AYODEJI MAYOWA AJAYI: PROMOTING NIGERIAN HISTORY AND CULTURE
Ayodeji Mayowa Ajayi, a pianist, composer, music director and producer, received his first music lessons from his father. Making his debut at age 7 when he performed at the ECOWAS conference concert at the Sheraton Hotels in Abuja, Ajayi was encouraged and nurtured at the CMS Grammar School where he became the school’s choral director and pianist. His musical prowess can be attributed to tutelage from the MUSON School of Music, under Marion Akpata, Edna Soyannwo, Maria Aseeva and Emeka Nwokedi. Ajayi, in turn has taught music as a subject in schools for over 15 years, presenting students for examinations and competitions, as well as winning laurels for various schools locally and internationally. Recently, he was promoted to the position of Head of Music Department/Director of Programmes at Christ the Cornerstone International School—G.R.A, Ikeja and Sagamu campuses. Among his notable performances include a recital for the visiting immediate past United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan in 2009 at the MUSON Centre.
In 2013, Bolanle Austen-Peters invited Ajayi to direct the music of the Broadway-styled SARO the Musical, as well as work on some other projects like WAKAA The Musical, under her BAP Productions in Lagos and London. He has also worked in the same capacity with other theatre production companies like Beeta Arts Foundation, Thespian Family Theatre, Port Harcourt World Book Festival in 2015 and Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA) 2016, directing over 25 musicals to date.
Ajayi with support from Oluwatoyin Hassan-Odukale and Adekunle Oyesanya SAN, has produced several musical concerts and children’s theatre trainings and shows including the recently concluded Children African Drum Experience (CADEX). In collaboration with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s estate, Ajayi’s company, DeClassical Arts and Entertainment, produced the musical theatre Fela: Arrest the Music for the 20th-anniversary celebration of the MUSON Centre. Ajayi is currently the President of the MUSON School Alumni Association.
Congratulations on your successful execution of Fela: Arrest the Music. What inspired this project and your collaboration with the MUSON Centre?
Fela has always been dear to my heart for many reasons but I will highlight two briefly. First, he gave his life for the masses as he could have closed his eyes to the forces of tyranny, nepotism and the social ills of the day because he came from a privileged family. He however, chose to neglect the path of the rich and the powerful to follow the course of destiny. Tejumola Olaniyan in his book, Fela and His Rebel Arts and Politics, has an account of Fela’s meeting with Sam Nujoma from which I quote: “In 1978, Fela encountered Sam Nujoma, then Head of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), the main anti- apartheid movement fighting for the liberation of Namibia, and first President of independent Namibia. It was at the airport in East Berlin, and Fela and the Afrika 70 were returning from the Berlin Jazz Festival. Someone in the group engaged Nujoma in a chat and asked about the ongoing struggle. Fela overheard Nujoma’s reply: ‘Certainly, the struggle for the liberation of Africa will continue for a long time. Our children will have to continue where we stop. But aluta continua, victoria a certa.’ Minutes later, we all proceeded to board our plane and you know what happened? Well, Sam Nujoma and his group went towards the front of the plane, to the first-class passengers’ section! And us? All seventy of us went into the economy class. What do you think of that? I’ll tell you what I think. Sam Nujoma could have saved the extra money he was spending on first-class tickets to buy a gun for the freedom fighters who don’t have the opportunity to take a plane, let alone travel in first class. Their homes, their permanent homes are in the trenches. It’s them, man, who are fighting for the total liberation of Africa. Aluta continua…Aluta continua…Aluta continua….Those words kept turning over and over in my mind. At first, I didn’t understand because it was Portuguese language. One of the boys finally translated it as ‘the struggle continues!’ I said to myself: How can a responsible leader ever want the struggle to continue?” Who can want war to continue? War is massacring and killing. How can anyone want that to go on indefinitely? Those were the things I kept turning around in my head on the flight back from Berlin to Nigeria. That’s when I said to myself: ‘No! It must not continue. The struggle must STOP!’ Since then, that has been my slogan. Back in Lagos, what do I see at the airport but Sam Nujoma and his group, escorted by Nigerian officials, leaving in a long line of Mercedes-Benzs. I asked myself: ‘And how about the poor, ragged, barefoot, hungry guerilla who is fighting on the front, exposing his life every day to the deadly bullets of the enemy? Suppose he showed up right now at this airport and walked up to those same top officials who welcome Nujoma? Would they receive him as they received Nujoma?’ That day I understood the whole shit. Aluta continua was the slogan of the leaders. Those who will be eating the pie, not those who are getting killed to get the pie. I understood why it’s generals—leaders—who write their memoirs. And not the poor motherfucker who gets killed in their name! The soldiers kill one another while the generals salute one another.”
Second, Fela also made us realise how powerful music can be. He invented two genres of music; highlife jazz and later Afrobeat. His Afrobeat was used basically for communication, speaking out against social ills, and addressing societal challenges. Afrobeat is played all over the world even though the creator is a Black man. Is this not a great feat we should celebrate the way Bob Marley and a host of others are celebrated?
My relationship with MUSON started when I practically spent two years at the Diploma School of MUSON with an MTN Foundation scholarship, studying music under the very proficient lecturers Marion Akpata and Edna Soyanwo. These years spent at MUSON prepared me for the big stage. The collaboration with MUSON is an on-going venture as I am a member of MUSON, and teach at the MUSON Diploma School. In addition, I am the current President of the MUSON School Alumni Association.
Did you always want to practise music or where you influenced by your father?
My musical career started at a very early age and my father first tutored me. I attended one of the best schools, CMS Grammar School, where music is regarded as a co-curricular. It produced the likes of Fela Sowande and Art Alade. Although I always craved for the sciences, somehow along the line, music crept in. This was also a result of the encouragement and mentoring I received from the late rtd. Col. J. Ade Olubobokun (1st Military Administrator, Nigerian Army Band) who adopted me as his last son. He would seat me down always to tell me how the musical world will miss a genius if I refused to study music.
What is your starting point when you are called to work as a music director of a project?
I started directing choirs since secondary school. During Founder’s Day, I would take the CMS Grammar school choir to perform at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina, as well as some competitions. Therefore, directing has always been one of my core strengths. However, the biggest opportunity came when Bolanle Austen-Peters invited me to audition for the role of music director in her upcoming show. I was scared but told myself I could do this. I walked away afterwards boasting that I didn’t audition for roles, but received recommendations instead. I did not know what happened afterwards as I did not turn up for the auditions. She however called and chastised me for disappearing on the big stage and offered me the job right there over the phone. In addition, she was very supportive because my inexperience on the theatre stage was not easily noticeable.
Ayodeji Mayowa Ajayi directing a choir.
Do you necessarily work with the choreographer of the project?
As a musical director in a theatre house, you have to work with the artistic director and dance director, sometimes called the choreographer for good synchronisation and seamless transitions.
Can you tell us some of your most memorable projects and why they are?
My first project as musical director on a theatre stage was SARO the Musical and it was quite an experience because it launched me to new heights. The expanse of the work, as well as the work rate of people in the theatrical field is amazing. WAKAA the Musical recently staged in London and I directed the music also! It was the first all-Nigerian cast and crew musical to be staged in London. Lastly, I had a wonderful experience and loved the audience reaction and reception of my musical Fela: Arrest the Music. People loved the set, crew and cast of phenomenal actors like Gideon Okeke, Arese Emokpae, Kpeace and others who gave their very best performances. The dancers were also terrific. Interestingly, musicians were put on stage to re-enact the shrine atmosphere and the transitions were very smooth. Fela’s transformation happened on stage, it was too much for the audience to imagine. People are calling already to know the next showing dates of the musical.
Gideon Okeke as Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Image credit: Boluwaji Adelabu.
Taking a bow with the cast and crew of Fela: Arrest The Music. Image credit: Boluwaji Adelabu.
With Kenneth Uphopho, Bolanle Austen-Peters and Gbenja Yusuf at SARO The Musical I.
With some of his team for WAKAA The Musical.
You recently organised intensive drumming sessions during the long vacation for children. Why not for adults?
There is a major problem in our society and the earlier we crush this problem, the better. We are heading for a period of no identity, as everything we do or wear has been Westernized. In the nearest future, our children may not know their roots and trust me, CADEX’s main objective is to correct this aberrance. We target children because they need to learn about important things that have been taken off their curriculum. The best way to create a new system is to start with people who are yet to fully imbibe the old order. Our children can still be shaped; they are the new wine and the leaders of the coming generation. As Africans, drumming is a major part of our existence, we are a rhythmic people; we dance and make music always. We also introduced the drum circle, which helps create a strong bond among children.
What is the place of music in the society and how important is it to get children interested and involved?
In an African society like ours, music and culture goes hand in hand. A philosopher once said ‘without music, life would be flat’. I started my musical journey after school by teaching at different levels of the academia (nursery, primary, secondary and diploma school), till I got busy earlier this year. Our curriculum is designed to focus on the theoretical aspects of music whereas music is supposed to be performing arts, so young children easily lose interest. I think our music teachers need to offer more. Any society that does not invest in its music, is in the process of wiping off its history.
Directing some of the children in WAKAA the Musical.
With facilitators and children at the Children African Drum Experience (CADEX).
What in your opinion has the MUSON Centre contributed to music in Nigeria?
Finesse basically. People come back to MUSON after studying music at the university to get that magical touch. It is no gain saying that the MUSON Diploma School of Music is the only institution where music is taken as a performing art and at a very high standard. MUSON in collaboration with the MTN Foundation has been providing free tuition and subsidies for over ten years, for students of the MUSON Diploma programme. This is laudable because music is very expensive.
What advice can you give people that want to follow your footsteps, and where else can they get trained if they cannot attend the MUSON?
One major advice is, do not be mediocre! We live in a society that celebrates mediocrity though we idolize politicians but demonize the professionals. The rate at which today’s youths release singles and albums, is heart breaking. Most of these releases are devoid of content and can only belong to the trash cans of the intellects. Our society embraces anything but excellence. Radio stations and television houses assist in exposing our insanity to the outer world. I think first things first – get knowledge. Talent is never enough according to John Maxwell, your ignorance will be exposed sooner or later. How many of the songs produced recently are evergreen? The Rex Lawsons, Sunny Ades, Victor Olaiyas, Felas and a host of others in their generation, wrote songs for posterity. Interestingly, we have a few good artistes whose music still has very good structures and can stand the test of time. Take a quick look at our reality TV music shows for example and compare with what is obtainable from the calibre of contestants to the judges in American’s Got talent or even Britain’s Got Talent. The system most times, determines the product, but I still encourage everyone who thinks they have a special musical gift to get proper training.
What is the next project you are working on?
My studio and mini arts centre is being refurbished as we speak. There is a need to bring live music, theatre and performing arts to the mainland. That is a cause I am presently championing. My space, DeClassical Arts Place will be opened to the public in January next year. It is a place to be, come to relax, enjoy live music, dance and drama. CADEX will also be returning next summer and the Fela Arrest the Music will show again.
September 03, 2021