Author: Mary M. Ajayi
Mary Ajayi, recently spoke with Europe-based Nigerian artiste, teacher and language consultant Professor Bob Ejike, on his new album Fiesta, his writing and the efforts of The Nigerian Arts Foundation towards the international promotion of Nigerian films, literature and entertainment. Here are the excerpts:Sir, you have been in the international spotlight lately, what is the new
I suppose it is the release of my new CD Fiesta, but then after about three decades of pushing and pushing, the wall begins to come down. That is precisely what the father of modern Nigerian performing art; Professor Ola Rotimi told me when I asked him why he was building such an elaborate Theatre Arts department in Uniport, where the nation ostensibly had just one theatre, The National Theatre. The result today is Nollywood.
I took a passionate, almost obsessive interest not only in the production of African arts in form of music, journalism, novels, modeling and movies….perfectionist critics say we make videos and not movies (laughs). I concede the leverage of technicalities and semantics to them…..call what we make in Nollywood video or tapes or what you will, but we have made a resounding
impact doing it and Nigeria is better off for it. I declared it a revolution 12 years ago and everybody called me a joker. Now even the New York Times and The Herald Tribune call Nollywood a revolution, and journals quote me from as far as South Africa and Canada, because I am perceived as one of the committed scholars of the Nigerian film renaissance and you can find my works innigerianartes.com, www.nigeriansinamerica.com or by just typing Bob Ejike into any search engine on the Internet. Of course, I still write for The Sunday Sun and The Transatlantic Times of Washington D.C.
The flip side?
Even pirate websites are selling my music and books online (laughs).
Fiesta was released on 3 November, the same day that 2 Face won the MTV Award, was that a coincidence?
Ejike: No, I had anticipated the victory, so I pencilled that date to my marketers and e-marketers, knowing that thereafter people would be more receptive to music from Africa. I congratulate 2 Face, Kennis Music, Nigerian music, and Nigerians who gave him their support and patronage.
In what way is Fiesta different from your previous albums?
I worked with the two best producers in Nigeria. Nelson Brown and Chris Okoro, 23 of the best musicians, and the best marketer in the nation, Obaino Music. When we finished Nelson Brown said ‘good soup na money make am’. I featured several Nigerian artistes, new and old, including Mr Kool and Stella Atupa D’lyte.
Why Mr Kool?
Because he’s Still Cool, and the best male singer in Africa.
And Stella Atupa D’lyte?
She’s sex appeal, east, west, north and south. You can even feel it on your TV set when the Fiesta video is being aired.
Why did you go to all that trouble?
Because I wanted to make a point, make a statement, shake the earth, and take charge!
Is Bob Ejike Studio part of it?
Definitely, for you to be a complete Nigerian artiste you must take charge of the means of production, which means you must have your own record label, marketing outfit, and nightclub. See Lagbaja, Kola Ogunkoya and my highly esteemed Femi Kuti. I got sick and tired of being told what to do, ‘why did you use 15 drummers and percussionists instead of a drum machine?’ Why aren’t you rapping all the way? And that kind of hogwash.
So you created Bob Ejike Studios…...
Yes, so I can spend 6 months shooting a video clip instead of 2 days at high cost.
Which of the songs in the album will be the hit?
Ejike: There is no science for telling which song will be a hit. Europeans like Fiesta and Does Your Mama Know? and Nigerians like Iyawo Mi and Jealousy. But I am still shooting some of the videos and video can make the difference.
The last time I saw you was with Lagbaja on your NTA programme Tropical Rhythms, how does it feel being a guest on a programme you used to present?
Tropical Rhythms is my legacy, I am glad I was given the opportunity to present African musicians. I am gladder that it is now on prime time in Silverbird Television but in this business, looking back isn’t part of the deal.
Can we talk about your musical beginning, who were your musical influences?
In the beginning there was the Wonder Boy, Reverend Chris Okotie, who coached me on singing, the genius Ayo Bankole Jr, who taught me the rudiments of composition, the wizard Jake Solo, who signed me on and the highly intuitive Nkem Oseloka-Orakwue who put me on TV. Cloud 7, Geraldo Pino, Jide Obi, Felix Leberty, with whom I played as a budding artiste, and who helped determine my basic musical formation. The inimitable Mr Kool, Shirley Bassey, Sade, Seal, Dr Alban, Lighthouse Family,Fela , Celestine Ukwu, Harcourt Whyte, James Brown, Michael Jackson and all other musicians that I have listened to. There is something good in every piece of music; you just need to listen with zeal and zest. Later, I came under the
influence of Latin music and classical, Julio Iglesias, José Careras, Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti.
Was that why you went abroad?
Partially, because I came to Europe originally for a musical concert. Prior to that, I had won the NTA national drama award with my script Echoes of Wrath, which also launched Richard Mofe-Damijo, I had just made my first album No Vacancy and was acting in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Basi and Co. In Nigeria teaching, writing and artistry are not properly remunerated. Consequently, a multitalented artiste becomes prodigal rather than prodigy. Therefore, I remained in Europe and I have been a scholar and university lecturer since the eighties. I played with a number of European rock bands in my spare time and recorded my second album Checkin’ Out. I am still benefiting from the royalties of Checkin’ Out. However, there was a great longing in me to contribute to national development in my own country, so in the early nineties I returned home with a factory and thereafter started working as a language consultant with The Italian Embassy,
and teaching at The Italian Cultural Institute and The French Cultural Centre.
Was that when you resumed acting?
Exactly, but beside that I recognized that the real treasure in Nollywood from a global perspective was not the acting, but the vast resources for research and documentation. Therefore, I took that opportunity to meticulously document volumes of this unprecedented African artistic development for universities, libraries, and research institutes in Europe. Some of these materials were published in the columns that I ran in The Post Express, This Day, and The Sunday Sun. I also published a number of books including Weapons of
Biafra, Echoes of Wrath, The Ambassador, and Nollywood: The Secrets of Nigerian Stars. After 8 years of toiling in this scholarship, I was invited to teach what I had been writing, and I am now fully based in Europe and working as an Associate Professor.
Which of the films you acted was most challenging?
Tears in Heaven, Sharon Stone 2, Outcast 2, Polygamy 1 and 2, Wasted Years, Homeless, Maximum Risks, Confusion, My Cross, Wanted Alive, Aba Riot 2, Nightfall, Next of Kin, Scores to Settle, Deadly Proposal, Sakobi, Aba Riot, Executive Crime, My Cross, Next Of Kin, Silent Thunder, Homeless, Nightfall, Wasted Years, Campus Girls, Amadas, Narrow Escape. They were all equally challenging, but the snake scenes of Sakobi and Scores To Settle are the dastardly acts of a suicide bomber that I will never forget. I still don’t know where I found the courage to act with deadly cobras.
Which Nigerian artistes did you work with?
Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ola Rotimi, Tony St. Ayke, Pete Edochie, Olu and Joke Jacobs, R.M.D, Justus Esiri, Larry Koldsweat, Sola Fosudo, Genevieve Nnaji, Omotola Jolade-Ekeinde, my cousin Chidi Mokeme, my namesake Bob Manuel Udokwu, my old friend Kanayo O. Kanayo and Liz Benson, Lillian Bach, Shan George, The Nollywood Macho men St Obi and Charles Okafor, Jide Kosoko, Jim Iyke, Ramsey Noah Jr,
Edith Jane-Azuh, Regina Askia, Patrick Doyle, Ann Njemanze, Zack Orji, in fact virtually all the seasoned Nigerian actors, actresses and musicians.
How did you become a top male model?
It was my dearly beloved friend Miss Lillian Bach, I gave her a break in Nollywood and she gave me a break in modelling, tit for tat. I also give part of the credit to my designer Kese Jabare.
As president of The Nigerian Arts Foundation, would you say that your organization has achieved its purpose of promoting Nigerian Arts worldwide?
To a large extent yes, though much still needs to be done. Nigeria is known more for films than oil now, and these movies would never have been known outside Nigeria if they were just released and dumped at Alaba market, Babs Animashaun Movie Market and Iweka Road Onitsha. Thanks to the Internet and the efforts of other Nigerian writers, people who have never watched a Nigerian film know Genevieve Nnaji, Omotola Ekeinde and Jim Iyke, in China and India. Some of my students are actually writing their thesis on Nigerian arts. In the final analysis, our mission would have been easier accomplished if the critics of the existence of a Nigerian video film culture realized that the issue goes beyond the triviality of the format of moving picture and predetermines rare employment and businesses opportunities for the disenfranchised masses of Nigerian people.
So are you having fun living abroad?
Deep down I feel like an exile. You can decorate immigration with any nicety you please.
Some of your readers feel your columns are somewhat opinionated and your views sometimes immodest.
I contend that it is sycophancy rather than modesty that makes a person accept a viewpoint that he knows to be wrong, and it is not immodest to vociferously propound the truth. In all areas of human endeavour after about three decades of study and participation, one is considered an authority, but in the arts, most people claim expertise, usurping the consensus of the majority, which is quite legitimate. However, Nigerians waste a lot of energy combatively proving our social, financial, intellectual, and even religious superiority over
others, forgetting that all these are gifts from God, and not out of our might. I have never laid claim to any knowledge outside the performing and literary arts, which is where I have my training.
Do you plan to return to Nigeria soon?
There’s no place like home. If I don’t see Nigeria in 6 months I go crazy. Therefore, I am home every six months. I miss my fans, my colleagues in Nollywood, my Sunday amala, at Akerele Street, Surulere, I understand the joint has been bulldozed, even Bobby Benson Hotel which was an architectural masterpiece that could have been rehabilitated as a tourist attraction, has been knocked down. I wish to appeal to our government officials to stop pulling down people’s houses in this terrible economic atmosphere. They should know that
destruction is the handiwork of charlatans and construction is genius. I feel disheartened by such acts of callousness executed with flimsy excuses. I miss the Apapa Suya, Boli and boiled maize. I miss the pugnacious Lagosians and the frenetic African metropolitan lifestyle. Most of all I miss the natural radiance, poise, musicality of voice and the beauty of Nigerian women, which is legend.
How does the future of Nollywood look?
Bleak I am afraid. Nollywood in its original form has become rather congested, over flogged and monotonous, more films are churned out weekly than the buyers can afford and quality is not rising as fast as number. There is urgent need for mergers and alliances among production houses to pull resources and make world-class movies. Only so can Nollywood be salvaged. For now many of the producers are taking refuge for the clot in soap opera and music production. This is good for the television and the music industry, but not for film.
How is this affecting the music industry?
Ejike: The Nigerian film revolution is spilling over to music and music has easier and faster acceptance than film, so I visualize Nigeria ruling world music in 10 years.
I understand you were recently an honoured guest of Governor Orji Uzor Kalu of Abia State.
Yes. It is surely a greater and more realistic honour than a wooden plaque. The Action Governor was keenly interested in the lot of the Nigerian youth and the fortune of our artistry, Kalu believes in our talent, and sees it as a huge asset for reversing the national economic downturn. If elected, he will ‘turn Nollywood into Hollywood’. It is now left to us to give him the chance.
In recording a solidarity jingle for Governor Kalu, do you see yourself as having become partisan?
Absolutely not. I wrote and recorded Governor Bola Tinubu’s re-election theme song Put On Your Thinking Cap, even though it was an initiative of his nephew Rotimi Tinubu, who had been my video director for many years, but I wasn’t a member of A.D.
How do you find time to do all these?
By doing nothing else (laughs).
Are you a fulfilled person?
Not at all, I never begin sef.
What are your hobbies?
Reading: I am a bibliomaniac, with an insatiable appetite for books. I read everything in print, I have a bookshelf, and Internet in my bedroom and my toilet is littered with books and journals.
So you read in the toilet?
A great deal.