Music may have made Victor Uwaifo famous, but his restless creativity found its expressions through other mediums, which included the visual arts. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Sometime in 1967… An eerie moonlit night at the Bar Beach in Victoria Island provided the ideal mise en scène for an otherworldly encounter. Victor Efosa Uwaifo, then working in the graphics department of the nearby Nigerian Television Service (one of the precursor stations of the Nigerian Television Authority), had made a fetish of spending his after-working hours at this now extinct popular Lagos beach. It was in search of inspiration. This was how the musician, who suddenly departed this earth-life on Saturday, August 28, explained this quirk in an interview with Channels Television.
Granted that he couldn’t have foretold his spooky encounter with a water sprite, but staying out so late into the night made it seem as if he was literally asking for it. Suddenly, restless waves came crashing into the almost deserted beach. As they retreated only to surge forward towards him again, it seemed that the undines were setting the stage for something that was about to happen. Then, towards the right at a distance from where he stood was this dazzling apparition. A “glittering figure”, he called it. And he thought it was all a dream.
No, it was not, as it soon turned. For before he knew it, the figure – a mermaid, known across Nigeria as “Mami-water” – was right in front of him. When the mermaid called – or rather, he heard her call – him, “Guitar Boy”, his response, which was wrenched out of him, sounded like a scream. This was the sound that he sought to replicate with the twang of his guitar strings.
The following day, he quickly assembled his band and the song “Guitar Boy” became an instant big hit and a staple of the 1960s’ Nigerian aficionados. This was in the good company of his first gold disc-winning “Joromi”, which was released in 1965, and others. And even as the civil war broke out in 1967, its lyrics continued to trail fans and advise them: “If you see Mami water o-oh! / If you see Mami water o-oh! / Never, never you run away/ E-eh, e-eh/ Never run away with your wife o-oh!”
Talking about the man Uwaifo, whose musical career is almost as old as the independent Nigerian nation, he could easily have turned into an anachronism in the local music scene. But, thanks to his remarkable resourcefulness, his name remained indelibly engraved on the industry’s consciousness.
Indeed, this Benin City-born polymath owed his path to stardom to the benevolence of Providence. And the fact that his success story, which reads like a classic grass-to-grace one, had modest beginnings was partly corroborated by none other than the Esama of Benin Chief Gabriel Igbinedion. At a dinner party he hosted last month in honour of Uwaifo, whose last earthly birthday – his 80th actually – was on March 1, the billionaire businessman had disclosed that both he and Uwaifo hawked in the streets of Benin in their childhood years. While he hawked kerosene, Uwaifo, he told the dinner guests, hawked kola-nuts.
In the good company of his wife, with whom he had been married for 30 years, he repeated the often-heard refrain among his keen devotees: that he had never smoked, taken drugs, taken alcoholic drinks – except for red wine, which he only just started drinking in modest quantities after meals – and that he only got his highs from music.
With eyes set on his goal, he had plodded on with the mindset never to be tarred with the same brush as most musicians.
About his passion for music, it had been weaned from constantly listening back then to gramophone records of Spanish and Latin American musicians. And by the time he turned 12, he had become proficient enough in playing the guitar to be noticed.
Surely, a father who desired loftier things for his son wouldn’t exactly be excited about that. No, he wouldn’t let him end up in palm wine bars or become a philanderer. Luckily, it had taken the intervention of his mother to save his guitar. This was after his father had seized it. He only got it back after gaining admission into the Western Boys’ High School Benin, from where he later moved to St Gregory’s College, Lagos.
Having completed his secondary education in 1961, he had enrolled in a national art diploma programme at the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, where he graduated with a distinction in graphics in 1963 at 22 and won the Lintas Scholarship for the Best Graduating Student.
Years later, somewhere along the line – even as he was basking in the limelight –, he must have felt that he was missing out on something. Otherwise, what was the point of a degree programme at the University of Benin when he was already 50? After he got a first-class honours bachelor’s degree in fine and applied arts from the university at 54, he gunned for a master’s degree in sculpture, which he got at 56. Earning a PhD from the university, albeit at 77, was the next logical step.
With not much left to prove in the academic realm, he would eventually become a professor at the same university. Obviously, a restless streak drives this predilection for academic laurels, as he confirmed in his last interview with THISDAY’s broadcast arm, Arise Television. “I cannot stay idle at any point in time,” he told the interviewer Charles Aniagolu. “I must keep moving. I like exploring …and exploit what I have and then draw from the past to advance the future…”
Though he had his musical exploits to thank for his limelight years, they only filled up a gap during the interregnum between his protracted studies in the visual arts. Hence, even as he relished his renown as a musician, the visual arts remained a medium, through which he could express things he could not through music.
But then, it wasn’t as if he ever gave up practising music. For, back in his St Gregory’s years, he had taken it up from where he left it. Soon, he would become a leading high school bandleader like Segun Bucknor and held jam sessions with Victor Olaiya’s All Stars band. His post-secondary school years saw having brief stints with such highlife greats as E. C. Arinze, Stephen Osita Osadebe and Fred Coker, before forming his own band, The Melody Maestros in 1965.
His winning Africa’s first golden disc with his song “Joromi” became his career-defining moment and as he relished his renown, his patented genres with such names as Ekassa, Mokassa, Titibitis, Shadow and Akwete wormed their way into the local music lexicon. Seven other golden discs followed while he performed under the name Victor Uwaifo and His Titibitis. By the time he had produced 600 songs and 100 records, a total of 12 golden records became the icing on his over half-a-century-long career.
Whenever it looked as though his popularity was about to wane, a slew of honours somehow retained him in the public’s consciousness. And among the most cherished of these honours were the Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) award by the Nigerian government in 1983 and the recognition as the UNESCO’s Living Human Treasure in 2017.
The man who became Edo State’s Commissioner for Arts, Culture and Tourism – a position, he stressed, was the first of its kind in Nigeria – preened himself on his achievements and many firsts. Besides inventing and popularising the double-neck guitar with 18 strings with a “sixth finger”, which he could spin 360 degrees mid-air, he also designed and built the car he called Vision 01 with fibreglass. Then, there was this private museum he called Revelation Tourist Palazzo, which shares the same premises as his mansion in Benin City as well as his Joromi Organisation, which operates a recording and a television studio in the Edo State capital.
Meanwhile, the word is out that the late musical legend’s family has announced plans for the interment of his earthly cloak. Apparently, the obsequies would be an elaborate affair, which will span a period of three days – starting from Thursday, September 23 with a “service of songs” (possibly a wake) at Uwaifo’s Benin residence and ending on Sunday, September 26 with a thanksgiving service at the Holy Cross Cathedral in Benin. The programme also included a special “outing service” (a memorial service?) in honour of the departed on Friday, September 24 and a planned “lavish ceremony at an undisclosed venue” for “guests and dignitaries”.