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Abba on their extraordinary reunion

Abba

Abba on their extraordinary reunion: ‘We are confronted by our younger selves all the time’

It started with a mysterious image on billboards all over the world. The sun rising above four dark planets; the only words Abba: Voyage. By the time an announcement was made on 2 September, it had fair claim to call itself the most anticipated comeback in pop history.

Here we go again! After nearly 40 years, Benny, Björn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid are back together. We get the inside story of the greatest reunion in pop

And the details exceeded expectations. Not only was there a new album, Voyage, the first in 40 years: 10 new songs that brought the original band together in the studio for the first time since a split that had been precipitated by the couples in the band divorcing.

Not only that, but there was to be a new “immersive live experience”, in a bespoke stadium in London – nobody seemed to have noticed the planning application being published online – featuring futuristic de-aged “Abbatars” playing a potentially never-ending series of gigs. In the depths of a miserable year, it seemed, Abba were coming to rescue 2021.

The promotion machine went into full swing. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was illuminated in their honour (Abba were always huge in Australia) and BBC radio moved their 6pm news bulletin in order to premiere two new tracks, I Still Have Faith in You and Don’t Shut Me Down. Online, there was footage of crowds listening to the songs for the first time: in a hot spring in Iceland; in Stockholm’s Gröna Lund amusement park; in front of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

Some of them were in tears. Somewhere in London, there were Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, being interviewed by Zoe Ball, Andersson allowing himself a rare moment of self-congratulation while discussing how they wrote Mamma Mia in 1975 when the band were still widely assumed to be a one-hit wonder, boosted to brief fame by winning the Eurovision song contest. The chorus, he enthused, where they had the idea of dropping all the music out and just leaving the vocals, “it was,” he smiled, “so clever.” Within three days, the album received 80,000 pre-orders in the UK alone.

It all made for a striking contrast with footage of Abba’s final public appearance, in November 1982, on Noel Edmonds’ Late Late Breakfast Show. Ostensibly promoting a new greatest hits album, it is five of the most uncomfortable minutes of music television ever broadcast.

They sit, twitchy and oddly un-Abba-like, in their 80s clothes (skinny ties, headbands and, in the case of Anni-Frid Lyngstad, spiky, purple hair), gamely denying they are splitting up, despite the fact that the greatest hits collection has been released in lieu of a new Abba album they have abandoned, unfinished; despite the evident waning of their commercial success (their new single has struggled into the lower reaches of the Top 40, an unthinkable state of affairs even a year before, when they were enjoying their 18th consecutive Top 10 hit); and despite the fact that Abba visibly aren’t enjoying being in Abba very much.

When asked for his favourite Abba song, Ulvaeus wearily notes that he’s been told by the TV producers what to pick: The Winner Takes It All. Agnetha Fältskog is clearly sick of her pin-up status: “I’m not only a sexy bottom, you know,” she complains. When the subject turns to Ulvaeus and Andersson’s songwriting prowess, it precipitates an icy, brittle exchange between the recently divorced Andersson and Lyngstad. Benny and Björn wrote so many wonderful songs, she says. “Well, you never said that,” snaps her ex-husband. “OK,” she responds, with a mirthless chuckle. “So it’s the first time.” A few weeks later, Abba broke up, although a split was never publicly announced.

And that was supposed to be that. Hugely successful but critically reviled, Abba were not a band that anyone assumed would have any kind of afterlife, or be remembered as anything other than a joke – evidence that the 1970s were, as the Face magazine memorably put it, The Decade That Taste Forgot.

“In the 80s, it felt as if Abba was completely done. It was so uncool to like us”

Today, talking via Zoom in their first press interview since the Grand Reveal, Ulvaeus and Andersson say they thought exactly the same thing. “In the beginning of the 80s, when we stopped recording, it felt as though Abba was completely done, and there would be no more talk about it,” Ulvaeus says. “It was actually dead. It was so uncool to like Abba.”

“We had a little company, the four of us together,” Andersson says. “Everything Abba earned went into that company and we split it four ways, no matter who did what. And then, when we said, ‘Well, this is it, guys, let’s do something else for a bit and then we can go back perhaps in a couple of years and see if we’re still alive’, that was that: we sold the company. We did not expect Abba to continue, I can promise you that.”

Fältskog and Lyngstad, alas, are nowhere to be seen. Nor did they turn up to the announcement of Abba’s return in London, instead releasing a couple of prepared quotes (“Such joy it was to work with the group again,” Lyngstad offered). They are, I’m told, deeply involved with the Voyage live show, but the assurance that they wouldn’t have to take part in promotional activities pertaining to Abba’s reunion was part of their reason for agreeing to it in the first place. “They didn’t take much persuasion, but we did have to tell both of them that they don’t need to speak to you, Alexis,” Andersson offers. “Not you personally,” he adds, hastily, “but the media.”

You have to say that this “trend-blind” approach appears to have worked. I Still Have Faith in You and Don’t Shut Me Down were greeted with a peculiar combination of elation and a kind of collective sigh of relief: the former a big, bittersweet ballad in the vein of Thank You for the Music or The Winner Takes It All, the latter a fresh example of Abba’s idiosyncratic approach to disco, à la Dancing Queen.

Perhaps their rapturous reception was potentiated by events of the preceding 18 months, a musical equivalent of the line that keeps appearing on posters outside West End theatres at the moment: “The show we all need right now.” We live in very uncertain times, and there’s a distinct sense that people want something comforting and reliable from entertainment. And here were Abba, 40 years on, sounding exactly like Abba, the way you remembered them from your childhood or your youth.

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Arts

Nigeria’s Osun River: Sacred, Revered and Increasingly Toxic

OSOGBO, Nigeria (AP) — Yeyerisa Abimbola has dedicated most of her 58 years on Earth to the Osun, a waterway in deeply religious Nigeria named for the river goddess of fertility. As the deity’s chief priestess, she leads other women known as servants of Osun in daily worship and sacrificial offerings along the riverbank.

But with each passing day, she worries more and more about the river. Once sparkling and clear and home to a variety of fish, today it runs mucky and brown.

“The problem we face now are those that mine by the river,” Abimbola said. “As you can see, the water has changed color.”

The river, which flows through the dense forest of the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove — designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 — is revered for its cultural and religious significance among the Yoruba-speaking people predominant in southwestern Nigeria, where Osun is widely worshipped.

But it’s under constant threat from pollution from waste disposal and other human activity — especially the dozens of illegal gold miners across Osun state whose runoff is filling the sacred river with toxic metals. Amid lax enforcement of environmental laws in the region, there are also some who use the river as a dumping ground, further contributing to its contamination.

The Osun River flows through the forest of the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Monday, May 30, 2022. The nonprofit advocacy group Urban Alert conducted a series of tests on the Osun in 2021 and found it to be “heavily contaminated.” The report found lead and mercury levels in the water at the grove that were, respectively, 1,000% and 2,000% above what's permissible under the Nigerian Industrial Standard. (AP Photo/Lekan Oyekanmi)

Priestess Yeyerisa Abimbola speaks during an interview at the sacred Osun River in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Sunday, May 29, 2022. She has dedicated most of her 58 years on Earth to the Osun, a waterway in deeply religious Nigeria named for the river goddess of fertility. But with each passing day, she worries more and more about the river. “The problem we face now are those that mine by the river,” Abimbola said. “As you can see, the water has changed color.” (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Priestess Yeyerisa Abimbola speaks during an interview at the sacred Osun River in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Sunday, May 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

The servants of Osun, made up of women mostly between the ages of 30 and 60, live in a line of one-room apartments along the side of the Osogbo palace, the royal house of the the Osogbo monarch about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) north of the grove and river.

They leave behind everything from their secular lives, including marriages, to serve both the goddess and the king. They have little interaction with outsiders, allowing them to devote themselves fully to the goddess, whom they worship daily at a shrine tucked deep inside the grove.

Often seen in flowing white gowns symbolizing the purity the river represents, the women carry out various tasks for the goddess from dawn to dusk, from overseeing sacrificial offerings, mostly live animals and drinks, to carrying out cultural activities in the Osun’s waters. Some say the goddess heals them of afflictions when they drink or bathe in the river, and others say she can provide wealth or fertility.

One servant of Osun, who goes by the name Oluwatosin, said the river brought her a child when she was having difficulties with childbirth. Now the mother of two children, she intends to remain forever devoted to the river and the goddess.

“It is my belief, and Osun answers my prayers,” Oluwatosin said.

Devotees of the Osun River goddess pray in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Sunday, May 29, 2022. They have little interaction with outsiders, allowing them to devote themselves fully to the goddess, whom they worship daily at a shrine tucked deep inside the grove. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Devotees of the Osun River goddess prepare to perform sacrifices for a woman draped in a white cloth in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Sunday, May 29, 2022. One servant of Osun, who goes by the name Oluwatosin, said the river brought her a child when she was having difficulties with childbirth. Now a mother of two, she intends to remain forever devoted to the river and the goddess. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

The river also serves as an important “pilgrimage point” for Yoruba people in Nigeria, said Ayo Adams, a Yoruba scholar — especially during the Osun-Osogbo festival, a colorful annual celebration that draws thousands of Osun worshippers and tourists “to celebrate the essence of the Yoruba race.” Some attendees say it offers the chance for a personal encounter with the goddess.

But this year, as the two-week August festival neared, palace authorities announced they had been forced to take the unusual step of telling people to stop drinking the water.

“We have written to the state government, the museum on the activities of the illegal miners and for them to take actions to stop them,” said Osunyemi Ifarinu Ifabode, the Osun chief priest.

Osun state is home to some of Nigeria’s largest gold deposits, and miners in search of gold and other minerals — many of them operating illegally — are scattered across swampy areas in remote villages where there is scant law enforcement presence. While community leaders in Osogbo have been able to keep miners out of the immediate area, they’re essentially free to operate with impunity upstream and to the north.

The miners take water from the river to use in exploration and exploitation, and the runoff flows back into it and other waterways, polluting the drinking water sources of thousands of people.

“It is more or less like 50% of the water bodies in Osun state, so the major water bodies here have been polluted,” said Anthony Adejuwon, head Urban Alert, a nonprofit leading advocacy efforts to protect the Osun River.

Men take a break at an illegal mining site in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Tuesday, May 31, 2022. Osunyemi Ifarinu Ifabode, the chief priest of the Osun River, says illegal mining has polluted the sacred waterway, and he advises worshippers not to drink from it. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Urban Alert conducted a series of tests on the Osun in 2021 and found it to be “heavily contaminated.” The report, which was shared with The Associated Press, found lead and mercury levels in the water at the grove that were, respectively, 1,000% and 2,000% above what’s permissible under the Nigerian Industrial Standard. Urban Alert attributes it to many years of mining activity, some of it within 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the river.

Despite the drinking ban issued by the palace, during a recent visit AP witnessed residents trooping to the river daily to fill up gallon containers for domestic use.

Dr. Emmanuel Folami, a physician based in Osogbo, the state capital, said drinking the toxic water or otherwise using it for purposes that risk human exposure is a “big health concern” that could cause lead poisoning.

In March, the Osun state government announced the arrest of “several individuals for illicit mining, seizures and site closures,” and promised it was studying the level of pollution of the river and ways to address it.

But activists question the sincerity and commitment behind such efforts: “If we cannot see the state government taking action within its own jurisdiction as a (mining) license holder, what are we going to say about the other people?” said Adejuwon of Urban Alert, which is running a social media campaign with the hashtag #SaveOsunRiver.

The Osun River flows through the forest of the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Monday, May 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Lekan Oyekanmi)

Abimbola, a servant of Osun since she was just 17 years old, said the goddess is tolerant and giving. She thanks Osun for her blessings — a home, children, good health.

“Every good thing that God does for people, Osun does the same,” she said.

Yet she and others warn that even Osun has her limits.

There may be problems if the river remains contaminated and Osun “gets angry or is not properly appeased,” said Abiodun Fasoyin, a village chief in Esa-Odo, where much of the mining takes place, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Osogbo.

“The riverbank will overflow and sweep people away when it is angry,” Abimbola said. “Don’t do whatever she doesn’t want.”

A fishing canoe sits near a dam that sources the sacred Osun River in Esa-Odo, Nigeria, on Saturday, May 28, 2022. The river, which flows through the dense forest of the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove — designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 — is revered for its cultural and religious significance among the Yoruba-speaking people predominant in southwestern Nigeria, where the goddess Osun is widely worshipped. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

A fishing canoe sits near a dam that sources the sacred Osun River in Esa-Odo, Nigeria, on Saturday, May 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
Worshippers of the Osun River goddess pray in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Monday, May 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Worshippers of the Osun River goddess pray in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Monday, May 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
A devotee of the Osun River goddess throws a white cloth used for sacrifices into the sacred waters in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Sunday, May 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

A devotee of the Osun River goddess throws a white cloth used for sacrifices into the sacred waters in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Sunday, May 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
A statue of the goddess of fertility stands at the sacred Osun River in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Sunday, May 29, 2022. Some say the goddess heals them of afflictions when they drink or bathe in the river, and others say she can provide wealth or fertility. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

A statue of the goddess of fertility stands at the sacred Osun River in Osogbo, Nigeria, on Sunday, May 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

 

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Arts

FG Renames National Arts Theatre

The Federal Government says the National Theatre in Iganmu, Lagos, which is under renovation, will be known as Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre, upon completion.

The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, disclosed this on Tuesday in Madrid, Spain while signing an agreement on Nigeria’s hosting of the first Global Conference on Cultural Tourism and Creative Industry.

The News Agency of Nigeria reports the bilateral agreement was signed between Nigeria and United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) at the organisation’s headquarters.

Mohammed disclosed that the global conference, which would hold from 14 to 17 November, would be the first event to be staged at the newly refurbished edifice.

“Nigeria will be hosting the event at the National Theatre in Lagos, which is currently being renovated at a cost of 100 million dollars under a partnership between the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Bankers’ Committee/Central Bank of Nigeria.

“It is the first of such renovation of the iconic edifice in over four decades.

“In addition to the renovation, new hubs are being constructed, within the premises of the National Theatre, for fashion, information, technology, film and music.

“With that, the National Theatre is now known as the Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre.

“In addition, the Lagos surface rail system, to serve the National Theatre, will be commissioned ahead of the Global Conference,’’ he said

Mohammed said the signing of the bilateral agreement signified Nigeria’s commitment to host the event.

He, therefore, directed that the contractors handling the reconstruction project must ensure its prompt delivery for the global event.

The minister added that in an effort to ensure that the complex is ready for hosting in November, he recently undertook an inspection tour of ongoing work there with stakeholders.

The stakeholders on the inspection tour, according to the minister, were Lagos Governor, Babajide Sanwoolu; the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele and the Minister of Sports and Youth Development, Sunday Dare.

According to the minister, there was every indication that the venue would be ready early enough to host the global conference.

VISIT US: @theharmattan1

The Nigerian Ambassador to Spain, Mr Ademola Seriki, who said he is a member of the Board of Directors of the company handling the reconstruction project, said the edifice would be completed before the global event.

Seriki, who accompanied the Minister to the bilateral agreement signing ceremony, thanked the UNWTO for giving Nigeria the right to host the maiden global conference.

He said the conference would bring a huge reputation to the country and assert Nigeria’s lead in music, theatre and other areas of entertainment in Africa.

The Director-General, Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation, Mr Folorunsho Coker, was in the entourage of the minister.

The National Theatre, an iconic centre for performing arts, was established to preserve, present and promote arts and culture in Nigeria.

The construction of the monument was completed in 1976 in preparation for the Festival of Arts and Culture hosted in 1977.

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Arts

Stolen Roman statue returned to France after 50 years

Stolen Roman statue returned to France after 50 years

Art detective Arthur Brand traced the statue to the museum when a client was offered it by an Austrian collector.

“Fifty years after a theft it’s unheard of that something comes back – normally it’s been destroyed,” he told the BBC.

The 40cm-high (15.7in) statue was dug up on the site of the Gallo-Roman village of Vertillum in eastern France in 1894 and years later featured in a Paris exhibition of France’s finest art pieces.

Bacchus
IMAGE SOURCE, ARTHUR BRAND: The statue was stolen in December 1973

When Mr Brand handed the statue back to the Musée du Pays Châtillonnais this week, director Catherine Monnet said she realised how much more beautiful it was than the copy that had been put on display.

The Dutch art sleuth, who has built a reputation for tracking down stolen masterpieces around the world, said the museum was “flabbergasted” when he told them he had traced their missing statue.

He described how he had been contacted by a client who wanted to know more about the statue after he was offered it by an Austrian collector, who had bought it legally and in good faith.

There were no databases in 1973 but Mr Brand eventually found a reference to it in an archaeology magazine dating back to 1927, and French police then found their report from the time of the theft.

“I contacted the collector. He didn’t want to have a stolen piece in his collection so he wanted to give it back, but French law dictates that a small amount has to be paid for safekeeping.”

That small amount in relation to the statue’s value is still a considerable sum of money.

While half was paid by the local authority in Chatillon, the rest was provided by an auction house specialising in ancient art in the English port town of Harwich. “The piece belongs in the museum so it’s only right people can get together and make that happen,” said Aaron Hammond of Timeline Auctions.

According to Mr Brand, the museum director cried tears of joy when she saw the statue: “I thought she was going to drop it she was so nervous.”

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