Aninyei and her dream of Lagos Opera House
Rosalyn Aninyei is the founder of Vesta Orchestra and Opera Foundation. The orchestra is dedicated to the promotion of music by classical composers of African descent, which have been largely ignored over the years.
The Opera House, on its part, aimed to provide a stage for young, talented musicians to perform their art and earn a living. In this interview with GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR, she spoke on the orchestra, the foundation and her dream of setting up an opera house.
Who is Rosalyn Aninyei?
SHE is a violin restorer, and in fact, opened Nigeria’s first-ever violin repair workshop in Lagos, where she sells and repairs string instruments and for the first time, musicians have a workshop to bring their instruments to in the event of damage, or for general maintenance. She had her first degree at the Universität Wien, where she studied Development Studies. She also has a master’s degree from the University of Buckingham, where she studied International Business. Her ultimate goal is to set up a Lagos Opera House, where African Classical works would be showcased. It is going to be a performance venue that will provide hundreds of jobs for performing arts graduates in the country.
How did your push for music start?
Growing up, my parents played the music of Reverend Patty Obasi, Victor Uwaifo, and Emma Ogosi at home. Fortunately, Ogosi has said he is going to do something with us if we come to Asaba. So, we’re going to work on that. We were also in touch with Uwaifo and we had hoped, in fact, he had promised to do something with us, as well, when he comes to Lagos.
I grew up imbibing a lot of music. I also started attending music classes at age six. So, music has always been in my life. When I come home on holiday from Austria, I would attend concerts at the musical society. And I saw all these young musicians on stage with unbelievable talents. But you couldn’t really hear what they were playing or singing, because their instruments were not very good quality, and no one was grooming them. They were just playing. The musical society has a music school, so, they trained them; they get their diploma, and then what happens? It’s like a waste of resources. MTN funds the diploma school but many of them look for how to go abroad, so, it’s the same dream you have. But going abroad doesn’t solve the problem because the Whiteman doesn’t have space for you on his stage. He’s trying to put his own children on stage. So, Nigeria has to do the same for her children.
We have over a thousand creative and music graduates from universities in Nigeria, yearly, and we don’t have any stage in the country, there is nowhere for them to perform. There is just no outlet for these creative art graduates to create or display their art. Our foundation is creating that space.
So, what has been your experience with contemporary African classical music?
It has been amazing because a lot of people don’t know it exists. And I think this is something we’re working on: bringing light to the fact that African music is not just about one genre. It is multifaceted. And we have to expose this music, as it helps us understand our history more, as well as, provide direction. We’re using just one genre, the Afrobeat, to define our music, but there are lots more. And I think if the war hadn’t interrupted us, our highlife music would have been on fire at this point but it ended with the war. The Ghanaians were able to continue theirs, but the Nigerian highlife music is such a special genre and it’s a very sad thing that it was killed off.
Why is it difficult to get a space for your performances?
It’s because they (the government) haven’t taken it seriously, yet. I think that because we’re a dramatic people, we have become used to informal performances. They don’t understand we can actually make a business out of formal performances. I lived in Austria and their number one export is culture. People come from all over the world to watch their culture and this is a nation where their revenue first comes from culture, people coming to see the ‘sights and sounds’ of Austria. It’s 60 per cent of what they do. And it has reached the point where they can sell just the expression of their people and make so much money. And you have such a wealthy country based on this. But we don’t understand that this is actually a goldmine. Culture is a goldmine. Our foundation’s goal is a Lagos opera house. When you have something like this, you have an employer of labour and can employ thousands of these young graduates and provide avenue for industrial training in Engineering. And then you come to the performing arts. You have people behind the scenes who make everything work. These are engineers, visual people, you have cleaners and the culinary industry, dress making industry is attached as well and then the production team, videographers, cinematographers and all of them. Before you even come to the performance, you’ve employed thousands of people. So, as an employer of labour, it is very serious. This is what we are heading for, to get the Lagos government to pay some attention to what we are doing; to get some land from the state to establish this.
When did this idea occur to you to do something of this nature in Nigeria?
It happened in Vienna. It’s a very small city; I mean the whole of Austria is just eight million people. Vienna is jus two million. And every four kilometers you have a concert house or an opera house and yet, 10 percent of that two million are not interested. It’s just a very small number that is interested and yet, these places are full when they have events, which is every night. And this has to do majorly because of their tradition. So, as a people we have to look at it. Even Fela had challenges but today he is celebrated, widely. As a culture, we just don’t take musicians seriously, that’s my point. A lot of Afrobeat musicians are taken seriously in Africa now only because the foreigners take them seriously. That’s the truth. We like them, but people really began to see how big this thing could be when the foreigners began to take our people seriously. A guitarist is laughed at; a man who drums excellently is not given any mind. There are so many of us that are good at music but our people take it for granted. Here, we don’t understand the purpose of formalising it because we think everybody does it. So people have taken it for granted to the point where they no longer see the need to pay for it in situations such as ticketed events. We just need to make people understand that this is someone’s time, talent and energy that ought to be respected.
How do you feel when you notice the discouraging response Nigerians give to African classical music?
Well, people don’t know it exists. That’s the first thing. We’re the only ones who play it. People have to know to respond to it. And so far, the response has been very good. But we’re not yet funded, so, we can’t publicise as much as we would like. And so, we need that financial support that would help expose what this music is. Our African highlife is not played enough; it’s not part of our lives. The average Nigerian doesn’t know Fela Sowande. If you ask any Nigerian here, they know Fela Anikulapo Kuti, but they don’t know Sowande. But when you ask a Briton, they know Fela Sowande.
What do you think should be done to help understanding of African classical music?
Not everybody is interested in everything. I lived in Vienna, which is the music capital of the world. And yet, not even 10 per cent of their population is interested in classical music. They’re interested in other genres. It’s not for everybody; it has never been for everybody and will never be for everybody. It has always been for people who have an interest. It’s like visual art; it’s not for everybody. There are people who look at paintings and they see mountains and all manner of things. Then, there are also people who look at it and they think it’s colour on paper. That’s the way it is in life. There are people who read books; there are people, who prefer comics. The approach would be to introduce it into schools, and then, people who like it, to go for it. We used to have music in federal schools. The intention wasn’t that people become musicians. It was that people are exposed to it and the culture behind it. The idea is not to convert people. The idea is to make it available so that people are aware it exists and from there, you would have people who are avid followers and listeners. You would also have people who are not interested. I believe music has to be reintroduced in schools, but not western. My colleagues, who play in the orchestra now, they teach in schools. We are currently looking at the situation where we are able to change the books we use. Instead of using William Smallwood’s by British writers, we start to put our traditional African music into books.
What has been the challenge of getting funds?
Funding. I have funded it myself for the last five years with help from family, a little assistance from friends, as well. But we don’t have a place for the orchestra. I used to have my workshop where I sell instruments but with time, it became too small and I couldn’t keep it because of the rent. I could use the rent for other things like renting a space for us to have rehearsals because the group is a group of almost 50 musicians. So, we need a large space and that has been quite a challenge. Getting funding; because a few of the people we’ve spoken to were worried that we might get tired because it’s such a huge project. Before I left Vienna, I worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency in treasury, and then I worked at the Bank of Brazil in corporate governance. And I left all that to do this. I also thought of the financial implications, but if you think about it, you’ll never start and someone has to do this. So, all of my savings, pensions everything went into this for five years and we’re sitting here now.
Do you think of the source of funding when you are preparing for your concerts?
No. I got the funding from Music In Africa Life. I got the approval in August but the funding did not come through until February. It takes a very long process when you apply for funding. From QSL last year, we got the funding the week of the concert, although we had been working on it. Since November, I’ve been working on some sponsors for this concert and it takes along time for people to come back to you and you just have to keep at it. The idea is to get funding for a year so that we can look forward to the next year and the next two or three years such that we have fixed programmes that can run without interruption.
Nigeria had a national endowment on arts. Do you think it would have worked well for us if had planned it?
I’m sure. Because when we tried to get funding from abroad, all the funding you see is those of people funding their own cultural endeavours. In fact, for this concert, we had a bit of funding from the Music In Africa Life Foundation there in South Africa. The German Foreign Office, the German Simons Foundation, as well as Goethe Institute fund them. So, it’s quite sad. In our last concert we had sponsorships from QSL Gas and Power Company, a Nigerian company owned by Kunle Williams. It’s the very first time we had sponsorships. And now, getting this sponsorship on this scale, it’s a bit of support because it is useful and helpful in getting the concept of the brand.
How many of our own people are involved?
We have a lot. I know three people who are on this project but they are not published, yet. So, that is part of the work we’re doing, to get these books published. We are also looking at speaking with the Lagos State government to allow us to use of their youth centres to teach music. The idea is not to make musicians of children, but to have the place open once a week for children in the area, who want to come and learn something, piano, guitar, and drums. And from there, you’ll find people who are very talented and want to take it seriously. It is an awareness issue that we have no culture in our lives. We don’t have any. Entertainment is not culture. The showbiz is not culture. And that’s where our focus is right now; on showbiz, which is unfortunate because culture is never profitable in cash form. It is profitable in terms of image and the country’s national pride. It is also intangible and these are the things we are ignoring at the moment that we must turn our attention back to.
Do you have any plan of establishing your dream in a place such as Oregun where people in the neighbourhood can see and get interested?
No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to look for our audience and have an art exhibition somewhere like Alausa, for instance. We can also work in Surulere because it is a serious hub for young artists. You just have to go to your zone. And people in different pockets of places are interested in different things. It’s natural. So I can only have exhibitions where transportation for my musicians wouldn’t be an issue. We have to be very practical. I can’t send my musicians just anywhere because we are not funded so we need to be careful. If my musicians live in a particular area, that’s where we would do it. If they are going to give free classes, it has to be where they don’t have to travel very far. They also have their own challenges so we have to be reasonable about that. So, whatever we are doing we can only start in one place, we can’t spread ourselves firm. We start in Onikan for instance, at the youth center and say every Friday, between three and seven pm, The Vesta Orchestra gives free music classes. That’s the sort of thing we want to do. And then we move on from there when that gathers some attention. With that sort of thing, we can then have a performance at an Oregun theatre if we start that kind of program at a youth center in Ikeja. But not our concerts because that will not interest the people.
I understand that ticket sales sometimes don’t go up as much you need. Do you feel bad about this?
Everything takes time. We are going to have four concerts this year; January, April. October and December. I give the concerts enough space in between to give us time to get funding, gather sponsors, do rehearsals, and all of that. In 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, we were funded mainly from my own instruments workshop and from ticket sales. It adds up somehow because in between we’re hired for jobs. We perform at people’s events so that keeps the musicians going and replenishes my pockets as well.
What else do you think would facilitate the coming of The Lagos Opera House?
Well, the first step would be funding. When we’re funded to continue these concerts, we can as well fund the composition of works by contemporary African composers. We have some fantastic composers such as Seun Owuaje, Kehinde Oretimeyin who writes the music. We also have Gabriel Adedeji who I’ve mentioned before, a very young composer and some others from other parts of the country. So we ask them to compose works. Samuel Akpabot for instance, was the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission that commissioned these works that now have today. So, you have to pay these composers to compose and so it’s funding we need so that it can go in full swing as we gather the support we need. It’s a long road to a Lagos Opera House but we, at this point need to be able to have a space to continue our work.