Sir Victor Uwaifo… Epilogue of the legendary guitar boy
As if they saw his death coming, the Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON), had on March 6, 2020, hosted a grand birthday gig for the talented musician. At the event, the great lyricist, melody maker, multi-instrumentalist, sculptor, designer, performer per excellence, and the intellectual giant was decorated with the Grand Copyright Medal of Honour; the first time anyone anywhere has been so decorated. Organised as part of activities to mark Uwaifo’s 80th birthday, the ceremony attracted the high and mighty to his Superstar Highgate on Victor Uwaifo Avenue, Ekewan/College Road, Benin City. Before the actual decoration, there was a documentary on the life of the all-around creative genius and the presentation of a 600-page biography of the great Nigerian, authored by Prof. Muyiwa Peter Awodiya.
The presentation of a plaque and decoration with the Grand Copyright Medal of Honour was done by the celebrated former President of the Performing Musicians’ Association of Nigeria (PMAN) and current Chairman, Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON), Chief Tony Okoroji, who was supported by the gospel minister and COSON Board member, Kenny Saint Brown (KSB). At the event blessed by the Catholic Arch-Bishop of Benin, Most Reverend Augustin Obiora Akubueze, were several traditional rulers, professors, and academic dons, from across the nation, businessmen and, politicians. Also present were representatives of several institutions attended by the legend, such as the University of Benin, Yaba College of Technology, Western Boys High School, St Gregory’s College, Lagos, etc. There was also a bevy of media representatives at the event in which Prof Uwaifo performed a widely applauded version of his evergreen hit song and first African gold disc winner, Joromi, with the audience singing along.
Uwaifo who is easily the most educated and academically decorated performing artiste in the world has been invited to the State House by four Presidents and Heads of the State of Nigeria and has been the recipient of several national and international awards. In 1997, he was awarded the Certificate of Honor by the House of Representatives, Boston Massachusetts. He is documented in the Groove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Vol. 8. He is also documented in the Men and Women of Distinction in the Commonwealth, 1983.
Uwaifo has also been presented with a Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) Degree (Honoris) by the University of Benin; the Benin National Merit Award; the University of Benin Distinguished Alumnus Award and the National Honour of Member of the Order of the Niger by the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
In 2010, Prof. Uwaifo was one of the select Nigerians awarded the fellowship of the Nigerian Academy of Letters at a grand event at the University of Lagos. Uwaifo, who served as Commissioner for Arts, Culture and Tourism in Edo State of Nigeria between 2001 and 2003, was born on March 1, 1941, in Benin City. He attended Western Boys High School in his hometown and later, St Gregory’s College, Lagos. He subsequently proceeded to Yaba College of Technology, Lagos from where he obtained a National Art Diploma with distinction and shone as an outstanding athlete. He received a B.A Hons, First Class, Fine and Applied Arts from the University of Benin and a Masters’ Degree in Sculpting from the same university. He also obtained a Ph.D in Architectural Sculpture from the same university where he has been a Professor for several years. After the celebration, the late Joromi crooner spoke with MICHAEL EGBEJULE on his 80th birthday, his music career, and his journey to stardom and greatness. The interview, which was originally published in The Guardian of March 13, 2021, with the headline: Sir Victor Uwaifo… My journey to Stardom, greatness, is now being reprinted in celebration of the life and times of one of the greatest musicians out of Nigeria.
Sir, as you celebrate your 80th birthday, what would you consider your fondest memory?
THAT will be my childhood days; shooting catapult, getting birds down from the top of the tree, and flying kites. It was precision; it was something that gave me some fun and joy. At a time, a white man along the street stopped and admired what I was doing and he gave me a pound sterling.
What was it like during your childhood?
I was always calling the shots; I was known among my peers. I didn’t take the back seat; I was always taking the front seat. This question should be directed at my friends, let it not look like I’m just blowing my trumpet, but that’s the fact; people looked up to me. I go to Ikpoba River to swim; I taught myself how to swim. I will swim on weekends and wash my clothes; I dive from the bridge into the Ikpoba River. Childhood was fun; I didn’t see anything as a problem. Sometimes, I will act as a spirit; I was always trying new things while growing up.
Eighty years of your sojourn on earth, what’s that thing that is striking to you?
I was always trying new things. When there was no electricity, I would gather some batteries, punch both sides with nails, pour kerosene and I will connect both positive and negative together serially, and use a torchlight bulb and light will enter the house; it was fun. I was always experimenting. There are several of them, but these are the few ones I can remember right now.
At what point did you begin develop music skills?
Music runs in the blood and my family; my father had a gramophone. I made my first guitar at the age of 12; I used trap ropes for the strings, a sardine opener for the pegs, and spokes for the belts. I managed to produce some sound and I did it my own way until I tried it with some downtown guitarist – the palm wine bar. When I played my guitar, they played their own too; there was a variance. Their own was conventional, a kind of training, while mine was only my own way, my own style. Only I can play it. So, I had to learn their conventional guitar; it wasn’t easy learning. They asked me to buy a jug of palm wine, though I didn’t have the money, I had to look for the money to buy a jug of palm wine for them to learn the conventional guitar method.
My brother was a church organist and a lawyer too; he taught me the rudiments of music. I had to learn the rudiments of music. Like when bands will come from Ghana to play in Benin, bands like E.T Mensah, we go and watch the band from beginning to the end. I was mimicking the television style and different kinds of music with my guitar. The whole thing revolved around practice; there was more practice than perspiration.
It got to a point, my father was not comfortable with my guitar. At that time, guitarists or musicians were not people to actually reckon with, because they end up in the palm wine bar and go into womanising and all that. But I have a vision. My mother had to save my guitar when my father seized it and I promised that I would read my books. So, I got my guitar back until I gained entrance into a secondary school; I still have primary school result of 1955.
Another fond memory was that I used to ride a bicycle so much. There was a time I rode a bicycle from Abudu to Benin. My father was in charge of the building of Abudu Teachers Training College, so, I was in charge of taking stock. One weekend, I rode a bicycle alone from Benin to Abudu, but within that time, I had developed skills of playing guitar for almost two years. There was another driver who plays guitar; we use to play it together – then it wasn’t called a collabo, it was called a guitar compete or competition. So, that helped me a lot.
You are multi-talented; a writer, teacher, musician, sculptor, and philosopher. How have you been able to manage these things together?
It’s a matter of discipline, that’s the basic answer. Without discipline, I don’t think someone can be able to overcome the vices of life. First, I promised myself that I would not smoke; I have never smoked in my life. I have never touched a cigarette with my lips because musicians were known to be smokers, ‘drunkards’, womanisers and dropouts. I thought to myself, I would reverse all these things. I wanted to be an Avant-guard; I plotted my life. I was focused because I knew where I was going; I wanted to do what will give me joy. I was a sportsman, a bodybuilder, and a weight lifter. As a bodybuilder, there was a time I thought I could even stop a moving car.
At 80, you still look very agile, what’s the secret?
Life is physical, mental, and spiritual. The mental is that I exercise my mind; I read a lot. I have reached the peak of education; I have a PhD, there’s no other degree more than a PhD. Physically, I build as a sportsman, weight lifter, and body-builder. Thirdly, spiritually, I meditate a lot. I have a private chapel in my house. When you water a flower, it will blossom. If you don’t, it will wither. If you exercise your mind, it begins to grow. A man’s brain is like a balloon that expands. It appears that for 80 years, I have not used up to 80 per cent of my brain. Physically, I still exercise in walkouts till present. I have always been very careful of what I eat. I have one thing that keeps me going spiritually; anything you do in the secret that cannot be done in the open, don’t do it. I restrict myself to things that will not bring shame to my family or me. Apart from the Holy Bible’s ten commandments, I have my own commandments that keep me going.
What do you think is missing in the Nigerian music industry today from what it used to be in past?
The problem with Nigerian musicians today is that they don’t go through music apprenticeships. Everybody wants to make it in a hurry; it doesn’t work out like that. You cannot become a graduate without going to school; you cannot read and write without learning ABC to Z. You cannot also play music without also knowing the solfa notations – d, r, m, f, s, l, t, d! Twelve or thirteen notes make the whole music in the world; then 26 alphabets make all the constitutions. In ordinary mathematics, 0-9 makes the whole money in the whole world. Even in colours, only three primary colours make the whole colours.
So, in life, if you know the basic principles of life, then you now have to navigate other actions. If a man can use axiom to evolve the geometric structures of the world, man can also use esoteric axiom to evolve the intangible structures of the spiritual world.
Music is a spirit; when you hear it, it heals you; it moves you. I act, I see and I touch it and bring it to life. Most of these objects talk, but we don’t understand their language. The more you practice it, the more you become esoteric and privileged. A car needs somebody to start it. Everybody has his/her own talent, but you have to discover your talent early and know the way to go. In philosophy, I always tell people, don’t wait for your destiny to wake you up; wake up your destiny.
In our time, it was real music. I am still in this present time, so, I have seen it all. People should undergo music apprenticeship and learn the basics and rudiments of music. For example, if you want to go into carpentry or fashion, you must go somewhere and learn the job. Just like before becoming a lawyer, you must go to law school and learn. Everybody can argue, but that doesn’t make you a lawyer; you must go to law school. Everybody can sing, but that doesn’t make you a musician.
The young generation is too much in a hurry; they want money very fast. It doesn’t happen like that; you must learn and sustain it. Music is not only an apprenticeship but there is also business in music. I was the first to employ a manager in my time; nobody knew that you needed a manager to manage you, but I did it first. Technology has improved music in this generation. In our time, we played real music. I understand the rudiments of music – I play guitar, I play the flute, I play saxophone, I play tenor-saxophone, I play virtually all musical instruments.
I set up different bands; that’s business. Ebony Band, Vintage Band, Baba 20-10 Abuja… they are all my products. Technology has improved the quality of sound but has made musicians lazy. Its like, you have an exam, they set you a question and you have the answer on the reverse side of the question – its no more an examination; that’s what the computer is doing to music. Remove computer, these young musicians can’t play anything on their own.
Looking at the music industry today, do you think they have any message for their audience?
A few of them are good, but the majority of them don’t have anything. These days, with a computer, a dog can also be a musician. To sit to actually compose a message, melody that can even make someone weep; if you are in a sad mood, you become happy; if you are happy, you become happier; if you are alone and you want to meditate, you can meditate with good music. But these days, some music can distract you; that’s why classical music is different from the music of these days.
Music is kinetic; I tell people to stand up and play music in those days because I also stand up, I jump, I dance. I avoided cigarettes, narcotics, or any other drug because music is madness. So, if you add any other music to it, it becomes worse.
How about younger music artistes using your work without giving you credit?
You cannot use somebody’s work without giving that person credit, that’s copyright infringement. Just like duplicating the Naira note, that’s fake and counterfeit; it’s not allowed, the person will be arrested. I have music that has an intellectual property right; someone else will take it and duplicate it, that’s not proper.
I have a song Joromi. Joromi is a title and is also as a trademark. I coined it; it’s not a Benin word, we don’t have letter ‘J, K, Q, X’ in Benin. All Benin names or words start with vowel sound. So, if somebody goes at my back and records it and also calls it Joromi, that person is a thief and should be treated like that.
I sued singer Simi for using Joromi. I sued her to court and requested N5,000,000 and she invaded another of my song Duduke. Duduke is my song; she was not born when I did Duduke. So, she’s going in for that again. You don’t just invade me, try something else; form your own. Why going into my treasury to steal without permission or credit?
What’s your take on the state of affairs in the country, especially in the area of insecurity?
Insecurity is as a result of lopsidedness. When you don’t address issues from the grassroots, it starts to get out of hand. Every family is responsible for security, good upbringing. When things start going haywire, you cannot control anybody. People do whatever they like and the government itself did not give priority to security.
The problem of insecurity in Nigeria is corruption – that’s the common denominator. It started and blew out of hands. Nepotism and tribalism are also parts of the causes of insecurity. There’s hardly a middle class in Nigeria; it’s just the poor and the rich. Nobody is lazy; people get discouraged because of insincerity on the part of the government. Hard work pays, people should learn how to work. The heights that great men reached were not attained by sudden flights.
Do you subscribe to the call for restructuring of the country?
Yes, I subscribe to restructuring; time changes, and things change with time. Things have changed and the country should be restructured; lets call a spade a spade. Lets not depend on oil alone, what if the oil dries up? Restructure and let everybody work and contribute to the centre. There is too much concentration; you cannot be everywhere. There must be a kind of architecture to be able to take care of different aspects of governance; it’s not something that we need to flog or over-flogged. It’s better late than never.
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