The Nigerian music industry has quite a number of veterans and one of them is guitar maestro, Sir Victor Uwaifo. At 73, with over 60 years of experience, Sir Uwaifo says he isn’t done yet and plans to release more albums.
In this interview with NET, he calls himself the greatest Nigerian musician and shares the secret to his rare strength.
It’s rare to have people who have lived through different generations declare an interest in working with the new generation. Why did you decide to do so?
To marry the past and the present and to teach the young generation resilience and how to stay on the scene. I have been in the music scene for over 60 years and I can shape it the way I want.
It is important to understand music because only then will musicians be able to mold and reinvent it but if you don’t and rely on computer, it will destroy you. The young ones should go and learn how to play musical instruments as well as real rudiments of music. Everybody has a skill and talent, we just have to identify the talent.
What was the first talent you identified from an early age?
They were just back to back, music and art. I used to make cages and shoot catapults well. A man who shoots a bird down from a tall tree with a catapult is not an ordinary man. It requires a lot of precision, which sharpens the mind. I did sports then too, and growing up in the era of gramophones, music then was very soothing and beautiful. It encouraged me and I thought if human beings play these records, I should be able to do the same.
As I grew older, I was into sciences and arts and used to jump. I set a record as a high jumper in 1958 at Western Boys High School in Benin. The music and art grew side by side, so when I got admission into Yaba College, I studied Graphics. When I left there, I took a job with NTS, now NTA. I started playing with different bands but I stayed longer with EC Arinze at the Kakadu club.
By 1965, I had learnt so much from Arinze and my prior knowledge of the guitar, which I started playing at 12.
Could all these talents have come from your parents?
I believe so, because although they were not professionals, if you see the design and the motifs of the house my father built, he sure had it in him. My mother was also from the royal family and had a very good voice, so much they called her Iya Egbe.
Most people of your generation are content with reliving their past glory, but you have said you want to marry the past and present. Is this easy or is it a labour of love?
Both. If not for the love of what I am doing, I wouldn’t still be here because I am fulfilled man. Everything I planned to achieve, I have. If you come to Benin, I have an empire covering a large mass of land in an estate.
Don’t forget, I went back to school even after the fame had come, and that was because I thought if I didn’t do sculpture, I wouldn’t be fulfilled, because sculpture is the mother of Art. God sculpted man before breathing into it, so we pride ourselves as God’s assistants in creation. I graduated with a first class and went for my Masters, then my PhD.
I have been a lecturer at the University of Benin for the past eight years and I’m a visiting Professor at the American Heritage University. One of my sons is a sculptor too, I taught him in his 300L and although none of them has gone into music, they know music because I employed somebody to teach them.
What has the reception being like for the decision to work with younger artistes and the works that have come out of it?
People have been calling in from different places. It’s spreading fast and I’m not surprised, because I have no limits. My philosophy is that my best is yet to come.
How true are the mysterious tales and myths around Sir Victor Uwaifo? The electrocution saga for example.
They are true. After my band and I returned from the Algiers Festival of Arts, we went on a national tour and during one of the shows in Warri was when the incident happened. Before it did, I observed that every time people sprayed me coins and it touched my body, I would get a shock.
I confided in Sunny Okosun who was a member of my band, so he kept focus on me. When I was doing the duduke song, it required that I jump and split, after I did one of the splits, I remained on the floor and was passing out but they thought I was still performing because I was jerking. It was as though a thousand motor cycles were passing over me. Subconsciously I said ‘God, it was not my time’.
It was at this time Okosun yanked the cable off, and when I got up people had fled. This was in 1969, we completed that tour and after I released a song, Imiefe (What God has done for me)
Tell us about your encounter with the mammy water in Lagos
That was also true. I was the Head of the graphics department at that time. We used to close late and had to be on set to organize the back drop. Because of the traffic, I used to deliberately stay late and go to the bar beach to strum my guitar and get inspiration.
That particular day, I stayed really late till everybody had gone. Not long after, I observed that each time the waves advance towards me, I would move back, but the farther I moved the closer it came. Suddenly, I observed a figure coming towards me and before I knew it the figure was right before me.
I wanted to run away. I screamed, which I later transposed into strumming the guitar, which has become a trend nowadays. She just said, ‘if you see mammy water, never you run away’. I just thought the mermaid loved music, otherwise it would have harmed me.
What was the reception for the song after the incident?
It was an instant hit. It was after Joromi which gave Nigeria the first gold in Africa.
Would you say its success was a bit spiritual in nature?
I call it esoteric, a privileged knowledge not for everybody. From that time till today, I have been very privileged. I am a spiritual person, I have a chapel in my house. I am not only an artiste, I am an engineer.
I have invented a sports car that I invented 20 years ago and I still drive it round in Benin. I have also invented guitars, I wanted a new octave on the normal guitar that would go as far as the ones that are found on a grand piano.
I also invented a guitar that had a keyboard embedded in it and many more before the latest one that spins round faster than the speed of sound.
Were these instruments commercialized?
They have been there and are still there, but the problem with Nigeria is, if it is not oil, it is not appreciated. The inventor is not supposed to be the manufacturer and the distributor.
What are your thoughts on the likes of Wizkid, Davido or D’banj, who have been successful despite not knowing how to play any musical instrument?
It’s a pity, but time will tell. I have spent 60 years in the industry, so when they stay 30 years, then I will congratulate them.
Are you saying having knowledge of musical instruments guarantee longevity in the industry?
Of course. It’s like if I am sculpting, the art work doesn’t tell me how to do it, I tell it. When you hear some of the songs on the albums I am presently working on, you will be amazed. I am working with younger artistes.
Tell us about your relationship with Tuface
I am signed onto his Hypertek music label. They knew the advantage of signing me, so it wasn’t one done with a handshake. I think Tuface is very intelligent and knows what it takes to be a star.
Have you advised him to learn to play musical instruments?
When we performed at the centenary celebration and he saw what I did with my guitar, he told me he was going to learn the guitar. He’s an exception. He is talented and he has skill and a good ear for music.
You have performed for over 60 years. How do you still have the energy to do this music as you used to.
I am 73 and I am still very fit. I squat 100 times and still do press ups. Let me add here that I once worked as a body builder and weight lifter. When I first came to Lagos, I enrolled at Geo Weighs gymnasium at Obalende, which was where I developed my love for exercise. I do it every morning.
What the secret to this strength at this age?
It’s consistency. I have been doing body building since 1960
Has it helped your artistry?
Of course, when you build, you have confidence and stamina. In those days, we used to perform for long hours. My night was my day and my day was night. We went on trips round the country, and although they paid to watch us, it was a way to confirm our popularity round the country. I was the first to employ a manager, Babson. After that, Ebenezer Obey hired one too. I was doing music for the love, but when I found out I could make money, I took it as a business and made sure I always paid my tax regularly.
Which part of the country have your songs had the most impact?
That I won’t be able to say but it hit Ghana hard. It was even adopted as the code name for a coup, Guitar Boy. That song had a speed and modulation that is still hard for some guitarists to play. People ask me how I make such good songs and combine it with playing guitars; it would take a whole library to explain that, but the only thing I can say is that there is a creativity that makes it possible.
Who would you say is the greatest Nigerian musician of all time apart from yourself?
It’s me. I’m the greatest, no doubt about it. Sorry about that, since I don’t sound like any other person it is still me. That is it.
Are you comfortable with the message being passed across by new musicians in Nigeria?
In critical analysis in the art, you cannot say something is really bad, you can only say it is either a success or a failure, but you cannot judge on the same basis.
Do you think highlife music is being represented well nowadays?
They are begging me to be a part of it. Most artistes are going back to remixing songs from the past because they know something good is there and we encourage them to keep doing that.
What I the most memorable thing you achieved as commissioner of culture in Edo State?
I introduced the World Side Heritage, the tarring of the road and the design of the gate. I also brought back to life the cultural complex of Oba Akenzua the second. I worked physically to ensure it became functional again, and today it’s a pride of the state. I drew up the blueprint for the Arts, Culture and Tourism in Nigeria. It was only for a term, after which I went back to the classroom and took up an appointment as a lecturer at the University of Benin.
Tell us how you got the title, Sir.
I was the first to be given a National Honour in the country, thirty one years ago. I was privileged to get it the same day it was bestowed upon late Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Anthony Enahoro. That is one I value and I am also a Justice of the Peace.
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