‘Music is a powerful tool for creating awareness, changing mindsets’
VENO MARIOGHAE-MBANEFO’s hit song ‘Nigeria Go Survive’ was an anthem back in the days, but she soon left the music scene and a vacuum created. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, she fills in the missing link since she left the scene and update on her current engagements, artistically
You were quite a musical item back in the days with your hit track ‘Nigeria Go Survive’ that was an anthem, and ‘Wha ti yo’ and a few others. Could you recall those years and your career?
Despite my great love for music, the funny thing is that I got nudged into professional music by my crusading spirit, rather than by any desire to become rich or famous.
As a result, although I felt a fulfillment in being able to give expression to my take on the socio-political issues of our country, I did not and still do not enjoy all the “perks” of a celebrity’s life.
I love a quiet, simple life, with close family, friends and plenty of books in it! I wasn’t your typical celebrity. But I did enjoy singing my message, and I worked with some really nice and gifted people in the industry.
I learnt a lot about the art of lead and back-up singing and lyrical arrangements, for example, from my late producer and elder brother-figure, the amazingly gifted and super professional, Jake “Solo” Okonkwo, who was also a member of the renowned band, Osibisa. I also loved the fact that my songs helped our people in one way or the other.
And then you left the music scene completely after those hits. What exactly happened to you? What took you away from music?
You never really go away from music when it’s in your DNA. However, there are things that require you to prioritize. I am very, very big on family ties and I had made a promise to myself that I would take time out to raise my children.
I wasn’t going to leave them to a nanny or someone else to do what I should do. I didn’t want to wake up one day to find my children exhibiting behaviour that I couldn’t explain.
As it is, parenting is not easy street; even the best parents get to a point where their children begin to behave bewilderingly contrary to all they’ve been taught.
You can imagine how much worse it can be when someone else parents your children for you. I am glad that I implemented that decision, with my husband’s support.
I can’t say that I have all the answers on good parenting, or that I have had 100 per cent success. But I am grateful to God for how far He has brought us.
How has life been with you outside music? Or indeed, what have you been doing since you left music?
I haven’t left music at all, but I did leave entertainment music. For some time now, I have been putting a gospel CD together. I won’t rush it, but it’s coming along nicely.
I want to be sure that it is exactly how God wants it, because, again, the whole point of it is not to make a name or money, but to speak the heart of Christ in song to the people. I have worked in the print media in editorial capacities.
I am also a writer, newspaper columns, fiction, television and movie scriptwriting, and poetry. I also teach Public Speaking and English Elocution, and do audio transcriptions and book editing as well. My life basically revolves around these things. I am absolutely passionate about writing.
Is there a possibility you’d step out from your retirement and make music again?
I am definitely not retired; I just won’t sing for entertainment. As long as there are serious things to sing about, I will continue to sing. That is not to say that I am a boring, old fuddy-duddy with no sense of humour at all.
I actually have a very strong sense of humour and tend to spot the comedic very quickly. And like the next person, I like to let my hair down too, but in a way that does not contradict my faith.
Having said that, I would like to add that music is a very powerful tool for creating awareness, agitating for causes and changing mindsets and the status quo for good, and for correcting destructive patterns of behaviour – be it individual, communal or global. Where oratory cannot reach, music can. It’s not a tool that you can afford to discard or ignore when you have something important to say. So, yes, I will continue to sing!
You may not have made music for many years now, but you must have followed trends so far. What has Nigeria lost or gained musically since you left the scene?
Let’s start with the gains: Nigerian artistes have gained an appreciable level of global recognition and exposure.
It is so much easier now with the level of technology available that enables one to reach the ears, communication devices and living rooms of people many countries and many continents away. The remuneration is also pretty mind-boggling; a very far cry from what obtained only a couple of decades ago.
As for the losses: digital technology has helped to present wanna-be musicians with no creative abilities whatsoever, as the real deal. And because they somehow get fleeting popularity, the ones with the true talent feel constrained to water down their artistry in order to also reap part of the financial gains and fame that the others are getting.
The fall-out of this is that we now hear mindless, meaningless lyrics, some kind of musical cloning, with one artiste sounding almost exactly like a million others, and a lot of sexual and rowdy dancing onstage and in videos, in order to sell their music. You don’t hear many memorable songs nowadays.
Comparatively, how would rate the music coming out of the players on the scene?
I would say that some are good, but many more are bewildering and forgettable. That is not to say that we were all musical geniuses in our time. There are some reasons why musical creativity has nose-dived somewhat in Nigeria.
Firstly, even though we have digital studios now, the quality of their output is lightweight compared to music recorded in analogue studios years ago.
So, I think we’re getting something wrong. We ought to marry both technologies, as some internationally acclaimed artistes do, in order to get the right sound.
Digital technology has also birthed producers who are one-man studio squads; once the producer can play the keyboard, he falls for the temptation of playing all other instruments by himself, from the keyboard.
This limits the scope of creativity, which can be much richer, with the different flavours that the drummer, bassist and percussionist would normally bring to the work.
This, in turn, limits the singer, who is denied the creative opportunity to be inspired by the individual instrumental interpretations.
I know that some of the new and younger artistes would probably scoff at what I’m saying and put it down to an old school thing. But I’m no dinosaur, thank you!
There are some artistes who are upping the ante in their creativity and many others with the potential to do more enduring and meaningful work out there; they should not uphold a faulty trend.
They should be bold and produce work that will stand the test of time. And the main element of such a work is the ability to strike a deep chord in the heart of its listeners from one generation to other.
What areas of improvements would you recommend for music makers on the scene?
Produce professional, meaningful, clean and inspiring music and don’t be afraid to be different; your stubborn, positive difference would become a lasting trend. Find a way to make technology work even better for you.
Innovate and don’t be too fixated on following the crowd. Let your talent count; the gift of music is a precious thing from God. Understand the power of music and use it for good.
Back in the days, your music spoke to the Nigerian situation and encouraged patriotism, particularly ‘Nigeria Go Survive.’ What would you say informed your creative vision at the time?
I witnessed and enjoyed Nigeria’s glory days, which, really, was not that long ago; when we didn’t need visas to travel to countries like the U.K., which is the head of the Commonwealth countries, of which Nigeria is still a member, but sadly, now a member with some lost crucial privileges.
It was the time that employers came to the campus to recruit the brightest and you had a job with car and accommodation waiting for you after your youth service year. It was a time that you were not assailed by the noise of generators and fumes.
It was a time that you did not have to break the bank to travel out on holidays abroad, and living abroad did not hold a lure for you, because Nigeria was more than sufficient for us, and we were not a nation known globally for desperate lawlessness.
It was a time that Federal Government schools were really special and admitted students on merit; a time that corruption, although not absent, was not the rabid virus that it has become. It was a time that food was not as big a deal as it is now.
Suddenly, everything changed; no jobs, no perks, no hope. Nigerians, the quite pampered big brother to Africa and Africa in diaspora, became a place where people had to queue up to be able to buy essentials like soap and milk. We didn’t know what hit us and had no clue how to cope or get out.
And we had slid into the foolishness of becoming a one-product export nation in spite of all the abundant mineral and agricultural resources we had and still have. My heart bled for our people and I needed to remind them and myself that it wasn’t over for us with all we have.
Would you sing a song like that again if you were to make music?
Most definitely, yes!
Fast-forward to the present, what would you say went wrong with the Nigerian psyche that makes that patriotic spirit impossible?
Simply put, it’s the fall-out of self-serving leaders, who have used ethnic and religious differences as tools to feather their own political and financial nests.
And a people who refuse to analyze, question or listen to the voices of reason, but allow themselves to be carried away in a mindless, unreasoning frenzy of hate and prejudice. We never learn and we keep allowing the vicious cycle to continue with each fresh election.
Until we start thinking clearly, objectively and making informed political choices, I am afraid that the spirit of patriotism will remain elusive.
You were also a philosophical singer. A track like ‘Wha ti yo’, for instance, is deeply philosophical and cultural. Do you still hear songs like that with depth and pathos?
On the Nigerian music scene, such songs are pretty rare now. But there are a few out there that are thought-provoking and deep. In the gospel genre, there are quite a lot of really amazing songs that just take your spirit and soul to a beautiful place. However, even in this genre too, you also find a lot of songs that leave you cold. I guess it all depends on the personal depth of character and understanding of the writer and singer.
How did you get into music in the first place and your journey to stardom at the time?
When I was at University in Jos, the phones were analogue and heavily subject to the whims of the weather. And letters either painfully crawled their way across the country, or got dumped on top of refuse by recalcitrant post office deliverymen.
And so, as a student totally dependent on your parents, your desperate cry for more pocket money was not likely to reach their ears and get you a response as quickly as you wanted. Fortunately, NTA Jos had music and variety programmes that had room for people like me.
So, one of my friends, Emmanuel Alhassan, who had a little goje-like guitar and could do some mean back-up singing, struck up a partnership that was largely fuelled by the empty student pocket syndrome.
NTA would take us to Shere Hills, by beautiful mini waterfalls and we would sing our hearts out, and those wonderful people, like Fred Chagu, would pay us enough to hold us until our pocket money got to us.
Before long, I was singing at English Department and Arts Faculty events. Even during my youth service in Kaduna, I would still go back to Jos to sing. With an embargo on employment, I got into doing studio back-ups under the tutelage of Jake “Solo” Okonkwo, for recording artistes from every part of the country.
I was very busy and made a very decent living. Then, Roy Obika of the Esbee Family fame and Jake “Solo” teamed up to sign me on their LookHear Records label, with Tabansi Records handling the marketing. And the rest, as they say, is history!
In what areas of artistry are you currently engaged?
Scriptwriting, songwriting and singing… I cook, too, artistically, of course!