Ode to the Bottle -For Ken Harrow who Laughed

altEarlier this year, I published a short essay, “The ABC of a Nigerian Joke for Western Audiences”, that is surprisingly still travelling and acquiring mileage online, especially in spaces of Africanist cultural scholarship in North American academe. Every now and then, I receive an email from a doctoral student or a colleague who has only just stumbled on it and requires some clarification. The said essay was inspired by some White Western Facebook friends who inboxed me, wondering what the fuss was all about as Nigerians and other African nationals cracked up after I had posted a joke that only cultural insiders would understand.

alt

Here’s a recap of the joke. A policeman arrests a guy for urinating in a place displaying the commonplace “Do Not Urinate Here” sign in Nigeria. The cop fines the offender five hundred naira. The guy brings out one thousand naira and asks for his change. Says the policeman to the offender: “urinate again. I no get change.” I wrote “The ABC of a Nigerian Joke” to explore the postcolonial cultural locatedness of this and other jokes. I made the case that humour is the most difficult thing to translate, it’s very untranslatability making it one of the most reliable ways of gauging cultural integration in immigrant and diasporic communities.

Let me explain. I believe that Africans hardly find Oyinbo people’s jokes funny and vice versa. You therefore know that your African friend has truly integrated if he attends one of those gatherings where Oyinbo people serve cookies, muffin, slices of pizza, celery, and dip, all displayed beside three jugs of regular coffee, decaf coffee, and hot water for tea respectively, and laughs at the appropriate decibel level when he hears jokes that aren’t funny because they are not immediately translatable into his own modes of cultural apprehension.

Appropriate decibel level is very important. If he laughs at the exact decibel level and at exactly the same time as the rest of the room, he is thoroughly acculturated. He has become an African oyinbo man. The jokes of the host culture are genuinely funny to him. After one muffin, one piece of carrot, one piece of celery, and a Styrofoam cup of decaf coffee without sugar, this African may even rub his belly, yawn, and exclaim to his neighbor in the room: “wow, I’m bursting. There’s so much good food here.” And he means it. He is genuinely full for even his belly is now Canadian – or American as the case may be – and no longer requires the heavy work out of kenkey, fufu or pounded yam to be full.

However, if his own burst of laughter comes a couple of seconds later than the rest of the room every time something funny is said; if his laughter constantly bursts out a tad louder than the rest of the room, then he is one of those Africans who remind you of the proverb: a tree trunk may spend twenty years in the river, it will never become a crocodile. He is just laughing like an automaton in order not to be the odd one out. The jokes ain’t funny. And he is starving as hell. He is merely struggling to blend in that room, cramming muffins, celery and dip into his mouth and wishing he had taken the precaution of eating poundo and egusi soup at home before leaving for that oyinbo people’s party.

“The ABC of a Nigerian Joke” made it to Professor Toyin Falola’s famous pan-Africanist listserv, USAAfricaDialogue. One of the party chieftains of that listserv, Professor Ken Harrow of Michigan State University, one of the most significant Africanist thinkers of our era, a man whose work is my melody in the business of theorizing African literatures and cultures and whose praxis thoroughly inspires, wondered aloud why he laughed on encountering the Nigerian joke about the policeman. Are you for real, I thought, as I read Ken’s reaction. Something would be seriously wrong, I thought further, if Ken Harrow, a vieux routier of Africa, encountered an African proverb and didn’t find it funny. After all, he got to Africa before me and has never really left. I thought he had forgotten his own African insiderhood, earned over decades of meticulous and thorough scholarly labour in the cultural vineyards of the continent. Ken, it should be obvious to you why you laughed, why you found that joke funny, I thought, as I made a mental note of waiting for an inspired moment to pen a follow-up essay – this essay - in his honour.

Midway into a handsome bottle of Beaujolais to celebrate a particularly good news today, December 6, 2012, my brain finally receives the creative bang she has been waiting for in order to undertake this essayistic excursion in popular culture in homage to Ken Harrow. Beyond the earned cultural insiderhood which would open up Nigerian, nay African humour to an Africanist vieux routier like Ken, making him laugh at the joke about a Nigerian policeman and the politics of “change collection” in the postcolonial atmospherics of the checkpoint, there are contact zones and meeting points of the collectively human which, in hindsight, my initial essay, focused on cultural particulars, does not adequately address. As culturally hermetic as humour is, such sites, zones, and spaces of the universally human offer many opportunities for her to cross borders without passport and visa requirements.

The bottle is one such location of the universally shared. I had mentioned the bottle and a London pub in the earlier essay as indices of integration if an African found the jokes there funny. I now hold a different opinion. An African may find jokes in that particular location funny for the reasons I am about to explore. There are universal modes of human sentience organized around the symbology of the bottle and its contents. I am not talking about the bottle in your living room or other private spaces. I am talking about that object in its public life-world; in spaces where its phallic posture on the table is generative of sensations, experiences, lore, and cultures that can combine seamlessly into narratives of the universally humorous.

In the American/Canadian corner Bar and Grill, the Irish/English pub, the French bistro or brasserie, the southern African shebeen (originally Irish), the Ivorian maquis, the Nigerian beer parlour, burukutu, paraga, ogogoro, or shepe spot, the bottle stands as humanity’s singular answer to the eternal question of Babel. No deity can create Babel within the cultural actuations or the bottle. In the domain of alcohol, the human experience tells Babel: we are one people, one voice, one language, one humour. Indeed, I am yet to encounter experiences and narratives of the bottle and drunkenness in one culture that cannot be translated to and carried by the idioms of another. In the domain of the bottle, humour is transculturally and transnationally funny.

Indeed, in its very defiance and transcendence of the curse of Babel, the bottle becomes demiurge, creating art - universal art, transnationally funny art - in the figure of the rambler. In country music, the character of the rambler is a player, an irresponsible figure who breaks girls’ hearts and never stays. Don Williams calls him a “rake and ramblin’ man” in his song of the same title. Don Williams’s rambler knocks up a girl and refuses to accept responsibility:

You know I’m a rake and ramblin man

Free as an eagle flies

Look at me now and tell me true

Do I look like a daddy to you?

In Zac Brown Band’s super hit song, “Colder Weather”, the rambler is as irresponsible as his elder brother in Don Williams’s song. The heartbroken girl who is left behind in Colorado says to the rambler in “Colder Weather”:

You’re a ramblin’ man

You ain’t ever gonna change

You got a gypsy soul to blame

And you were born for leavin”.

If country music condemns the rambler as a patriarchal breaker of female hearts, the bottle redeems him as an archetypal lone figure, a singular human habitus of the universally funny who harms no one. All he does is enact a personal drama of redemption from alcohol – or of redemption through alcohol consumption. Whether he is running away from or towards the bottle, the alcoholic rambler is generative of narratives and experiences which carry humour across cultural and transnational boundaries. In America, we encounter the rambler as the redemption-seeking persona in Tom Paxton’s classic folk song, “Bottle of Wine”:

Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine
When you gonna let me get sober
Let me alone, let me go home
Let me go back and start over

Ramblin' around this dirty old town
Singin' for nickels and dimes
Times getting tough; I ain't got enough
To buy a little bottle of wine

Notice the self-identification as a rambler at the beginning of the second stanza. Now, why does generation after generation of French citizens go about in France believing that this funny, all American rambler is French? It speaks to the translatability of the idioms and humour of the bottle. Graeme Allwright, a New Zealand singer who moved to France in 1948 and subsequently became a famous French singer, translated Tom Paxton’s song to French and released it in France as “jolie bouteille.” It became and still is one of the greatest hits of French folk tradition. What got lost in translation – wiped clean from French memory – is the fact that “jolie bouteille” is a mere adaptation/translation of an American original by Tom Paxton. In essence, the American rambler has been so seamlessly appropriated by the French, who converted him to a “flâneur” and sent him on errands of redemption from the bottle, with zero trace of his American origin. If only Tom Paxton had thought of making the rambler drink Budweiser instead of a bottle of wine!

Why is the transition from rambler to flâneur so easy? The answer is simple. One may be a consumer of cheap and inferior California wine in America while the other consumes superior merlot in France, their narratives and experiences of the bottle generate humour that can find a natural home in any culture. Hence, we encounter this alcoholic rambler in the Yoruba imagination. Also a loner like his American and French booze-cousins, he is however not seeking redemption from the bottle. He is defiant. His redemption lies in claiming the bottle like the portion of the Nigerian Pentecostal Christian. He is wealthier than his Western cousins in America and France and does not need to sing for nickels and dimes to be able to afford his booze. Thus, the Yoruba rambler gets to boast in Kollington Ayinla’s song:

A f’owo mu oti ki ku s’ode

Gere gere, ng o dele mi o

(He who pays for his own booze

Is not condemned to the outdoors

Somehow, I’ll stagger drunkenly all the way home)

Ebenezer Obey’s rambler ups the ante. Like Kollington’s, he is also wealthier than the American rambler and the French flâneur. He is not seeking redemption from but through the bottle. He is not sure that alcohol consumption is legal in heaven; hence, he evinces the imperative of the earthly precaution:

Haba ma muti l’aiye nbi

Ma muti l’aiye nbi

Boya won ki mu l’orun

Ma muti l’aiye nbi

Boya won ki mu l’orun

Ma muti l’aiye nbi

(I’ll drink my fill here on earth

Just in case they don’t drink alcohol in heaven

I’ll drink my fill here on earth)

Obey’s rambler does not doubt the ability of hedonism here on earth to take him to heaven. His only problem is the fear of the unknown: will there be alcohol in heaven when I die and go there? However, he is not going to travel to that celestial destination via the way, the truth, and the life proposed by the Christian Bible. In his humoristic transgressions, Obey’s rambler is clearly a man who could easily earn an OBE from the Queen of England in recognition of the earthly Eucharistic gloss he has placed on drunkenness, that very English of national traits. Speaking of English drunkenness, Elizabeth Renzetti writes in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper:

“The English have more words for drunk than the Inuit have for snow, perhaps because it is as much part of the landscape. On a given night, you might be bladdered, legless, paralytic or rotten with drink…I thought I’d heard them all until British Home Secretary Theresa May used the phrase “preloaded” on Friday to announce her government’s war on binge drinking. Preloading refers to the act of getting hammered before you go out to get hammered – that is stocking up on cheap booze from the grocery store in order to be good and wobbly by the time you hit the bars.”

Now, why am I in stitches reading Renzetti’s description of the English? The Canadian is making this Nigerian laugh by describing the English in registers that are brokered by the universal signifyin’ of the bottle. If she makes me laugh, I am sure she is immensely capable of making Ken Harrow, the American, laugh with precisely the same registers. American, Canadian, French, English, Nigerian: the bottle speaks only one language but we can all understand it in our respective languages. The bottle is not Babel. She is Pentecost. We all hear her speak in our respective languages.