Duke Ellington (1899-1974) first recorded Mood Indigo in October 1930 and it soon became a jazz standard. The intro was an Ellington signature style with him on piano but sometimes in other recordings Billy Strayhorn on piano whilst Ellington would come in at the last few minutes. The extraordinary blending of muted trumpet and muted trombone with clarinet gave richness and depth to the colouring, and sometimes a human voiced trombone, would be added, in the most anguished and wailing tone, I suppose of wet, indescribable indigo. I have heard versions with Ben Webster’s sultry and mournful tenor saxophone. In the first recordings before Webster, Johnny Hodges, and Billy Strayhorn joined the band, Whetsel was on trumpet, Nanton on trombone, Bigard on clarinet, Guy on banjo, Braud on bass and Greer on drums. There is the Nina Simone version from 1958, in which the piano is compelling and her voice pulls you by the arm, by the throat and by the heart, ultimately impelling you in other words, to bear witness, to give testimony to what it feels like to feel blue. All the time calling to the truest blue, the deepest mood of indigo.
It is unlikely that Ellington knew how important indigo was to the Yoruba. The place of aró (indigo) in the visual world. How, whether in tie-dye or in àdìre eléko (tie-dye/batik), this dark and fragrant dye shaped the visual world. Here small cowrie shaped knots in a vast sea of indigo, there a string of hatched, hatch tags in rows upon rows once again in an infinite ocean of blue and then, in hand drawn squares, fish and cockerel motif blocks. Always, the variation of blue: corn blue, sky blue, faint grey blue, blue black, and indigo blue that is so deep that it reeks of blueness.
This visual world is what has shaped Abiodun Olaku’s (1958-) art. In one of his paintings of Makoko, the sky overhead is blue and the muddy brown, oily shimmer of the Lagos lagoon reflects the sky-blue colour, hinting in the shyest way possible of hidden and concealed blues. One of the canoes, in the foreground has an indigo blue burlap, covering some goods, possibly sand dredged from the lagoon bed. At the central, focal point, a light, glimmers, radiating a blue halo. It is midnight and the blue halo is itself reflected or refracted in the lagoon. There’s stillness, there are no human figures. There is a total absence of movement, of action. The scene is tranquil or maybe deserted. The canoes rest against the posts, the pillars of these homes on stilts. The blue burlap calls to mind the turquoise blue canvas of gondolas in Venice, moored up by St Marks, at the end of the working day.
This is the midnight blue of my dreams, more subtle, less overwhelming in comparison to the crisp, clear and contagious blue at dawn of my childhood when the Harmattan was at once biting and bitter.
We own another Olaku, an oil painting of Kano city walls. Instead of the lagoon channel, it is a street scene and the moon in the distance, is set at an angle that elevates the eye, and is an orange ring round an inner core of silver. The sky is contaminated, infected, if you wish, by mauve and pink, and orange too. This is mirrored in the lamp fires of the street hawkers who sit on the narrow kerbs with their wares. It is not yet midnight, but you can tell that the street life is ebbing away, that the earlier bustle, the movement and motion of communion, is starting to give way to midnight. I suppose the palette is evening blue, if there is such a thing, maybe even gold indigo.
Which brings me right back to Ellington’s Mood Indigo- the vats of indigo, that the women work, are bottomless and looking into them is like looking into the plumbless eyes, the unsounded depths of melancholia at its worst. If you want to hear it, I mean hear the indescribable, you will need to listen both to Nina Simone and Billie Holiday sing Strange Fruit. Sadly, there is no duet of them singing it.
Photos by Jan Oyebode