‘The Revelation Tourist Palazo Museum Is My Modest Contribution’
Nigeria’s iconic musician, writer, sculptor, musical instrument and car inventor, Sir Victor Uwaifo, celebrated his 75th birthday last Tuesday, March 1, 2016. He also served as commissioner for Arts, Culture and Tourism in Edo State. Uwaifo is famous for pioneering Joromi music and had 12 golden record awards in a career that has spanned decades. His best-known songs ‘Guitar Boy’ and ‘Mami Water’ were instant big hits. Uwaifo spoke with ANOTE AJELUOROU at his Ekenwa residence in Benin City
What drives you on? What keeps you on your feet as an artist and inventor?
I’m a restless person from childhood. There must be something I want to do. It is like the time is too slow for me. So, time runs after me. I have enough jobs to occupy the day but the day is sluggish. I have enough jobs to occupy the whole of this week but this week is not coming forth. It comes after 24 hours. I think that most things that happen are sluggish and it gives me a sense of a different thing to do next if things are not happening the way they should. The way I look at life is in a different perspective.
I thank God for all the talents that he has given me. I consider it as a gift. You cannot pay God with ingratitude. It is ingratitude if God has given you so much and you let them waste instead of using them to the benefit of mankind when there are people who do not have as much as you. It is like the parable of the talents in the bible where one was given five talents, another two and the last one. The person who had one talent buried his own. The one who was given two made a little account and the one that was given five made so much. From the little that one has it was taken from him and given to the person who had so much.
To me, it was so much injustice to the person that was given only one talent, and until I grew up and started seeing so much talent around me that I understood what it meant. If you have so much and you cannot account for it, it is ingratitude to God. If you have little and you cannot account for even the little that you have,it is ingratitude also. But if you have so much and you are able to multiply them, God will be so happy with you. It is the same thing with parents of this world. When you have children who are doing so well you will want to encourage them. The one that is not doing well, you encourage him also.
You said you were restless right from childhood. Can you give us a picture of the kind of childhood you had?
As a child I was a leader, as my peers always looked up to me. I wish you could run into any of them. I was always leading them in games and hunting adventures, like going to the bush to shoot catapult.
So you were a good catapultist?
Now, I know what it means to be a good catapultist. If you are able to bring down a small bird from the top of an Iroko tree, then you have this sense of position and probability because you can win. By the time you shoot you are still going to get it.
It is all about mathematical calculations. You can apply such calculations whenever you come across certain things because you have already learnt that at a very young age. It is not shooting catapult when you grow up, but in business and other things and you begin to win. That if I do it this way, you can apply all those things even playing game – ludo game, draft. When you play draught, it is either you win or you lose. To lose means somebody has better calculation than you and if you win it means you are better off. The ideas and experiences you get from ludo and drafught games will help you in life and in future when you grow up. It takes a good mathematical calculation. You will be able to do all these things.
So, you can use the talent and experience of playing draft in business, in academics or whatever you do. I, too, was a good high jumper when I set a school high jump record before I proceeded to St. Gregory College, Lagos and I also have a record there. So you will be able to jump over a bar and come out as the winner of that event. And at a time I was doing a kind of calculation when the bar was getting higher and higher. It was a phenomenon. After I have jumped I will take up my guitar and play. I started playing when I was 12 years old. I made my first guitar with plywood.
I also found a small group in those days called ‘Edo Songstars’ when I was still in the primary school. Then one Mrs. Esohe Jacobs, an Honourable member of House of Assembly was a member, then Gilbert, a retired Director in the Ministry of Information and one other lady, Mrs. Esther Osaghae. We used to assemble at one upstairs not too far from my house then and I called it ‘Omonife’ where we rehearsed. We went there and did a few songs; then people liked us. That was leadership, too. I was able to gather a few people around and we where singing in the ‘Edo Songstars.’ It was like a palm wine dance but it was fun. So when you are a leader you can feel it from childhood. Sometimes, you are at home and friends come around you; you have so many friends but there is something in you that they are interested in – love, attraction, a kind aura that goes with you.
Looking at your tenure as Commissioner for Culture and Tourism in Edo State, what would you describe as your most challenging moment?
I have told you before; there is nothing challenging in life. Once you have a challenge it is an advantage; any adversary in one’s life bears an equivalent benefit. Any adversary or disappointment in one’s life holds opportunity. So, I do not look at anything as most challenging. There is nothing like most challenging and there is never an end to anything that is most challenging. My tenure was very eventful. There was nothing like a new Museum for Arts, Culture and Tourism anywhere in Nigeria. I was the first person who started in Edo State in 2000. The ministries were different before my tenure. The Ministry of Information was different from the Ministry of Arts; the Ministry of Arts was different from the Ministry of Culture and so on. It was like that in the whole of Nigeria. It was during my time that those three were joined. I trained as an artiste. I did my first degree in sculptor at the University of Benin, Benin City. I made First Class. It was something very outstanding. I also did my Masters degree. So when I became commissioner, they graded the Ministry for Arts, Culture and Tourism. The office was at the Oba Cultural Complex. It was not completed. So, it was in my time that I completed it and made it functional.
The Egun World Heritage Site was a bare road. It was during my time I designed a gate for it and we used interlocking tiles. We worked on the Ososo site at Igarra. It is not as if we had money at our disposal. We were just funding these things with little or nothing. I also used my expertise to get most things done.
These days most countries of the world depend on their tourism for survival like The Gambia, South Africa, Kenya, etc. One would have expected that Edo State with its rich culture would have been a centre where people will be trouping in from all over the world to experience these things for which Edo is renowned. Are you comfortable with the apparent cultural inactivity in the state?
The ball is not in our court. The onus is Nigeria’s. If Nigeria has not invested enough in the culture sector, Edo State alone cannot do it. I have done my own bit. My museum which is called the Revelation Tourist Palazo Museum is an embodiment of everything you can find in Benin City. What else do you want me to do? It is for the government to take over from there. Do the publicity and let the whole world know about this and the tourism traffic will flow. Since you are looking for a tourist destination, you have to make it known to the world.
Edo State does not have any carnival like Cross Rivers does. It was not the Federal government that did that for Cross Rivers.
In Edo State we have Igue Festival. That is an embodiment of Edo culture. Doing a carnival is a different ball game. We are planning something this year. We are already talking with the Commissioner for Arts and Culture, but the musicians in Edo State will put together a kind of festival. We must let the government know what we are doing so that there will be no clash of interest. It is going to be more of musicals. It is going to be musical drama and dance that we are putting together. But the Nigerian government has to do more about publicity. There must be a channel through which the people all over the world will know that we have so many outlets and tourist destinations. They must draw a calendar for people who are coming so that there can be a network. One could go to Lagos, then move to Benin City and then move to Calabar and other places. By so doing the economy will also grow as traders by the roadside, truck pushers, hotels and every other person involved in any economic activity will make their money.
You gave Nigerians, Africans and the world your unique kind of music Joromi, just like Fela also gave Afrobeat. There seems to be a break in continuity, as no young musician is really playing Joromi the way you did it with the young ones doing a totally different kind of music. Why is this so?
All along I have been preaching to the world that people should learn how to play musical instruments and they should do live performances. I have lived five lives and from the 1940s till now, there have always been different kinds of musical orientations. In the 1940s, we had the Jazz and the Swing. But before then we had all kinds of orchestra music; reggae came and within a short period we had Makosa. Before we knew it there was hip-hop and the youths embraced it. Hip-hop is digital music and digital music is not real music. It is supposed to be a demo. You can use it as a demo to know what you want to do but it became the music itself. You do not even have to be talented to do digital music. It is plastic. It is just the sound. If they perform it live, you will see something very different. That is where we are different from hip-hop artistes. They should also learn how to play musical instruments.
I have had a musical school for over 20 years. The music I teach has better quality because it is digital. It is a kind of advantage to the old monophonic thing of those days. In those days we had black and white pictures. There was nothing like coloured pictures. I am only trying to draw analogy between the past and the present. Everything that has an advantage has a disadvantage. Today, the young ones are now trying to borrow from our past musical works to give their work a new interpretation. All said and done, we might not continue to complain/compare because, the advantage Nigeria has is that every young one has got a place.
Instead of them roaming the streets, they are doing something meaningful. We cannot say they should pack up or leave the stage. We can only advise them to give (form) flesh to the kind of music they are playing now. Let it have some African touch. Otherwise, they have solved the problem of unemployment for themselves and others. They got it wrong from the beginning because Nigeria did not emphasize cultural heritage. In the radio, all you hear is just foreign music. All these foreign things on radio have arrested the new generation’s interest. They should fall back on our cultural heritage. They should do research on our culture to know well about our past, present and future. I have what is called the missing link. If you go to The Revelation Tourist Palazo Museum, you will see all those things.
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