Sunday, September 2, 2007

Cross-Dressing Fun with Area Scatter

I've recently learned that several years ago the Igbo traditional musician Area Scatter was killed in an auto accident. Area was a performer who achieved renown throughout Ala Igbo, and even drew some international notice. One of the more memorable sequences in the acclaimed television documentary series Beats of the Heart came during "Konkombe," the segment on Nigerian music. It featured Area Scatter, who had a performing style that was unique, or unique for Nigeria, anyway. Let's read the description of him in the book Beats of the Heart (Pantheon Books, NYC, 1985):

". . . we headed off into the forests to the hut of an infamous 'witch doctor," or shaman, called Area Scatter. His home was filled with bones and skulls and paintings of the power of good and evil. A muscular, humorous man, he explained how, after living through the civil war, he had gone into the wilderness for seven months and seven days and had reappeared transformed into a woman. The day we visited him he headed off, dressed in white smock, polka-dot skirt and a shamanist bone necklace, to the residence of his Royal Highness Eonunnoke to play for the local king and queen.

"Area Scatter was a highly accomplished performer on his thumb piano which was decorated with a distinctive skull and crossbones. When the king and his wife ceremonially entered and seated themselves on their thrones, Area Scatter bowed deeply and started to sing in a soft, rich voice. . ."
Of course, in the United States there are well-known transvestite performers like Ru Paul or Divine, but I understand that this sort of thing is rather odd for Nigeria, at least among the Igbo. I'm not aware of any tradition of theatrical cross-dressing in Nigeria (as for instance in Chinese opera or during Shakespearean days), nor should we assume that Area was gay. While homosexuality in Nigeria is certainly not unheard of (a reading of Hints or any of the other Nigerian "True Confessions" - type magazines should dispel that notion!), it is surrounded by so many layers of scandal and condemnation that the idea that any Nigerian would flaunt his or her gayness is, frankly, mind-boggling. So let's just say that Area Scatter was a guy who literally marched to his or her own drummer, and leave it at that.

Uchenna, from With Comb and Razor, was kind enough to rip that segment from Beats of the Heart for us, and here it is:

When my wife, Priscilla, returned from Nigeria a few years ago, she brought back an actual Area Scatter LP, Ugwu Anya Egbulam Musical Group led by Area Scatter (Namaco ENLPS 56), excavated from a used-records shop in Ajegunle. The name of the group, "Ugwu Anya Engbulam" means roughly "The Evil Eye Will Not Kill Me." I was originally going to put up just one track from it, then decided that posting the whole album would give listeners a better feel for the talent of this unique artist, Area Scatter.

In the first song, "Uwa Marala Okaa Ome Nwachukwu," or "the well-known Nwachukwu does what he says he'll do," Area Scatter sings the praises of a certain Mr. Nwachukwu, who built a big house, who helps widows, and who pays the tuition for needy students, among other things:

Ugwu Anya Egbulam Musical Group led by Area Scatter - Uwa Marala Okaa Ome Nwachukwu

The title and refrain of this song, "Nwa Nnem Uwam Gbulam," means "my brother, my sister ["nwa nnem," literally "my mother's child"], I am just fed up with this world":

Ugwu Anya Egbulam Musical Group led by Area Scatter - Nwa Nnem Uwam Gbulam

This is a long testimonial to the "Great Chief" ("Eze Ukwu") of Ngwa-Ukwu, a township near Aba. The final part of the song apparently deals with a love triangle - there was a struggle, police were called, etc:

Ugwu Anya Egbulam Musical Group led by Area Scatter - Ajelele Eze Ukwu of Ngwa-Ukwu / Akwa Goddy Uwalalula

Many thanks to Priscilla for interpreting the lyrics. Albums of Nigerian traditional music like this are not rare - thousands of recordings of Igbo traditional music alone were issued during the '60s, '70s and '80s. What is unusual is to find any of them outside of Nigeria. To be honest, I just love the stuff, so I will be posting more of it in the future.

If you would like to see "Konkombe," or any of the other episodes of Beats of the Heart, you can order the DVD here.


Comb & Razor said...

wow! thanks for posting the album! i've never been particularly familiar with his music, though i remember hearing about him a lot when i was a child... i recall him being described in terms of jesterdom more than anything. but that's the way things were in those days: anybody who was markedly "different"--yet still reasonably entertaining and non-threatening to the larger cultural values--was considered a "clown."

i had no idea he had been killed, though... have you any idea of the general timeframe that this happened?

(also, i had no idea that Beats of the Heart had had an accompanying book!)

John B. said...

Hey, how about this:

"Bonnie Raitt says Area Scatter is the Ru Paul of Nigeria!" Ha Ha!

Actually, I read about Area's supposed death on one of the Nigerian discussion forums when I was researching this post, and you know how that is. So I suppose he could still be wandering around doing his wild & crazy thing!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the music - did see him/her in konkombe. By all means more Igbo - and we downloaders who get to Nigeria "infrequently" love the full albums rather than single tunes.


jon said...

Very nice. . thanks.
As an englishman observing from a fairly considerable cultural distance, I am rather curious how someone gets to be called "Area Scatter". . . A wonderful name to be sure, but is it chosen purely for it's musicality, or is it a phonetic spelling of something igbo. . . coz it has no obvious meaning in English.

John B. said...

Anonymous, Jon,

By all means I will be posting more Igbo and Nigerian music in the future, in fact that is my main interest. The thing is, I like to take the time & do a little research before posting the tunes & do it up right.

As to the meaning of "Area Scatter," that is apparently a vernacular "Broken Engish" expression. If you Google the term you'll see there is a Nigerian movie by that name - I have no idea what it means. Any Nigerians out there who can help us?

zim said...

there's a pretty nice desciption of the jester/clown thing in Chris Abani's "graceland" - a book I really enjoyed, another aspect of the book I really liked was the description of watching movies as a kid in lagos and categorising two main sorts of characters as "john wayne" and "actor" (the villain)

any one else read this? have thoughts about it?

SpinTheGlobe said...

Thanks for the great music -- I remember seeing Area Scatter in a documentary sometime, but he'd slipped from memory until I saw your post.

Thanks for another thoughtful, informative music blog! Your readers may be interested in visiting SoundRoots for more from Africa and other parts of the planet.

Anonymous said...

It is not fair to say that the name, Area Scatter, has no meaning.
Area Scatter, the name, denotes eccentricity. As I discussed in one of the Nigerian forums, in those days and even now, cross dressing was/is unimaginable in Igbo land. Not only did this man cross dress, he did it boldly and proudly. To scatter an area means to turn an area upside down. He must have considered himself a revolutionary and the best way to sum that up was by choosing Area Scatter for a name.

griotmedia said...

When I think of great performers I knew while growing up, Area Scatter often crosses my mind, and I had always wondered what became of him and at the sam time wished I could lay hands on any of his works. Having said so, you can then imagine my joy when I came acreoss your posting "Cross-Dressing Fun with Area Scatter" As a kid growing up in Enugu in the late fifties and early sixties, I had the luck of seeng Area Scatter perform many times. At that time he was a troubadour and goes from street to street doing his stuff. I remember that most of the times I ran into his performance, I had followed him with other kids as he performs at at least four blocks before I return home. One popular classic of his in those days was the love story about one short boy and a short girl. Thanks a lot John B for this nice trip down memory lane.

John B. said...


Thank you for your comment. I have added your blog to my links.

knight pix said...

I remember him from a performance on NTA Aba in the seventies. I think it was on a programme called Ukonu's club. There was also a group called Great Abaraka on that programme. Area Scatter sang this really hilarious song about a love triangle involving himself and his two brothers Joseph and Emman and a girlfriend common to all three called Salome. This supposedly took place at "58 Enyi Road in the year 1958". I really loved this and never forgot it. Thank you for remembering this great performer.

Unknown said...

I am so happy to find this site. I am an anthropologist with interest in sexuality, the erotic, and music broadly. I grew up in Aba and watched area scatter perform on TV in the 80s. He was amazing, if not peerless. Now I am interested in his sexuality. I love him and want to retrace the steps of this 'queer' performer. I know he was a cross dresser and want to know more about him.

The Mighty Louche said...

Just came across your blog today. A wonderful resource! And so lovingly kept. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and rare music.

Anonymous said...

Yes I believe there was a record pressing plant in Onitsha. The record company's name was Nigerphone. Birth of a Nation by Celestine Ukwu and Hail Biafra by Rex Lawson and others were released under that label

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