Saudi Arabia.

But for Haladji Waba Yarim Asharalle, another singer specializing in wedding parties, occasions like this are the exception that proves the rule. “The people who have money, they can always hire big places and invite the musicians and do it,” he says. “The powerful people, they can do it, even inside the old city itself, and no one can harass them or talk to them. But the poor ones, or the ordinary ones, we can’t do it any more. I’ve lost one-third of my customers due to this situation. Their parties, which took place in the city, in front of their houses, no longer exist.”

Implacably, the Shariah trap continues to tighten around the Hausa musicians. Despite some people’s good intentions and official guarantees, “such kinds of stories can still happen in the North; maybe while we’re talking, it’s happening,” says journalist Bayo Ohu. This past summer, the State Council of Ulama, responsible for implementation of Shariah in the northern state of Jigawa, banned public drumming and singing. As the conservative northern daily newspaper The Triumph described it, “The council has noted with disgust the rampant cases of drum beatings, especially during wedding and naming ceremonies.”

The sundown feasts that mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan aren’t likely to be very lively in northern Nigeria this year. And the beginning of the campaign for the nation’s general elections, set for April 2003, isn’t likely to mitigate the climate of fear in the North, either. Along with women, Hausa musicians have become symbolic and surreal victims of a twisted interpretation of Shariah, the imaginers of which seem to be losing control over its consequences.