Professor Victor Uwaifo (MON) remains one of the few Nigerians who took their genius as musicians beyond the shores of Africa. A successful sculptor, an adored guitarist, a fecund composer and a university don, Uwaifo’s life is a rare blend of talents. In this interaction with KEHINDE OYETIMI, the maestro speaks on life at 72, his marriage and his career, among others. Excerpts:
You said that what inspired one of your greatest hits was your encounter with a mermaid locally called Mammy water at the Lagos beach. When last did you visit that particular place?
I don’t think it has a house. Going back there is not a problem. I have been there before. I went there when I went to shoot some films some few years back. It was the encounter with the mammy water that gave birth to the song Guitar Boy. It is almost 50 years after the song was written and it is enduring. It is very evergreen. It pushed me up after the production of Joromi. The succession of the hits continued; the repertoire is long and unending.
Are you not thinking about collaboration with the ilk of your generation, especially Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Ade and others who have contributed immensely to the history of Nigeria’s music?
I have done some music collaborations with some of these young ones. People like Tuface, Dare Art Alade. Some other artistes and saxophonists were in the production. We did a remix of Joromi. When you listen to it, you will be able to draw comparisons between the one I did many years ago and the one that I just produced with them. It was a different rendition of that classic song.
But don’t you get bothered about the quality of music that is being produced by many of these young artists?
They should go and learn how to play musical instruments. My problem with them is that they do not know how to play these instruments. But again I must say that the modern day music has improved the quality of recording. I am not talking about the quality of the content of the music but advancement in technology has given birth to the technical quality of the recording. In those days, it was just a monologue. A band had to be present; that showed how versatile the musician was expected to be. You were not allowed to make mistakes when you were performing live with your band. If you did, there would be consequences. The performance was more tasking, more rigorous. If you made a hit, you made it but if you didn’t, you didn’t. It was a period of spontaneity and expertise. You were expected to know what you were doing. It graduated from track recording (stereo) to multi-track. Today what we find is Digi-track. One person can single-handedly produce a track without the assistance of any other person. That is what advancement in technology has given today. All the percussions have been imputed; all he needs to do is to know the right sound combination and before you know, a musical track has been produced. Anyone can produce music given your knowledge of the computer. But that does not make you a musician.
How are you coping with all these?
The effect of this is that it makes those who claim to be musicians very lazy. In those days when we embarked on live performances, each member of the band was expected to be very familiar with his instrument. A mistake was not tolerated. Every member of the band mattered. It was a unity of production. Making a mistake could cost the entire band more damage than could be imagined. In those days when I started, we had no access to keyboards; you were expected to produce sounds that were similar to those of the piano. That was how live bands were known. We travelled far and wide. We went on road shows. When these young one started, they started badly. They were miming to CDs. Sometimes you will see the deficiencies in the recordings. When they go out to perform, the DJ will play something different from what the artist has requested, and then you will see the artiste get angry and start quarrelling. You don’t quarrel with music. That is the difference between my generation and what you see today. But people do not know this. I wish they really know. It is like cheating in the examination hall. A candidate who is not prepared for the examination is associated with answer sheets during the examination. He doesn’t know what to write but he has the answers somewhere. He writes what he is given and then he passes. That is what these young ones who call themselves musicians do with the computer and the resources of technology. That is the nearest equivalent that I can give.
Soon I will play all the categories of the seven guitars that shaped my life as a guitarist. I will play the classical guitar, the double neck guitar, the magic guitar, the revolving guitar, the AK-47 guitar, the electric acoustic guitar and the keyboard guitar in one rendition.
The way I have tried my best in encouraging them is that I still run a music school—Victor Uwaifo Music Academy—through which we recently graduated some students.
Many people recall that Joromi was a hit. How much did you make and what did you do with the proceeds?
The sale was not immediate but after six months, it sold in millions. Almost 50 years after, it still sells in the millions. If the distributor refused to order from the record company, it would be difficult to sell. There have been demands inside and outside Africa and that has been the reason for the huge sales. But to ask me what I did with the money will be difficult to answer. All I remember doing was to re-invest in my musical equipment. I bought vehicles to travel for performances.
What kind of parents shaped your growth?
I come from a middle upper class family. My father was in business after serving as a civil servant for some time. He retired and became a full contractor. My mother was a full time housewife. I come from a polygamous home. I was the last but one out of 13 children. I was number 12 on the line. Music runs in our blood. Many of my siblings were good at music. I have siblings who are judges, engineers, teachers, all that. There was a time that we formed the Uwaifo Quartet. I happened to be the guitarist. One late Mr Emmanuel Fadaka would come from Ibadan to Benin to record our performances. Our voices were heard in the 50s on the radio.
How did your parents feel when they heard you guys on the radio and what pranks did you play as a child?
Even though my parents liked music, they weren’t quite comfortable when I was taking the guitar too seriously and beyond the house. I was less than 12 years old when I started playing. In those days guitarists and palm wine drinkers were viewed together and seen as layouts. Guitarists usually ended up in bars, drunk. It was not a thing that a parent would like the child to end up in. But I proved them wrong even in their graves. I promised that I would make them proud. I was doing well in school. I was a sportsman. I led my school in the high jump. I was very proactive. As a child, I was very creative. I have taken that creativity to adulthood. I have just invented another guitar. It is called AK-47. I invented it about two weeks ago. It is crafted in the form of a gun but it is a guitar.
I played pranks as a child. I knew very early that spirits wore white. I would take my father’s white bedsheet and place it over my body. I would sidle into crowds in the night and when they saw me they would all run, thinking that it was indeed a spirit. A day came when a man suspected a foul play with the spirit who usually came out in the moonlight evenings. He hid himself away from the crowd that night and watched me. I had put on the white bed sheet and I was moving to the crowd. Everybody ran away as usual but the man would not run. He had come closer. When I saw that he was not running but moving towards me, I ran away.
You made distinctions as a student at the Yaba College of Technology and a First Class at the University of Benin. Was it just genius or hard work?
My greatest enemy is a failure. The failure goes with fear. I did my best to conquer failure. I went the extra mile. I was not out to make a first class. I didn’t want the young ones in the class to see me as an unserious person. So I did more than everybody else. I just ensured that I did my best. The same thing also played out at the Yaba College earlier.
It is very common to find young artists today who are unable to manage fame. They are promiscuous; their father many children from different women. You celebrated long years of your marriage to your wife. You don’t have more than one wife. How were you able to avoid all these?
It is a discipline. A stick of cigarette has never touched my lips. I don’t drink. The music is enough intoxicating. How can you add alcohol to music? You will go mad. There is youthful exuberance. For me, I regarded discipline as the most important thing in my youth. I don’t have any child outside my matrimony and I will never. All my children were from my wife. It gives me peace of mind. There are many distractions.
You look very energetic at 72. What is the secret?
Time runs after me. I take the lead which is why I am always busy and have something to occupy my time. Time wasted is time murdered. I can’t rest now. If I rest, my talent will go to rest.
How often do you get inspired and what inspires you?
Inspiration is like sound waves and vision. When in tune with your extra perception, it sends the right signals into your brain box. God is the ultimate creator and artist. I am just a tool of implementation. Music is an interpretation of many vibrations of sound arranged in harmony, pleasant to the ears and companion to man both in times of joy and distress.