‘Music is lifeless without emotions, reason classical is hardly growing in Nigeria’
Ayodeji Mayowa Oluwatosin Ajayi well known as Ayo Ajayi has carved a niche for himself in music and theater, having directed some of the best musical-theatre performances in Nigeria and abroad. The executive director of Declassical Arts & Entertainment, a leading arts and entertainment hub, spoke to DANIEL ANAZIA on his journey from being a beneficiary of the MTN Foundation MUSON scholarship to musically directing big musical-theater performances like Saro, Fela: Arrest the Music and many more.
Tell us about yourself and journey into music and theatre?
I’m the executive director of Declassical Arts & Entertainment, a leading arts and entertainment hub where you daily experience live music and theater. I was born into a family of people who love music. My father is a multi-instrumentalist, who featured in many of the gospel records of his generation, while my mother plays the violin, sings and directs a children’s choir. I joined a musical group called Rising Stars, led by Tosin Adejumo at a very young age and this is where my musical development became rapid. The real deal, however, was when I attended CMS Grammar School, Lagos. The history of that school and her products is quite intimidating. Almost all the geniuses, pioneers and professional leaders in Nigerian history attended this institution. For me, the stories of Fela Sowande and Art Alade triggered some chords in me, hence the real passion was ignited and the story since then has been up and on, in the words of our famous school song. I’m privilege to be the producer of Ununcha the Musical for the Face of Okija 2017, GULA and Fela: Arrest the Music. I’m also an MTNF/MUSON Scholar; President of MUSON School Alumni Association, music director of Voices & Chords and the Assistant Organist at Christ Apostolic Church, Yaba.
You were on set of some big projects, Wakaa and Saro The Musical. How did you land the role and what exactly did you do as musical director?
Saro the Musical was and remains one of the biggest projects to have come out of Nigeria. A big thank you to Bolanle Austen-Peters for bringing me onboard the project. While trying to create this fan favourite musical, we had no Nigerian template to replicate. I remember we were watching Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and some other musicals just to get a much-needed structure. As the musical director, I had to research and find or write songs that are suitable for each of the scenes, arrange the scores to blend seamlessly into the scenes, which are not easy tasks to perform. The work of a musical director in Nigeria is broad. Most producers do not understand that they need songwriters, orchestrators and so on. The Nigerian musical director is responsible for all these complex duties. Same it was with Saro but I am glad I did all that because the experience has really helped in my personal productions.
What are the challenges you have encountered working on projects as musical director?
The first hurdle I had to cross being a musical director was organising a team of musicians who will give life to the theatre performance. This I set out to do by inviting friends who would share in the vision of the producer and who has enough expertise to transport their musical knowledge into the theatre sphere. At first, many of them struggled to adapt to the rigours of theatre being session men who got paid by the hour. Another challenge was trying to interpret and express what you play in relation to a scene playing out in front of you. This requires great mental coordination and a high level proficiency on the instrument. Unfortunately these are just the two major things that most Nigerian musicians lack but I was able to gather a team of professionals who adapted in very little time. So we put together the best crop of musicians well suited to theatre in the country and they have been irreplaceable till date.
What major productions have you been involved with?
Aside directing music for theater, I have three productions that I have produced — Fela: Arrest the Music, which showed at the MUSON festival 2016 and African International Film Festival (AFRIFF) same year; GULA that I jointly produced with Tunde Oduwole in 2017 and Ununcha the Musical, which I produced for the Obijackson Foundation at the Face of Okija 2017 in Anambra State. Ununcha the Musical and GULA will be coming back on stage later in the year. At the preview of Saro the Musical, I remember one of the invited celebrities was just so thrilled with the music theme. I was home one morning when I saw Mrs. Austen-Peters’ call to tell me how everyone including her husband and daughter seem to be exhilarated at the sensational Saro theme song. Aside that I have directed music in many productions to date; my greatest joy is that I have been able to leave an indelible mark in this space. I hear many lovely theme songs in the style of film scores today and I look back at when we started, there was practically nothing like it.
What is the meeting point between music and theatre?
Music and theatre have a lot in common but I think all aspiring musicians should be made to study Performance Theatre; it improves stagecraft and expression. Music is lifeless without emotions and that is one reason why classical music is hardly growing in this part of the world. Most classical musicians and others do not even feel the pieces they play; sometimes you would think they are robots. Theatre helps you with flexibility and understanding, understanding yourself, your environment and then your music.
Do you think the school curriculum in Nigeria gives adequate attention to music?
Some years back, I was teaching at a school in Lekki and the students always love to attend my classes but it was not so for the other music teachers. The principal one day, called me to know what special powers I wielded to make the troublesome but intelligent children seat attentively in my class and even participate while learning was ongoing. I explained to her how the school’s lesson plan drawn from the curriculum is largely ineffective, mechanical, boring and distasteful. She had me draw up a new lesson plan, which I did. Unfortunately she could not effect it mainly because the powers that be considered it an anomaly, obviously because they could not teach it. I left the school after seven months, came back to MUSON to teach. I left the teaching scene in secondary schools specifically some five years ago, so I do not know what the present curriculum is like, but the former was not as terrible as we always paint it. The curriculum cannot help much if the teachers are not well grounded in the subject matter. Many of the teachers focus mainly on classroom music, which in itself is an exercise in futility. We need to encourage our teachers to be more hands-on, more research minded. This will help them in coming up with an all-inclusive lesson plan that will take care of both theory, practical and fieldwork. Music is practical; the theories are there to aid a better understanding of the practice.
How did you get to know about MTN Foundation/MUSON Scholarship opportunity?
I have attended some institutions before the MUSON Diploma program started but I did not find fulfillment. I met a guy by name Stephen Olarinde, who was later my classmate. Although he is late, he was a choirmaster of a Catholic Church. I was training him and his members and also preparing them for MUSON certificate examinations. Agatha Ibeazor was a member of that choir I was training, she also came in to the programme a year after us. Stephen heard about the MTNF scholarship first and then notified me and I applied.
How would you describe your experience while undergoing the diploma programme at MUSON?
I passed my entrance examination into the MUSON diploma school, having performed excellent in my theory and practical auditions, but failed woefully in history like all other pioneer students. There was a moment of silence, no communication; I presumed the school was scared of telling us how much we were to pay as tuition. There about 25 of us who had made it to the final selection, and we thought the programme was just a mirage. But later that same month, news started spreading that the course would go on because MTN Foundation has decided to pay for the programme. It sounded too good to be true at first but at the same time was skeptical that who would wake up in our society and pay other people’s children school fees. To our surprise, it happened and we got the best tutelage without travelling aboard.
As president of the alumni association, what are some of the activities you engage in as alumni?
We started a programme for schools called ‘Concert for Stars’. This programme brings students from schools in a certain locality to converge at one venue and perform together with members of the alumni. We have done three editions at Pinefield School, Kings College and Halifield College. But like every other good innovation, the project requires sponsorship. We believe in the future of these children, especially if they get the right exposure from young age, it would help correct the anomaly in the music industry.
What was your most memorable experience in MTNF-MUSON Alumni Valentine Concerts?
Two events happened last year before the show that stands out. I was listening to our celebrity soulful saxophonist, Perpie play I will always love you during her rehearsals, and the sound did not come across the way I’m used to hear her sound; I knew something was wrong. I called her to replace the tenor saxophone she was playing with to the more sonorous soprano saxophone I know she had gotten used to. At first, she objected but knew that would mean both of us objecting. She reluctantly had to drive all the way home to get her soprano sax and her performance became the highlight of the event as her sound transported people to realms beyond where love is inherent. The second was at MUSON where we are more at home with our conservative concerts, but last year we did a total revamp of the concert from aesthetic value to the nature of content, which now includes performances like the spoken word and dance. We thought we were being radical but even the MUSON board commended us for the initiative. Thanks to my team that include Raphael Francis, Perpetual Atife and Joshua David.
You studied computer science, how has this enhanced your interest in music?
When we started working on Saro the Musical, we had to think about new possibilities of getting clean, crisp sound for the production, unlike the regular theater speech amplifications. It was really challenging, as many of the things we were taught in school were more of theoretical than practical, and I had even forgotten 70 percent of it. This was a new job and a vacuum needed to be filled, not just by anybody but someone who had in-depth knowledge. The responsibility automatically fell on me and my understanding helped a lot because I was able to communicate effectively the desires and expectations of the production crew in the right language to the technical crew. This kick-started the era of good, effective sound for theater productions at Bolanle Austen-Peters Productions and other production companies that embraced the new order.
So for me, choosing the sciences was not a mistake. I still apply the knowledge to date in my recording studio and my productions.
How in your opinion can government and the society encourage youths to make a career out of music and theatre?
To stage a musical in Nigeria, you need at least a budget of about N30,000,000. There are many beautiful productions rotting in the minds of the carriers for lack of funds. The politicians have failed to put the necessary infrastructures in place for the promotion of arts and theatre. I went to the Theatre of her Royal Majesty at the Westend to see the Phantom of the Opera and some other musical shows, (special appreciation to the chairperson of Declassical, Oluwatoyin Hassan-Odukale for making it happen) I was not only sad but I was angry in my spirit at the same time. We don’t have proper theaters in the Nigeria, we lack infrastructure and an individual cannot put these things together because they are really expensive. I think the government and the private investors need to help invest in infrastructure in order to make theatre more appealing and more believable. Beside the government, I also think many corporate organizations can also contribute a great deal. Musical theatre is the real deal, invest in it and help both big and evolving production companies grow.
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