“What Happened, Yaha? Where Did You Go?” by Kanyinsola Olorunnisola
Frankly, we did not know shit about him.
Let us be clear on that fact, at least. The most—or perhaps, only—honest part of this story is that nothing is known about the man it is written about. That he was as much a dream as he was a man. That he was as present in the music as in the silences that followed when the turntables stopped rolling. That, in the black-and-white portraits of him sold by street vendors under Sabo Bridge, we remember him as one with the puff of smoke escaping his mouth: burning, unbound, a breath away from vanishing.
We did not know Yaha Tenahu, not in the way that really mattered anyway. But there is something about him that, nearly forty years after his departure, continues to haunt our collective conscience, continues to fuel our nostalgia for a more radical past. He left the same way he had come into our lives: at once, unannounced, leaving no room for adjustments. Beautifully atrocious in its brevity.
I suppose you could argue that the problem was not that we did not know him, the man we called the Minstrel of Olduvai. Or that we did not want to. It was that we did not know how to know something that was, by nature, unknowable, defiant of the categories we had created for human beings. You could not pin him down in terrestrial language, with his undefined portraiture. His infamous capriciousness. His jarring foreignness.
We lost him before we could really meet him. On June 16, 1981, he was declared missing, never to be seen again. Riots broke out in streets all over the country. In the tensioned weeks that followed, many young men would drown themselves in lakes as an act of mourning. As an act of their own disappearing. The government had to close down public beaches to avoid what was being called the Liquid Death.
He disappeared. A trail of dead men willingly followed him into the liquid void.
The papers, not to be found wanting when it was time to profit off a tragedy, filled their pages with scintillating conspiracies week in week out, churning out fantastic tales about what really happened to Yaha Tenahu; till the stories dulled with an abject wretchedness of imagination. Then, readers got bored of the speculative fiction posing as journalism. But the world never moved on. We never moved on.
“Are you ready to roll?” Tenahu asks, looking into the camera. He is wearing a faded black T-shirt, the words Black Power printed in bold lettering across his chest, beneath it is what appears to be the image of a skull with cigarettes protruding from its eye sockets. His short, pink dreadlocks look unwashed. He is sweaty, scratching a large bump on his left cheek. His face has an intense toughness to it, like he has not slept in weeks. He is not camera-ready. But he does not care. He is not going to change anything about himself just because the world might be watching. He raises a joint to his mouth and leaves it hanging between his lips, unlit.
“Yes. We are on now,” a voice says.
“Good.” He pulls out a lighter from his pocket. He pauses for a moment as though contemplating lighting the joint in his mouth. He puts it back in his pocket and stares into the camera. The unseen interviewer is asking him questions. He does not respond. His silent blank stare lasts about twenty-three seconds, during which he is seemingly unaware of his surroundings. Then, suddenly, he appears to remember where he is and gives a short laugh, one that barely leaves his mouth before he retracts it.
“Forgive me, I am getting old.”
He was twenty-nine at the time of the recording. That scene appears in the new Netflix documentary, “The Men of Uhuru”, detailing the rise and fall of African protest art in the 20th century.
“I am getting old,” he says.
And one cannot help but wonder what a man in his twenties meant by that. Perhaps, he was many things at once. Perhaps, his consciousness could be in many bodies at once. Perhaps he truly was what the Ghanaian historian, Babette Pluckett-Awoonor, called “a strange, constantly-changing thing… the most enigmatic personality of the 20th century…a god amongst us.”
The world discovered Tenahu in 1973. A new record was getting copious airplay on the local radio stations. The man behind the music was unknown. It was neither jazz nor rumba, you know, the dominant genres in Little Kountry. Yet, the song was on every radio. It was the soundtrack to loose Friday nights. No one knew who to thank for the seductive music. No one knew who the Yaha Tenahu mystery was. His voice was soft but full, could fill a room. It demanded attention, demanded adoration.
The recording, “My Night Dream” caused listeners to call in during radio programs to demand that he be granted an interview. Radio presenters bribed members of his record label, requesting a chance to have him on their shows. The infectious record was described by critics as the first great hit of post-colonial Little Kountry. While other Little Kountry singers were obsessed with replicating the sounds of the Bee Gees and Otis Redding from the West, Tenahu’s sound was unique, invocative, its own indescribable thing. And, for that one song, he caught the eye of the whole nation, including some very powerful, very political eyes.
It was the 70s; the nation had just secured independence from the fallen British Empire. The government’s propaganda machine sought to promote homegrown celebrity influences who would help define the new nation. He was the perfect candidate. He was already famous before the public knew anything about him, save for his name and his colossal magnet of a voice. The government thought to buy him as one of their agents, for use in their political puppetry. But they were barking up the wrong tree.
Governor Huttu-Gare of the Lao District wrote AK Recordings [Tenahu’s label] expressing a wish to host him at the state mansion. Days later, Tenahu himself wrote back to the governor. The letter was not particularly friendly.
“Your letter caused me quite the amusement, governor,” Tenahu wrote in the letter which was made public in 2005. “It seems a bit reckless, don’t you think? To be so open about being the central government’s bitch.”
“You see, Yaha was a very bright man,” recalls David Bone, former Head of A&R at Tenahu’s label. “You could safely gather that about him. It was clear that the government desperately sought influential figures to promote its hidden communist ideology. He could tell. He wanted none of it. And he was rude about his disapproval.”
Such rudeness, such dangerous honesty came to be his most notable quality. While his first recording was a love song delivered as a disco-reggae-highlife fusion, the tracks that followed were not exactly sweet melodies for lovebirds looking to communicate in the language of pleasure. They were boisterous expressions of recalcitrant rage. They ridiculed the government and the religious institution. The older generation wanted nothing to do with him, called and mailed radios to boycott his music. They wanted no trouble, they said.
Holla Karaman, veteran journalist and former radio present at the now-defunct PNBC Radio House, recalled the public reaction: “So, this young lad comes out with this neat love song in 1973 and everyone loves him. Parents listen to him. The kids all listen to him. Then, when he has our attention, he’s suddenly releasing songs about priests secretly raping boys while preaching sexual righteousness. And calling the Prime Minister China’s puppet? This was not acceptable to society back then. Our parents started to fear him; they did not want trouble. But the younger ones loved his boldness. He was our Fela…our Dylan…our Lennon, all rolled up into one. While our parents slept, we stayed up at night to listen to Yaha Tenahu. He radicalized the youth overnight.”
Twice, the government sent letters to Tenahu’s label, asking that he be dropped. But he was a valuable asset to the once-struggling company who had almost closed shop before Tenahu came along. With only a handful of songs out, he was already a money-making machine for the management. They called the government’s bluff. Naturally, the government would forcefully close it down, but the Prime Minister was desperate to win public opinion. He wanted to appear democratic. More so, big-brother countries in the African Union like Nigeria and West Libya had placed the newly-independent country on their watch-list to ensure democracy. The last thing the Prime Minister wanted was to prove the opposition party and other countries right: that he was a dictator who would eventually go haywire on all forms of dissent.
The Prime Minister’s nightmares worsened when Yaha Tenahu released his first album, an eighteen-track record of socially-aware songs, mostly targeting “the political establishment”.
“Are you in love at the moment?” the unseen interviewer asks.
“I am always in love,” Tenahu replies, a cheeky grin on his face.
“So, is there someone in your life?”
“I asked if there is…are you currently in a relationship?”
“A romantic relationship.”
“Are you asking who I’m fucking?”
“No…I wouldn’t put it that way—”
“Because the answer just might scare you.”
“How…how do you mean?”
Tenahu bursts into laughter now. His is a deep, joyous laugh exposing his perfect white teeth not blemished even from years of tobacco use. When he laughs, he is transformed: his face loses its toughness, his petite body looks larger than life, swelling with the ungovernable sensation of laughter. Of a brief joy.
“I do romance. I really do. But if I tell you much about it, they won’t let you air this documentary.”
“The communist assholes.”
He was right, partly. That scene was not originally planned for a Netflix documentary. Of course, it was not. It was recorded in 1978, back when documentaries were only aired on national television having been approved by the government. The film was supposed to be legendary director Uthman Coller-Layla’s final feature. But it never saw the light of day. It had been deemed forever lost until Layla’s grandchildren sold the tapes to Netflix sometime in 2017 for $15 million. As the only surviving video tape of the Tenahu [the warehouse containing archived footages of all his live performances suspiciously burned down in 1991 in the wake of the right-wing Babalashi terrorist attacks], it only made sense that the streaming service would pay that much. The story of how the particular tape itself got to be presumed lost was enough to increase the Layla family’s negotiating power.
The news that the documentary was to be aired on NTBS was wildfire. The whole country caught its feverish burn and longed for it, day and night. It was the first ever video interview of him the world would ever see. Five years into his career, he was already the biggest star on the continent, headlining concerts all over the world with the likes of Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and the Lijadu Sisters. But the only contact the public had with him was through his music and live concerts. He almost never spoke to the media. This documentary promised to change that, to give an inside look into the most elusive celebrity of the media age. It was set to be the singular most ground-breaking event in media history.
It never happened.
Just weeks before NTBS was to premiere the documentary, the government ordered the television station to halt its schedule. According to the letter sent to the NTBS director by the government, dated May 3, 1978 “…the named motion picture contains scenes of utter blasphemy against the gospel of Christ and substantial threats towards the Great Prime Minister. Airing of said film would be deemed an act of high treason against the state and punishment would be meted out accordingly.”
It was pulled. The people were outraged. Someone who looked like Layla was photographed leaving the country shortly after. He was never seen again. Guardian LK announced his death five years later in an apparent helicopter crash whose remains were never found. Many believed he died long before that; that he was killed by the government for insisting on airing the ill-fated documentary without state permission. For decades, there have been conspiracy theories claiming that the government was picking influential people who posed a threat to it off the streets.
These rumours were fueled by Tenahu himself. Weeks after Layla disappeared, Tenahu released “Maraja’s Bastard Son”, a forty-minute track with cryptic lyrics about a certain dictator who murdered and ate the bodies of people who defied him. Though the lyrics never actually named the supposed dictator, it was clear who Tenahu was referring to—the Prime Minister was born out of wedlock to a woman named Maraja.
Despite its length, the song became the biggest hit song of 1978, spending six weeks atop the Reigning 50 music chart. Beyond marking the fifth year in a row that Tenahu had the country’s biggest hit song, “Maraja’s Bastard Son” was an art movement, one which would forever change the course of culture.
And perhaps, led to the music maestro’s eventual downfall.
Weeks after the song was released, the label announced that Tenahu would be holding a one-night concert in the capital city to perform the song. It made sense, of course. The song was one large narrative of about 30 verses. It would translate well on stage. But no one knew exactly what was coming. There were fears that government officials would storm the concert. Tenahu did not care.
“It was like he actually wanted them to come,” said Jaina Mabile who worked in the costume department for the concert. “Just before the show, he stared into the mirror so deeply like he was seeing something that was not there. It was like he was preparing for something more than a show…something like war.”
What happened during the show itself was heavily documented in newspapers: it began with twelve-backup dancers walking on stage, all dressed in diamond-encrusted, floor-length gowns and big wigs. Their gowns were punctured by bullet holes. The blood-red paint on their lips dripped from their jaws down to their chest. Their faces were plastered white as though they were ghosts in a 1950s horror movie. After a brief dance number, Tenahu himself appeared on stage wearing a cat suit, his face doused in glitter. The back-up dancers around him all removed their wigs simultaneously, revealing shaved heads.
They were men. All twelve of them. Wearing their regally queer bodies. Bullet holes and all.
Daily Herald recorded that the audience let out a gasp, some screaming in horror. That little gesture was a grand political statement at the time, probably the most audacious you could make. The previous year, on the Prime Minister’s orders, twelve men had been killed by a firing squad on suspicions of being queer, their bodies coming undone by the bullets of hate.
Twelve dead men. Twelve ghosts on stage. Do the math.
For the rest of the show, the dancers mimed along to the song, re-enacting what appeared to be the Prime Minister’s life story with Tenahu playing the ridiculed dictator. At some point during the show, he asked for the music to be stopped. Everyone fell silent as he walked to the edge of the stage and stared far into the audience, as though he had seen something. He stared. At something? At someone? No one knows. But he stared.. Then, in a sudden movement, he turned around and left the stage. He never returned. The show was over.
No one knew why he did what he did. No one knew what he saw. Some say he saw the Prime Minister hiding in the audience. Some say he saw the spirit of Layla. Some say he saw a reflection of himself.
The truth is, just like almost everything else with Tenahu, no one knew what the fuck happened. He was never photographed in public after that. But he steadily released songs, still political as ever. Then, three years later in 1981, he was pronounced officially missing.
There are many theories about why Tenahu disappeared, but none are as bizarre as those concerning his actual origins. After coming on the scene in 1973, he rarely gave interviews and only did much speaking at his concerts. His political stances were known mostly through his songs.
“He was such a strange man,” said Koko sans Beethoven, a retired glamour journalist who profiled Tenahu during his early years. “You could never put a finger on it. We were used to celebrities seeking reverence, you know. Two interviews per month, practically trying to be as out-there as possible. Then here comes this massive rock star of a young man who shook the world purely on the merit of his music alone. He loathed media attention and he made that clear.
“He rarely spoke to the media so the papers began to make stuff up about him. His name was money magnet. The papers would take a scoop from anyone who ever called himself a ‘source’…anything for the money. That was how something like ‘Dead Fish Man’ came about.”
Of course, “Dead Fish Man” was in reference to a famous 1975 article published by Guardian LLK claiming to have uncovered the truth about him. It was one of the wildest accounts of his origin ever published. Here is the most coherent, or least incoherent, explanation possible: Tenahu was the son of a deranged homosexual man who decided he was done sleeping with all the men he could find and drowned himself in the river. A mermaid found him and had sex with his dead body. Two months later, she gave birth to a baby boy and dropped him off ashore. The monster-baby grew up in orphanages and then became Yaha Tenahu. The story was as illogical as it was popular. The paper was flying off shelves on the day it hit the markets. Many believe today that it was the government and rival record labels spreading these rumours to demonise him in the media. Still, one would have expected a little more creativity from them.
Tenahu never came out to debunk the story, or any other story that came out about him for that matter. He seemed to enjoy the confusion as to his personality. Or, most likely, he simply did not care. Either way, the mystery only cemented his appeal as the most intriguing personality of the century.
When he disappeared, hundreds of sources claimed to know how he had disappeared. Of course, the leading theory was that the government had finally caught up with him. He had been untouchable because of his mythical position in the minds of the youth and the Prime Minister needed to be on their good side to maintain power. But by 1981, Little Kountry had become a full-fledged totalitarian state; the people’s approval was no longer something the Prime Minister cared about.
Now, this is where it gets really crazy. Even after the Prime Minister was ousted by the 1993 Waterside Revolution, and the police launched an investigation into the disappearance of Yaha Tenahu, they came up with nothing conclusive. For twelve years, resources were poured into the case that was of national interest and no one knows what happened, at least no one’s claims of knowledge were ever accepted as conclusive truth. There are many accounts of his disappearance, all laying claim to authenticity.
JUJU “NIGHTLIFE” KOKOBI, retired psychiatrist and former host of “TV’s Hot Doctors”; claims to have been the singer’s therapist in the five years leading up to his disappearance: Yaha was a very troubled kid from what I remember. People think he was avoiding the public because he hated the media, the point is he was terrified of it. He had massive anxiety troubles and was always on the edge of a breakdown whenever he went on tour for too long. The world knew him as this big star but he was really just a shy kid. He was depressed too. It got worse when he got lung cancer. It got him even more depressed, though he never showed it outside therapy. I remember the day before he was to perform with Ally Kent in London. He was so nervous he used thrice the dosage of barbiturates I recommended. It is a miracle he did not die right there. But his drug use became heavier and his behaviour more erratic. Ally would often tell me she was worried about him. He loved to hike alone in the mountains too. He could have overdosed and perished somewhere no one could find him.
Problem with his account: Scottish singer Ally Kent never performed with Yaha Tenahu in London. In fact, she died fifteen years before his music career began.
YAHA BARRA, son of Ms. Nicole Barra, Tenahu’s manager throughout his career: Mother always told us the government killed him and the Prime Minister at the time made a feast of his body and served it to all state officials. She felt powerless to say anything about it. She did not want to talk to the police because they were part of the same government that had murdered him. She did not want to be killed, so she stayed silent. She told me everything. The government did it.
Problem with his account: Yaha Barra was less than two years old when his mother was taken away and confined in a mental hospital for schizophrenia.
ALI KOSOTA, High Priest of the Brotherhood of Tanahan, a religious cult dedicated to the memory of Yaha Tenahu: Lord Tenahu took his own life. He believed that everyone’s life is a cycle that ends with perishing, and it is important to always know when it is time to die. He had such power, to see into the future and tell his own ending. He would often be hit by those flashes…those visions and he would be lost in it. To whoever was watching him, he was just taking a long pause, or staring into space, but he was seeing a vision. He knew how he had to end. So, he made it happen. He said it one of his songs: To go when one must go//To leave when it is time//The grace of divine sight//Take me home when home comes. It is the most beautiful thing in the world. To know when your life must end and deicide it for yourself. The spirit of the Lord Tenahu gives us the clarity to have power over all knowledge. His spirit revealed this to us.
Problem with his account: Well, no member of the Brotherhood ever met Tenahu or had connections to anyone who did.
MURTHER X, Legendary trans rapper and alleged close friend of Tenahu’s: Yaha was not murdered. He did not commit suicide either. He loved life too much. I am sure of that. He was the most alive person I knew, even when he got the cancer. I loved him with all my heart. He was the one who inspired me to come out. No one else could convince me to and he did. That’s how much I loved him. I named my bar after him. He was a great friend. I miss him. And…I wish I did not have to say this but I believe he is still alive somewhere. By the time he was recording the documentary, he was tired of fame and the pressures it brought. He just wanted to leave it all behind and go where no one would be able to bother him. His label had him on a leash, he owed them six more albums in his contract. Media attention was having an effect on his mental state. He wanted to leave and become someone else forever. He wanted out. He would jokingly ask me what I would do if he ever ran away and took up a new life and new identity in some remote village in Italy or Argentina. I think he left because he was tired of the celebrity bullshit being forced on him.
Problem with her account: Unreliable—she once claimed in an interview to have dated him, later contradicting herself by stating they only met once or twice in a different interview.
“People want to know you.”
“Why should I care about that?” he asks, shifting in his chair. The light has waned a bit now, making the print on his shirt almost invisible. “What do people want to know?”
“They want to know—”
“What does it mean to know me anyway? What I like to have for dinner? My favourite colour? The person I love at the moment? If I ever want to have a family? My mother’s name? It should not matter to you. It should not matter to anybody.”
“What about ideas?”
“Yes, Yaha. Ideas! Your thoughts on things.”
“I am the most political artist of my generation. My ideas are in my art. That is all there is to know about me. Everything else about a human being is a façade of identity. It does not mean shit. None of that will matter a hundred years from now. What matters is my voice, the specific identity of my soul. And that is all in the music.”
“So, you won’t tell me your favourite shade of red?”
“No, I won’t.”
They both burst out laughing. Tenahu’s laughter is free, full of a different thrill. As he laughs, he holds on tight to his chair as though he fears he might laugh himself to the ground. “No, I won’t.”
“So, you have achieved so much in the music industry in the five years since you debuted.”
“How much longer do you intend to make music for?”
“I go as the spirit leads. I will always make music as long as I have songs inside of me. And when I am all out of songs, Yaha Tenahu will stop to exist.”
“So, you will retire?”
“How do you mean, then?”
“I think I have been clear,” he says and looks away from the camera as if suddenly uninterested in continuing the interview. “I have been clear enough.”
As the silence persists, the video fades away into nothing.
We come away having seen the man in his element. Yet, we know nothing about him. Or why he left. To some, his leaving was the leaving of a father-figure, to some it was the leaving of a lover, to some it was the leaving of a god. Whether or not you met him then, his disappearance was a symbol of some sort of loss to you. He was that much of a force.
Perhaps, it does not matter why he disappeared or where he disappeared to. Perhaps, all that matters is that he was here. That he normalised camp. That he risked his life speaking for those forced into silence, into hiding. That he was beautiful. That he was magic. That he was, most importantly, Yaha Tenahu—whatever that means to you.
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is an experimental poet, essayist and writer of fiction. His works have appeared in Popula, Gertrude, Bakwa, Arts and Africa, Kalahari Review, Headline Press, The Account Journal, On the Seawall, Bird’s Thumb and elsewhere. He won the 2016 Albert Jungers Poetry Prize and the 2017 Fisayo Soyombo National Essay Prize. He was a finalist for the 2018 Koffi Addo Prize and longlisted for the 2020 K&L Prize for African Literature. He authored the chapbook, In My Country, We’re All Crossdressers (Praxis 2018).
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