Director Remi Vaughan-
Richards discusses her award-winning Faaji Agba documentary

With a background that includes prop-making for Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 action fest Judge Dredd, similar work on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and before both of these movies, an early role in costume design for Jim Henson, filmmaker Remi Vaughan-Richards always knew that visual storytelling was in her blood. Since turning to directing, her credits have included the docu-drama One Small Step and TV series Wetin Day for the BBC. Her creative calling for the last six years or so though has been shaped by a depth of interest in Nigeria’s musical heritage and by the dynamic levels of interaction she’s had with many of the pioneers of highlife, afrobeat and Juju sounds that make up the 10-strong members of the Faaji Agba band. 

The roll call of elders – aged 64 to their mid eighties – initially featured Alaba Pedro, Eji Oyewole, Sina Ayinde-Bakare, Fatai Rolling Dollar, S. F. Olowookere, Samson Adegbite, Taiye Anyowale, Nureini Sunmola, Kunle Adeniran and Niyi Ajileye. All but two of these originals have now passed on but their musical legacies have been enshrined in Vaughan-Richard’s same-titled documentary.

Her involvement with the band came as a “happy accident” through a long-term friendship with Kunle Tejuoso, owner of the Ikoyi-located Jazzhole Record store. His deep appreciation for Nigeria’s melodic history goes back decades and positions him as the go-to Awolowo Road musicologist, trained in the art of Nigeria’s vocals and rhythms. The connection with Tejuoso took hold once Vaughan-Richards had resettled in Nigeria after years studying and working in the UK. “When I came back to Lagos I would spend a lot of time in his shop,” she recalls. “The musicians were always there. I took a lot of inspiration from Kunle’s dedication to his passion. Without him there would be no Faaji Agba film. We began a conversation about filming in 2008 but I started the process a year later.”

"Fatai Rolling Dollar would always flirt
with me and the others would joke around
but there was no problem at all"

From that point, the documentary took on “a life of its own” and for Vaughan-Richards, that meant living a lifestyle in which she’d have to be on standby and ready for action whenever a good cinematic opportunity for filmed rehearsals and conversational revelations arose. Backed by a few younger musicians, the Faaji Agba collective all have some connection to Lagos’s musical legacy, and all are male, which meant that Vaughan-Richards – as an independent female director and overall lighting expert – had numerous layers of negotiation to get through. “Occasionally when we could scrape some funds together I hired a cameraman for the more formal interviews, but it was mainly me, me and me again,” she recalls. 

The initial phase of filming was funded with the help of Tejuoso but two years into the process, a stateside gig at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn required extra backing and support, which she secured from the Goethe Institut, FHN, Arik Air and private individuals. Being business savvy was key but as a lone woman in an arena that was as testosterone-fuelled as it was paternal, the trust issues between filmmaker and subjects were intricate. Vaughn-Richards recalls a few high egos, which is unsurprising given that that all the members were musicians in their own right – some with links to Fela Kuti or King Sunny Ade, and one or two having had some notoriety in the UK in the 1970s. 

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“I think one of my skills as a director is being able to make people feel comfortable and relaxed around me. Also the guys got so used to this ‘yellow’ woman following them around with her camera and headphones plugged into her ears that I was invisible really. Fatai Rolling Dollar would always flirt with me and the others would joke around but there was no problem at all.” Rolling Dollar, as the eldest band member became the Faaji Agba ‘leader’, although Bakare became the producer and the real force behind the production of the music. 

Since completing this labour of love last year, the film received its debut on the first night of the Lights, Camera, Africa festival in Lagos in September and has just won Best Documentary at the Africa Magic Viewer's Choice Awards 2016. Now plans are afoot for distribution in the US, UK and Brazil.

The documentary spans Nigeria’s musical legacy from the 1940s to the present, with flavours of jazz, rumba, Orisha, palm wine music and healthy doses of ‘enjoyment’ that are synonymous with the Faaji name. In essence the Faaji Agba documentary takes us on a journey that unpicks elements of Nigeria’s musical DNA. For Vaughan-Richards, it was an experience that helped solidify her mission to make more films that highlight what’s being lost at a rapid pace. An anecdote that illustrates this is one in which she witnessed a convivial, but still competitive intergenerational sound clash between two musical cultures. “It was an incident at the Jazzhole,” she says. “A group of master jazz players from America were visiting, and they had impromptu sessions with some local young musicians. The young Lagos guys tried to impress the Americans by playing jazz with them. Kunle stopped them and asked why they wanted to copy the Americans, when jazz is already in their blood. They got it and started playing afrobeat, then some young ’fuji’ rapper added his own twist and it was awesome. The Americans were blown away and had to stand back and salute. That’s what I want people to come away with when they watch Faaji Agba. We have our own excellent musical legacy, and we can always draw from this.”

Images courtesy of Remi Vaughan-Richards