He walks in cool, calm as the breeze. There is nothing suggesting that he is that celebrity people pay heavily to watch, be it night or day; rain or shine. And, here, he is, standing at five feet plus looking simple; quite ordinary. No celebrity carriage!
Dressed in a multi-colour T-shirt over a pair of jeans trousers, he cuts the picture of an athlete readying for a walk out. But he is not an athlete. In fact, he probably knows little or nothing about any track and field event. It is not his line of trade. What he trades in is humour and his bones have it in surplus abundance for every moment. The closest anyone ever got to observing these ‘funny bones’ is when he is on stage – doing those kurukere movements – and saying things that demystify the extra-ordinary. Here, he is. Take a second look and I want you to zero in on his nose, eyes, face and lips. Can you see anything uncommon? Sure, nothing. Yet he is someone you will gladly give up your seat in a bus for. Meeting him comes with a wonderful feeling; a somewhat sense of discovery. That is how I feel.
Running an eye scan, you could see the smile that seemingly conspires with his state of mind to keep his lips quivering like when air is escaping from a balloon. The smile just hung on there as he stretches his hand for a warm handshake with this reporter, almost immediately gesturing a sit down. It is 3pm on Wednesday, May 20. Welcome to the Ikoyi country home of Halleluyah Atuyota Akpobome. Well, if it sounds strange, how about Alibaba? Sure, it sticks. It is a cream painted duplex, housed in a spacious compound that could
comfortable sit a select friends where he decides to throw a party for family members.
As the gateman, who spoke in heavy Hausa accent throws the towering black steel gate open after convincing himself of the harmless mission of the reporter and ushers him into the sprawling compound, he gestures the way to the lounge. “Take your left, that glass door,” he says pointing the way. The lounge, this reporter found out, served dual purposes – a library and waiting room. Inside is a woman pampered with massive flesh – an half cast – who seems to love her work so much that she has her hand in several things – the computer, tidying up the book shelves, recording daily purchases of news materials and also ensuring that some of the books on the floor, which are in their early formation of book mountains, did not smear the beauty of the slightly cool library sitting on the ground floor of the house.
For a few minutes, the reporter watched as she races from one corner of the library to the other, arranging and replacing, her foot steps beating a dull thud on the hard floor. “Make yourself comfortable as I go to inform him,” she says, wearing a smiling face. Obviously she could identify the authors of the books by the cover judging from the manner she handles them. This is the first feast in the house of a man reputed to have introduced a brand of jokes, which derive its recipes from ethnic nationalities – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, as well as the Ajebutters (Silver spoon) and Ajepako – an uncomplimentary reference to ladies who crave the former class.
It is a week long communication through test messages. The text messages had preceded the meeting that had frightening signs of impossibility. The texts couldn’t stop, not when it is Alibaba, anyway. Since the comedy industry went burst, quite a lot changed in the lifestyle of its practitioners, and so prompted an inquest into its hitherto scrappy development – the role of the founding fathers, the aping artifice of the rank and file – and just how much enduring years of economic downturn helped in reshaping the industry. These and many more were what informed the meeting with Alibaba, who apparently counts among the few who like the Biblical wise men saw a future in the comedy business.
Interestingly for the more than one hour the interview lasted, Alibaba did not disappoint. Shortly after meeting the reporter in his richly furnished library, whose shelves brim of the best books in a comedian’s jokes recipe, he settles on a stool and signals his readiness to take the questions. He talks about his growing up, his family, work, pleasure and most importantly, the job that puts food on his table besides the fame, fortune and a little controversy here and there, which he picked on his way to the top. He also bares his mind on how he became known as Alibaba, which incidentally diminished his baptismal name – Halleluyah Atuyota Akpobome – making it sound strange except to his kinsmen.
“I am the first son in a family of so many girls,” he tells the reporter matter-of-factly. He continues. “When I emerged from the birth canal, my Granny excitedly screamed Halleluyah, when she noticed I was male,” he reveals. “However,” he tells the reporter, “When people could not easily pronounce Halleluyah, they settled for Ali and soon after, the Baba was added.” And, it stuck? The reporter asks. “Yes, of course,” Alibaba says quickly cutting in. According to him, when they started comedy apart from Basoene Tariah, Yibo Koko, Allam Blooo and the late Mohammed Danjuma, as well as Patrick Doyle, Femi Segun and the late John Chukwu who according to him, were MCs – nobody gave the industry a chance. “In fact,” he says, “nobody wanted to pay to watch comedians as at 1988. It was that bad.” “So, how did it suddenly become a money spinner?” the reporter asks. As if he was expecting the question, Alibaba pauses for a while, his eyes searching the reporter’s as if the answers were hidden in them. Suddenly, he adjusted his sitting position, letting his legs shoot out.
“Talking professionally, it was in 1990 and that was when I moved from Warri where I started it all to Lagos,” he says. As if on cue a noise rang out from behind the door leading upstairs. We hear someone in a cough seizure. “Kpoho, kpoho, kpoho,” the sound rings out reaching ear-splitting levels. “Take water, take water!” he shouts, momentarily interrupting the interview. There was silence, except for some creepy noise of busy legs behind the closed door. He returns to the interview. “You see, before this time comedy seemed a wrong career. You needed to have seen how we struggled to access hall of events,” he recalls, pointing out that comedians came last in the programme and was the first to be struck out where there is the need to cut cost. Alibaba blames the problem on what he describes as the wrong notion that anyone who could play the Compere is also a comedian. “It was so bad that some people even thought that everyone who could speak good English can also do well as a comedian,” he tells the reporter.
He recalls the day Eddie Lawani sent him to the Niteshifts Coliseum which had Kunle Stewart and Demola Adeoye as DJs, to see if he could perform for the guests. “That day”, he says, “was a day that marked a turning point in his comedy career.” He reveals that the Guvnor of the Niteshift, Ken Olumese, turned him back and subtly dismissed Nigerian comedians. “He told me after ascertaining my mission that if they wanted a comedian, they could afford to bring Eddie Murphy to Nigeria to entertain the guests. This incident, he says, propelled him into committing his time, money and everything he has – to improve himself, as well as assuring himself that it is comedy or nothing else.
Curiously, Alibaba who is in his 40s studied Religious Knowledge/Philosophy at the Bendel State University, a course seen as distant cousins to comedy. “Religious Knowledge/Philosophy, what is the link?” the reporter asks. It would seem from his facial expression that the question got the better of him, but like an old woman whose store house is decked with broken earthen pots, Alibaba goes into his comic bags and when his hand emerges, he goes philosophical.
“The same way there is no link between a lawyer and the Ministry of Petroleum or Pharmacist and the Ministry of Information and Communications,” he drops wryly. He continues. “I may not have studied Theatre Arts or Mass Communication, but since I discovered comedy, it has fulfilled all the basic desires of a career – a career should give self-satisfaction, put food on the table and comedy has done all this for me,” he stresses.
Indeed, you can take everything from him, but not comedy. Like the Pepsi advertisement, he sleeps, eats, drinks, and thinks comedy. For almost 15 years, Alibaba has been paying his bills through comedy. But that is not probably his strength. Instead, he derives his strength and ingenuously, too, through the relative ease with which he adds a comic flavour to seemingly hard issues, making it look like A-B-C. “The ‘funny bone’ runs in my family. My father is funny as well as my mother,” the comedian who says he is attracted to Molue, a noisy and rickety Lagos bus, says.
After displaying some measure of consistency spanning many years, Alibaba has come to be accepted as a brand name and a popular one at that. If you ignore him, it is at your own risk. Surprisingly, too, if you also court him, “Well,” he says, “we do business when we have to, but if I am on the stage and needs to deliver, I challenge myself to be the best that I can ever be.” Perhaps, sensing the import of what he says, he quickly adds: “After business, we become friends again.” So, you could, comically speaking, dress your friends? “Boy,” he says, “Leave it at that.”
No doubt, Alibaba has come a long way. Ask him when he intends to quit and he tells you: “There’s no retirement age in comedy. It is not like music or football and that is why you still find Bill Cosby in the trade,” he points out.
So, how affordable is his service? “Cheap,” he says, “very cheap.” Read his lips, did you? He means he is as cheap as he says the word- cheap. But just before you run away to the wrong direction, he tells the reporter, “I had performed for free and that was many years ago. As you grow in a job so your commercial value increases. I am as important as the value you place on my service.” Like a final word, he whispers to the reporter: “There are jobs for the boys and there are jobs for the men in the industry. So, figure out where I belong.” Alibaba has done jobs for many blue chip companies. He also adorns billboards, posters and potentially, a magazine cover favourite. Born in Warri, but from Ughelli North council, Alibaba is certainly a total entertainment package.
Believe it or not, Alibaba has what it takes to put anyone in stitches.
Only recently news were flying around that he is a difficult person to please and the reporter drives it in, straight. “Those who say I am difficult to please got it all wrong. I am not difficult to please, but to live with. I am not the kind of person that will stick to a certain food,” he explains. Unfortunately for every celebrity, controversy seems inevitable. Over the years, we have seen how the celebrity’s life – private or public – comes under scrutiny so much so that they do not have a life of their own! Alibaba is one of those celebrities.
Blessed with five children – three girls and two boys – (Two boys and one girl are from same mother and the other two from another woman)
“Most people think celebrities are not human beings”, he says, continuing that “Before I became the big Alibaba, I had the other kids.”
So, you are not promiscuous? the reporter pokes. “Look, it is even easier for you to deal with the advances from women if you are not a comedian,” he points out. According to him, some girls might not have the guts, because they cannot guess your reaction right. “It is actually difficult to be promiscuous because everybody knows you,” he drops, foreclosing further questions on the matter.
This is the quintessential Alibaba, blunt as he is easy-going. “I did not come this far by accident. Maybe, you do not know, I had earned money doing comedy way back in school,” he reveals to the reporter, saying that he earned N120 monthly in 1988. “That was so much money at the time,” he says. More than 25 years, the fortunes from the industry continue in a steady rise. “Comedians block loopholes and dull moments in events,” he tells the reporter.
Interestingly, if you think he tests the depth of his jokes at home before going to the stage, you goofed. “I draw a line between business and home. There is no second position for being a father. Yes, it is easy to be a father, but to be a Daddy requires extra miles,” Alibaba says, cooing into the reporter’s eyes. According to him, though he sometimes says funny things at home, he notes that “it is not for me to start seeing my family as an audience to entertain.”
Hear, you like Puppies? “Yes,” he answers, his body language giving him away as expecting the question. “I like Puppies because of loyalty, security and the fact that they also put money in my pocket. A puppy can go for say, N150,” he says. The response ricochets in my inner mind. So, even Alibaba needs money as little as N150? Well, I just pretended like I didn’t hear him and simply returned a warm handshake, “It’s been a pleasure talking with you,” I said. “You are welcome,” Alibaba replies. As he walks me to the gate and like a parting gift, says, “It was a wonderful time,” something inside of me echoed an affirmative reply, but I simply smiled, shook my head, happy that I got him at last.