I hate it when anyone calls me Mama, call me sweet 16
She led a musical group whose album has remained the toast of many gospel music admirers for about three decades. Still waxing strong at 68, Mrs Deborah Abimbola Fasoyin of the famous Ibadan, Oyo State-based Good Women Choir reminisces on her life in this interview with ADEOLA BALOGUN
Why did you relocate to Lagos after living in Ibadan for many years?
What happened was that some of my children are here in Lagos. One of them had a baby in 2001 and I had to come over to help. But in 2002, all of them decided that I should come over to Lagos to live and continue my work. I still go to Ibadan though, because my husband is there.
In a few months from now, when the year is about coming to an end, the airwaves will again be dominated by your evergreen song, Odun nlo sopin. How do you feel each time you hear the music played?
Remember that the song was recorded in 1979. I feel fulfilled that after many years, the song is still being played. I know that it is the grace of God. We waxed 25 records and that was number three. I give God the glory, because there were many records waxed by other people that have long been forgotten. But by the special grace of God, what we did many years ago is still impacting people's lives. It is so fulfilling. You know there is Odun yi a tura. While Odun nlo sopin is played between November and December, Odun yi a tura is played during the New Year. That the songs touch lives each time they are played is my joy. I feel happy and glorify God because there are more talented voices that are never heard.
In terms of money, how rewarding has it been?
Well, when we were doing the music, what we had in mind was to propagate the gospel. We were not recording because we wanted money. We were very glad that we had an avenue through which to propagate the gospel. We were not thinking about money at all. But after a while, especially after the third album that became an instant hit, the marketer called us and said we had royalties to collect. We were surprised. We decided not to collect the money because, one, we were all married and working. Two, we were constantly reminded that money was capable of breaking people up. We told the marketer to convert it into a bus and instruments. We did not handle any money. We only asked for tools that would help us do our work smoothly, because we were always getting invited to events. That was how we operated.
The norm is for music groups to be made up of young girls. But in your case, you were married women. How did it happen?
If you are a member of the Christ Apostolic Church, your wife automatically becomes a member of the Good Women Association. I was a member of the association. What happened was that the head of the association decided that we were going to have a choir to perform at the church's convention every year. We were asked to send married women who could sing from each church. That was how we came together.
Before I got married, I had been a member of the choir in the Anglican Church. So, I was one of those selected from my church in Ibadan. There were about 120 of us then. When we came together during the anniversary, I was shocked to find my name listed as the choir leader. I nearly fainted because there were far better singers in the group. I was not consulted. Nobody gave me any hint. How it happened, I didn't know. I kept on turning it over in my mind why it had to be me. I knew the enormity of the challenge in such a position. But I prayed to God to come to my assistance. That was how I became the leader of the Good Women Choir. How it happened, I still don't know.
Have you always been a church person?
I was an Anglican before I got married in the CAC. My parents were Anglican and I became a chorister at a very young age at St Micheal Anglican Church, Oyo where I come from. My parents were converted to Christianity before I was born. My father's name is Ogunrinu. But some of my brothers were ordained reverends.
Why do you always keep a low profile?
When you have the spirit of God leading you, you cannot but be humble. That I happened to be appointed the leader of the Good Women Choir should not make me become swollen-headed. Apart from the fact that it was Christ that was actually leading the group, there were far more talented singers among us. I always pray to God to give me the humility of Pastor (Enoch) Adeboye and Pastor Sam Adeyemi of Daystar. They are humility personified.
What was growing up like in Oyo town?
I did not stay much in Oyo, simply because I was the last born of my parents and the only girl. My elder brothers thought my parents would 'over-pamper' me if I was allowed to live with them. After two years, my brothers took me away from my parents. So, I stayed at various times in Jos, Ogbomoso and Obalende in Lagos. They were carrying me about because they feared that I would be spoilt by my parents. Left to my father, I would not even go to any school so that no one would maltreat me. He said he waited for so long to have a girl after six boys, and because of that he was prepared to pamper me.
You were at different places at different times. How did that affect you?
I loved it. You know when you go from one place to another, you learn a lot. You can't stay at a place and expect to know everything about life. I read Standard One in Jos, Standard Two in Ogbomoso and Standard Three at Obalende, Lagos. As I was being taken everywhere, I learnt a lot. For instance, I can speak Igbo fluently. I learnt it while I was in Jos, because we were living in the midst of Igbo people. Then, I was with my late brother who attended St Andrews in Oyo. As soon as he finished from St Andrews, he was transferred to Jos, and I followed him. Then I was ten years old. In Ogbomoso, I spent a year. My brother was a teacher there. One of my brothers was a policeman, and that was why I was in Obalende where I spent a year with him. I was also in Lalupon, Ibadan.
Why didn't you stay with just one of them? Did you have some character traits that they wanted to curb?
As at then, they were all struggling to become 'somebody' in life. What they wanted was to prevent me from being spoilt by my parents. It was not as if they were that comfortable. After a year, another one would take me. They just didn't want me to stay with my parents. My father loved me excessively, being the only girl. I knew that because nobody dared beat me with him around. I knew that I was a spoilt child, because as the only girl, nobody dared touch me.
How did the frequent changes of location affect your education?
It didn't. Rather, it gave me more experience.
And you read up to what level?
I completed modern school and started working. I taught for a year and spent 29 years in Kingsway Stores. I started working in 1968 in Lagos here. And when I got married, I got a transfer to Ibadan. We opened the Ibadan office.
Were you working as a clerk then?
I started as a sales clerk. But I retired as a manager in 1986.
What kept you there for so long?
It was God. There were a lot of people who worked there and got sacked. Some died. What sustained me was God. I don't think it was hard work. You may work hard and not be seen or promoted.
How did you handle your love for music while at Kingsway?
I have always loved music. I had the opportunity to work at the record section. I remember that when the late IK Dairo released some of his music, I was the one that handled the sales. Then, I loved music generally. I was at the record section for about five years, selling records. All the while, I had interest in music.
For a young and beautiful woman working at Kingsway Stores at that time, you must have been attracted to so many men. How did you cope with that?
Yes, I was attracted to so many people. But when you have a very strict background, there is no problem. My brothers were so hard on me when I was young. I could not stand with any man; they would kill me. I was afraid of all of them. When I closed at work and came home, they would look at the time. There was fear in me because they were disciplined. They disciplined me and I feared them. That is why I was able to go through that period without messing up.
But when they were training you, didn't you think they were too wicked?
Well, as a young person, you would feel so. I remember that my friends used to make jest of me, calling me ara oke. They said maybe my brothers would marry me and all sorts. I would not agree to go anywhere except my place of work. I would not go to parties. My brothers should not hear of such.
Despite that, you still got married. How did you go about it?
The person who approached me when I was teaching was the man I eventually got married to. I remember that it was my father that took me to the village when I was going to teach there. He handed me over to the village head and said, 'That this is my daughter. I want you to take care of her for me.' So, when this man came to me and said he had interest in me, I said no, that I still wanted to further my education. When I came to Lagos, he traced me to the Kingsway Stores. I still insisted that I wasn't ready for marriage when he brought up the issue again. He said okay, but he did not stop coming until I agreed.
Even now, you still have good looks. That suggests you must be very beautiful at that time. Working at Kingsway, I am sure a lot of men must have found you attractive. Why did you stick to this same man?
It was not possible. In fact, I dared not do it. It is these days that ladies do that kind of thing. During our own time, there was a saying in Yoruba which says, a kii mo oko omo, ki a tun mo ale re. Once you say this is the person you want to marry, they don't want to see you with another person. It is true that men would see me and say 'you are beautiful' and I would say 'thank you.' Once I gave my word, that was all, nobody else. That was final.
Working at such a place, men must have tried to lure you with gifts...
You are right. Many wanted to give me money, I was afraid to take it because my brother used to say that once you accept money from a man, it means you have promised that man something. At that time, we were spending pounds. So when anyone gave me a pound, I would be trembling. But my friends would say if I couldn't spend it, I should give it to them. This is not about money, it is love. It is these days that people marry because of money. But then, when you said you loved a person, it was real. When you give your heart, you give it.
How long was your courtship?
You said your brothers were very strict and wouldn't want to see you with men, but you dated someone for four years…
I hid it from them, I was afraid because I didn't want to get into trouble. I would tell him, 'Please don't come to our house because I don't want any problem.' We hid the affair until we could no longer hide it. And when they eventually got to know, they couldn't fight me because they felt that I had come of age, having come out of school and worked for a number of years.
Can you still recall the day you got married?
Oh, wonderful. It was a day we all looked forward to. It is a day I will forever cherish.
Back to the Good Women Choir, how many of you were in the group then?
We were about one hundred and something. Later, we were reduced to 34, then 27. The creation of states then affected our membership, as some of us followed their husbands to their new states. Some of us travelled abroad to take care of their grandchildren and all that.
But recently, some of you came together to do the videos of some of your old songs…
That was in 2005. What happened was that when I got to Lagos here, I did some solo songs which some of them got to hear. When they heard that, some of them contacted me and expressed their desire to continue where we stopped in 1995. I then said to the glory of God, we had 25 albums, instead of doing new songs, we should go back to our old ones and do the video. The youngest of us is 60 years only.
And you are not that person?
I was 68 last March. We still see ourselves as young girls. We are young girls.
We once heard that you were very sick. What happened?
A journalist came to Ibadan to interview me. He asked me why I had not been singing. I told him I was advised to slow down, only for him to come to Lagos and publish a story that the leader of the Good Women Choir was terribly sick and in need of help. It was such an embarrassing publication. Everyone started calling me to find out what really happened to me to the point of soliciting for help from the public. It caused quite a stir. What I told him was that doctors said I should rest. He asked other questions and I answered. It was a Yoruba paper, if I remember very well. Since then, I have been wary of granting interviews.
So it was not that you were really down and in need of help?
Even if I need help, it is God that can help me, not human beings. As a human being, it is not possible to continue doing the same thing all the time as you advance in years.
Has any of your children taken to music?
My first daughter is about releasing an album, together with her younger sister. They are my back-up for my solo albums.
When do you hope to retire from music?
I will continue till eternity.
What happens to your royalties now?
I told you how we were doing it. Now that we have come together again, whatever comes to us through me, I share it with them. We still get engagements in churches.
You say you see yourselves as girls…
Yes we are young girls, we are not aged women. In fact, I hate it when anyone calls me old mama, I want to be called sisi mi, sweet sixteen. I am a sisi, not old mama. Go to our church, they call me sisi. Do I look like an old woman? I believe that it is what I call myself that I will be. I am 68 years only.
You said your wedding day was one of the happiest days in your life; what is the opposite?
The opposite was when I lost my third child. By the grace of God, I had three boys and two girls but I lost the third. It is one of those things.
Finally, do you see anything wrong with the way the present generation go about gospel music?
I don't criticise. When you say you are a gospel musician, the way God sent you may be different from the way He sent me. Whether it was God that sent you or not is not my business.