Music became my most constant companion when at 6 I found myself often home alone after school. My father had passed away roughly two years earlier, and my two older brothers were living with his mother who felt my mother at 32 needed some space and time to get her life together. I was the youngest and because of my sickly nature and attachment to my mother, I stayed with her in Lagos.
My mother had to work at the Ports Authority, and even though we had my Uncle Obi living with us, I felt alone because Uncle Obi, jobless at the time, had important things to do like daydream, chase women, walk around Festac town amidst other things I had no idea about, and so I was by myself often. It was not as lonely as it may sound; we were surrounded by other families.
I had few friends in the neighborhood. It didn’t help that I constantly felt un-pretty. The boys seemed to like to run around and play with the girls with long hair, usually worn in plaits and decorated with colorful ribbons, and the girls seemed too preoccupied with dolls and their braided hair with colorful ribbons. With my short hair, I didn’t stand a chance.
My boring life as a young child started changing when I discovered my mother’s red cassette player.
I wore short hair because it was less complicated for my scalp, and my busy mother. Once I tried to copy the beautiful girls and grew out my hair. I nagged my mother to take me to get the fashionable braids with extensions called ‘Bob Marley’ back then. It took hours to finish and as we slept at night, my loud wailings woke my family. My head felt really heavy and I feared it would explode. It ached like hell.
I remember my mum and uncle patiently undoing the braids as I sobbed quietly. They were exhausted but did not judge or scold me. After then, I mostly stuck to short hair till I left secondary school.
My boring life as a young child started changing when I discovered my mother’s red cassette player. I should say rediscovered because it had always been there. I think I avoided it earlier because it always sat on top of a shelf that was a lot taller than me. That machine stayed with us for a long time and was sort of my mother’s companion. Every night she turned it on and played Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Everly Brothers and other soul and Jazz musicians, to put her to sleep.
She seemed to avoid our vinyl stereo player and the many records we had. Later I realized it reminded her too much of my father.
One day after school feeling alone and bored – with Uncle Obi snoring softly in the sitting room – , I took a stool, climbed and reached for our red cassette player. I still couldn’t reach the top. Fiddling with various buttons I rewound, forwarded and even erased the tape a bit when I clicked the record button, until I found PLAY.
What blared out was the music of the man I would later knew to be Fela Kuti.
The music took me by surprise. It was steady, unpredictable, angry and sweet. I wanted to sing along. I loved the synergy of his raw voice with the female voices which responded to his call. It wasn’t the best voice I ever heard but it was real, genuine and the voice of my people. Later I would discover his earlier Highlife tunes, which were jolly and even romantic – before Nigerian and African politics made him mad.
I didn’t understand why the man seemed so upset; now I do.
I started to listen to Fela and his musicians almost every day. He seemed to have the same ideologies of some of the characters in my father’s books, which I discovered and had gotten into the habit of reading.
“Sound is powerful and unending, for instance our mothers scream and yell to birth us, and when we arrive the world, the first thing we do is yell and scream in return.”
When my mother found out later I knew some of the lyrics and the music of Mr. Kuti, she was surprised but accepting. When three years later, on one of her work-related trips, she came back to find out her eccentric younger cousin, my beautiful Aunt Nwaka and her boyfriend had taken me to see Fela’s concert at Badagry or Lekki Beach (I can’t remember which), my mother was surprised and not too accepting, but life went on.
The concert was one of the most surreal things that happened to me as a child, and a story for another day.
I joined the catholic choir on the invitation of my friend Tope Williams when I turned ten and our choirmaster was Robert Okolie, another eccentric musician who made me realize the more that music was not a joke.
Sound is powerful and unending, for instance our mothers scream and yell to birth us, and when we arrive the world, the first thing we do is yell and scream in return. It is a cycle.
In a choir of over 50 people, Robert Okolie knew exactly who was going off key during a song. His rule was that if you found yourself going off, keep quiet and listen to find the groove again. Those who disobeyed this rule were often recipients of his shoe. Yes, he’d take off a shoe and aim it to your jaw. He was very accurate too.
Later he’d apologize profusely. He wasn’t too proud to show up at your door to apologize. Thankfully I never suffered this fate; the most I suffered was kneeling down for coming late to practice, or for laughing when he was being super serious. He was a small man, and very funny. It was hard not to laugh sometimes.
We didn’t quit. The choir was fun and once we played for the governor of Lagos. I think it was Olagunsoye Oyinlola. The choir, Angel’s Voices Choir – taught me about solfa notations and how to play some local music instruments like Ekwe, Udu, Alo and Ogene. We played any and everything – from Handel’s Messiah to local praise songs – on these instruments accompanied by the piano or mouth organ played by Robert Okolie. Our choir mistress was Sister Cecilia. She and Robert were platonic friends but really close even though they fought a lot. She had a great soprano and was a diva. She once called me a little rat over something very trivial, much to the annoyance of our choirmaster.
At 15, I lost my catholic faith, at 21 my Christian faith followed suit. I was studying Mass Communication in the university and mostly hating the experience. I had begged my mother to pay instead for me to study music but she found the idea amusing. She also complained about women in music and arts having no husbands. She knew her words were falling on deaf ears however, and told me after university I could follow my heart. I understand her now. Life in the arts is very tough, and for a woman in the arts, even tougher.
In my second year of university there was a strike action by our teachers that lasted many months. I found myself at Peter King’s music school in Badagry. Back then there were less than 20 students and the school wasn’t what it is now. His wife welcomed me and asked me to wait a little for him to give me the information I was seeking.
I met Peter King that day, with no knowledge of his legendary status. Back then, the school fees were roughly over 3000 naira. I told him my mother was not keen on sponsoring my music studies. I had just 1200 naira. Peter King mercifully accepted, and later in the week gave me my first class.
He was teaching me the first 7 letters of the alphabet that represented musical notes and asked me “After G, what comes next?”, when I said H, he laughed so hard, holding his stomach, his eyes watering. Then he made me understand better.
“Music is life. It is beyond people and institutions. It cannot be controlled or caged.”
It rained heavily that day, and the compound was flooded.
Unfortunately I quit lessons at Peter King College of Music very early. I became a young mother and more than ever, my mother wanted my focus to be school. I wanted to please her because she was my pillar and helper.
I later researched Peter King and his music and realized how lucky I had been.
In my later years of university I began recording, and this led me to other aspects of music. I had to talk to people who had the means to promote music. I overheard one man with a bloated belly and fat behind tell someone I could not sing after I had approached him with my CD to get a chance to play at his club. My background in music prepared me to ignore ignoramuses, as well as stories of now famous music stars that were told similar BS.
Later this man would come to watch my gigs, and watch me awkwardly afterwards. Life.
Music is life. It is beyond people and institutions. It cannot be controlled or caged. This is why despite coming from a society with little or no structure, aid or regulation for music and arts, where you mostly have to pay people to get your stuff aired, or suck up to get venues to play, I remain undaunted and unshaken. Music is beyond the drama, personal agendas and petty sentiments. It is what we breathe, think and dream. It is a serious and heavy thing.
About the Author
Okwei Odili is a Nigerian singer and composer currently living in Brazil. In 2013, she became a UNESCO bursary recipient in music, and co-founded Bahia’s first Afrobeat band in the same year. She has also been awarded by the World Health Organization and FIFA for her commitment to Nigerian children through the I-Read literacy organization. She is currently recording in Brazil.
This article is published as part of Music (That) Matters, an initiative of Goethe-Institut Lagos in commemoration of the 2017 World Music Day. The series is aimed at documenting personal memories and social histories relating to the power of music. All rights reserved by the author.