Arts, music give me fulfillment - Sir Victor Uwaifo
The name Sir Victor Uwaifo stands for so many things to so many people. He is a sculptor with a difference and a great musician who has made a landmark in the world of art and beyond. A one time pioneer Commissioner for Arts and Culture in Edo State who had also served in many capacities of the government. Recently, he celebrated his fifty years on stage as a musician. He spoke with FUNMI SALOME JOHNSON on his childhood, his music and arts. Excerpts:
With all the various activities you have been involved in over the years, what has been the secret of your good look?
Life is in three dimensions. The dimensions are physical, mental and spiritual. Physically, I build up myself, I was a school athlete and I am a body builder. I still exercise till date. Mentally, I do a lot of work too. I read and I try to find out where to draw the line. I am mentally fit because you can see those who are mentally deranged. They talk between lines. And then I am spiritually uplifted. Those who are not spiritually in tune with the divine creator are on the other side of the divide. I am in tune with my creator and I am spiritually lifted. I think that is the greatest achievement I have had in life.
Are you a Christian?
Yes I am a Christian and I am more than a Christian.
How do you mean sir?
A Christian can just become a Christian because you attend church and then you say I am a Christian; and sometimes they even call you a born-again Christian but being a Christian is beyond that. If you are a follower of Christ, do you actually practice the tenets of the Christian religion? And even practising the tenets of the Christian religion, there are basic rules set aside for the Christians but it does not mean that you cannot go beyond that; you can go the extra mile. The tenets are just the minimum standards set for the Christians. So, if you are able to meditate or you are in tune with your creator, then you are a step or miles ahead of just being a Christian. If you can receive and transmit, then you are a Christian more than a Christian. When I said receive I mean vision and you can interpret vision. If you can get the divine favour you are more than a Christian. If you can call the shots, then you are more than just a Christian.
What are those shots that can actually stand one out?
If you have a vision and a mission and you want to get there and you want to achieve those vision and mission, and you actually achieve them, then you are more than just a Christian.
What exactly is required to attain this spiritual height you are talking about?
You have some powers bestowed on you from above. For instance, I am a sculptor; I attended University of Benin to study Sculpture but before then, I studied Graphic Arts at the Yaba College of Technology way back and I graduated in 1963. I made distinction in that and I had scholarship. Many years after, I went to the University of Benin to study Sculpture which was a vision I had that I should do Sculpture. I made first class and also had my Masters and Doctorate degrees. I am an academic staff in the University of Benin and a visiting professor at the American Heritage University, Californian. I have many other plans and project that I am still working on. You were here at the Revolution Tourist Palazo, there is a dream, and a vision which I have brought to fusion. Vision is different from dreams and you have two types of dreams. There is the dream that you dream when you are asleep and there is another which you have when you are not sleeping and you actualize the dream or dreams. These are the different ways of achievement if you have such dedication and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is one thing that can turn failure into success when you have faith and trust first in God and then in yourself that you can make it. And there is nothing that is unachievable; nothing is impossible, it is just a matter of wishing it and then having it.
What is your philosophy about life?
Life, to me is more than a daily routine, you must be able to vary life. If you are doing the same thing everyday, then you must be a mad man. How can you just be repeating the same thing everyday. You must always find another angle to what you are doing. There are so many angles to solving a problem. So, why do it only from one angle. Two multiplied by two is four but there are other ways of arriving at the same answer. Two plus two can also give you four and eight minus four can also give you four. So, don't just stick your neck to only an angle, you have to find other ways by yourself. That is just the basic example that I am giving you, otherwise, you would just be an ordinary person. I take another route and then people will single me out as knowing what I am doing.
With all your achievements and talents, it is normal to want to think there is something special surrounding your birth. What are those things?
I realise that at about the age of six I was possessed with music because my father used to play gramophones and then the music would just send me to another world. Then I thought there was something in the music for me. The guitar alone was enough to send me to another world and I thought I should play this guitar even better than those that were even playing it in the records in those days. I took up my guitar at a very early stage in life and by the age of twelve, I had already perfected my art in guitar playing that I already made my own guitar. The history is there.
You made your own guitar?
Yes I made my own guitar by myself.
Who taught you how to play the guitar?
My learning was not particularly specific, I learnt it from here and there, just like that and then by going around town. But later on, my brother taught me the rudiment of music. He is late now, he was a lawyer. Thereafter, I took it upon myself to learn. Also when I was in St Gregory College, I also had the opportunity of learning more because we had a music teacher; one Mr Falana who taught us the rudiment of music. Then I also learnt from going places, I visited bands in Ghana; I would compare my guitar with that of the guitarist of Mensah. I also played with Victor Olaiya but he did not know. I played with him for about two years and the school got to know about it. That was around 1960. I later switched on to Eze Arinze where I spent another four years. Music is more than just playing music, there is administration in music, so I got to know so much about the arrangement, orchestration and the administration in music in the Isi Arinze and Kakado. It was a very popular night club in Lagos in those days. If you have not been to Kakado, then they called it KKD, you had not been anyway. So that is basically t he story.
With what did you make the guitar you invented?
I used plywood and bisco spots and strings.
What would you say actually inspired the lyrics of your songs?
Well, I decided to carve a niche for myself by documenting the history of our people using the folk songs. So, mostly my music is based on folk lyrics and folk lyrics are historical. And it is better to sing a song because we had no form of writing history in Benin in those days apart from using art work to write history. Some of those works were sculpted. As a kind of documenting history, if you see the bronze head of the Oba, it will tell you when that Oba was coronated and if there was an important event, they will carve it in bronze or black to tell the history. So, the songs were more advanced. If you should sing a song about a certain event in Benin, you can download it and write it. So the song was more than oral history in the sense that, it is entertaining and at the same time telling the history. So, that was what informed me to adapt that method of documenting history through folk songs and then restyling the songs to suit the trend of the age musically. Most of the songs were not high life so I created Akwete.
What about the dance called Akwete?
That was based on four over four beat and it is the interpretation of Akwete cloth because music are in colours and the Akwete cloth is so beautiful that you can interpret the colours. That gave me the basic rhythm of Akwete which was why I called the music Akwete. I evolved the theory by representing each colour with a musical note; do for black, re for red and so on and so forth.
Is Joromi also a folktale lyric?
Yes it is a folktale lyric but I restyled it and shaped it up and it gave it a new edition, a completely new edition. I also interjected some good ribs into the solo with my mastery on the guitar to give it that identity that it has. If you listen to it you will find that it is not just any song, it has all the instruments complete. I have many other songs like the Kasa which has to do with the Oba's coronation and there were series of it. I also have a number of gospel collections but because they were not in English, some may not actually know they are gospel. There are different ways of praising God. So, I decided to put all of them together in one collection of CD.
Would you say that you have been able to pass across all the messages you wanted to pass across in life with music?
The music was not enough to interpret all I wanted to interpret in life because there are certain things you cannot express in music. They would not make any meaning; they will not make any sense but they will make more sense in art work in the form of sculpture. Sculpture is the mother of all art including music and writing poetry. For instance, if I sing a song about the prison of animals being the zoo and the zoo of man is the prison, in a song, you may not fully understand the import of the song. You will wonder what I mean by that. But if I made a sculpture and I did two cages and I put an animal in one and on the cage I write prison. Then I do another one and I put a human being in it and I write zoo, you will now begin to see that whether one is in zoo or in prison,. Once you are behind bars, you are in the zoo because you are in captivity. So these are the areas.
What was your experience like when you served as the Commissioner for Arts and Tourism in Edo State?
That was another side of experience. Playing music alone or doing sculpture alone is not all about life. When you get into government, then you will be able to see the chemistry of governance. You will find that it is not the way you see things from the outside that is operative inside. It was an experience and I played my part and I think I played it well. Sometimes when I am solving some problems in my private capacity, I will not bother myself about certain problems because I know it will not work. That is what experience teaches you. I just go straight to the answer. So, these are some of the things you get in life. Where theory and practice fail, experience takes over and that is what is happening.
How were you able to use your platform as the Commissioner for Arts and Culture to impact positively on the industry when you served?
You know the ministry was not in existence. I was the pioneer commissioner, so, I made a blue print and it takes time to achieve what you want to achieve in a setting like that. And again, the money was not actually there but from what you have seen from my revelation, Tourist Palazzo, gives you an insight of what could have happened if there was money if the government had funded it. So it is as simple as that.
Talking about the esoteric experience you had with the Mammy water, what ran through you the moment you caught sight of the Mammy water?
It was a nostalgic experience. It is more than meet the eyes. You know that there are certain things that are special to some certain people. That was an esoteric experience and esoterism has to do with privileged people, privileged information and privileged experience. It is not meant for everybody and so I count myself very lucky to belong to that class of people. I had that experience and the lyrics was so short and you will not believe that it is almost fifty years and the same lyric is still standing the test of time. It is evergreen. A short song: “If you see Mammy water, never. never run away, Victor Uwaifo”. That was just the song, that experience is a mystery. I can still remember very clearly and that was the art work you saw in the Palazzo.
Was your father happy about your interest in pursuing music as a course in life when you started out at that tender age?
Yes, he was very happy about it. He used to call me and most of the time invite guests to our house and entertain them. He was very happy and supportive.
Is there any of your children taking to arts?
All of them are in arts. It is a signature -from music to art, they do. Otherwise, they will have to tell me where they come from.
Looking back over the years, would you say you are fulfilled?
I am a fulfilled man. There is nothing that could have made me this fulfilled if I have not done arts and music, especially sculpture. Even when I made all, I was able to make, I still was not fulfilled until I included art and today, I am a very happy man.