Veteran highlife maestro and folklorist, Mike Ejeagha came into the news recently following a Facebook post showing his deplorable state of health and living.
In this interview in his Abakpa, Enugu residence, the 88-year-old elder statesman, who hails from Ezeagu Local Government Area, Enugu State, spoke on sundry issues including his 12-year-old legal tussle with a recording company over copy right.
If you could rewind the hand of the clock, are there things you would have done differently?
There are many things I could have done differently. I think I would have opted to be a pastor or reverend gentleman, to have a peaceful life, free from so many hassles. I’m a Catholic. If I had the opportunity, I would have joined priesthood to avoid earthly troubles and foibles of life. There are many vicissitudes of life and endless struggles. There are challenges at every turn. When you solve one problem, many are still there waiting for you.
A friend of mine said that there is no rest in life, which is why people write “RIP”, when you have permanent rest. When I see the Reverend fathers, I admire them. Though it is not an easy vow, but, at least, they know they have faced one task, which is to do the work of God; if you offend God, you undertake penance. If you don’t offend God, you keep interacting with Him. The experiences I have in life are diverse. It’s not what I can relive in one fell swoop. There are many experiences.
How did you start playing music and became a highlife musician?
Music is hereditary; my mother was a cheer leader and songstress, as a maiden. When I agreed to do that was many years after I had become a professional musician. Each time I went home, they would tell me that I inherited the talent from my mother. They said my mother used to sing a type of song called “Ovie” for her age grade as at that time. So, it is hereditary, and my first music, “Ofu Nwa Anaa” was about an only son who wanted to go to farm and his mother told him not to go. He went and died. It was my mother that told me the folklore and I used it for my song.
In the olden days, the popular music then were Cameroonian music, Chachacha and Ghanaian music, Brano-kwenso. We weren’t doing Igbo songs then. If you wanted to do a different music then, you would go for Classical music, Tango, Foxtrot; we weren’t doing highlife music then, in the 50s and 60s. That was when the likes of Michael Okpara (late Premier of defunct Eastern Region) were in power. Okpara gave me the money with which I bought my first car in 1965. The car ended up during the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. It was later that I developed interest in highlife. But as a youth, I was playing Ogene (mental gong) music very well. So, during the war, we ran to Umuahia. After the war, I came back and joined a musical band owned by an Akpugo man, one Goodie Okenwa. He also owns a hotel at Uwani. I became a band leader and from there, I formed my own band after I made some money and it became my profession.
After a while, Nigeria Television Authority invited me to be anchoring a programme called “Akuko n’Egwu”; that they liked the one I was doing for Radio Nigeria. It was from there that I became popular, and I continued to play my music till date.
There is one record I did. It was called “Onye Ndidi N’eri Azu Ukpo”. It was the proceeds from the record that I built this house, and another one in my home town in Ezeagu LGA. There was another record called “Susana Meringa”. It was done for my wife. Her name is Susana. So I continued playing music, till now. I am old, I still play, but not frequently. I was born on April 4, 1930. I’m 88 years old now.
Music is not an easy thing. Even recording is a herculean task. As I’m sitting here now, I’m silently praying to God to give me strength to go and honour a music engagement in seven days’ time at Aboh. I still feel like composing more songs but if you do that now, those who engage in piracy will make money off you, and you end up gaining little or nothing.
What are your challenges so far?
Our problem is piracy. I still have a subsisting court case, 12 years now, as we speak. My case with Premier Records is in court. What happened is that when I started recording, I started at C. T. Onyekwelu’s place at Onitsha, Niger Form. Then, I heard that there was a company that paid more in royalty, Polygram, they were in Lagos; that was after the war. So I traced it to Lagos. And I struck a deal with it and it started producing my records. But shortly after that, government policy of indigenisation started. It was a foreign company and it was good at recording and straight forward. It was that time I built this house and other things. Now, I’m suffering. So after indigenisation, the white people left and sold the company to Nigerians. That was when all the foreign companies including those in Enugu like Kingsway Stores, Challarams and others left and handed over to Nigerians. That was when things started getting bad. Polygram Company also left.
So after a while, I started seeing my records in the market and I made enquiry. A man from Warri told me they (Premier Records) had taken over Polygram. I said okay, and they agreed to be paying me little money in royalty. After about three years, VCD became popular, that was around 2005/2006. In 2006, I went to Lagos and told them (Polygram company) that people were worrying me, people who contracted me to perform for them were asking why my music was not in VCD in the market. They said that if I die people would not remember my music again. I was disturbed.
So I went to Lagos with my first son and told them (Premier Records) to sponsor my VCD. They said that there was no problem but that they didn’t have the fund. They said I could do that if I had the fund. I’m telling you the truth. So I went on my own to do the VCD. A month after I finished producing the VCD, that is “Ome ka’Agu”, they came here and said that I used the music which I gave them to be producing and selling for me and I produced VCD to undermine their business and agreement. They sued me at the High court, since 2006. So since then, they stopped paying me royalties, even when they continued to sell my songs online.
That is how I knew they are not honest people. The man that produced the VCD for me, a man called Eby, an Abakaliki man, I couldn’t pay him royalties, and the man has died. And I couldn’t get royalties for myself since then; that was what put me in the condition I’m today. If I have been collecting royalty, why should I be worrying myself? The agreement I signed with the white men in Polygram said in perpetuity. But it was the Premier Records that told me to do the VCD because they didn’t have money to do it; only for them to turn around and sue me after I had done that. I told them that they asked me to do it, and they said that I should have put it in writing as an agreement.
Can you tell us a bit of your civil war experience?
The experience we had during the civil war is not something good to talk about. I was at Umuahia; that was where my car ended up. There was a day a war plane bombed a market. I saw a lot of dead and wounded persons, some people lost limbs. I was living behind Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Food was a big problem, if not for my wife, we would have all died, because she was working in the prisons then. She was the one feeding us with her salary. One of my daughters developed Kwashiokor. My civil war experience is horrifying. I know the family of a man who worked at Radio Nigeria. They all died when the war plane bombed them where they were eating in their house; family of about eight, all perished. That is why the children of nowadays, when they are talking of war, I will be laughing, these children. Our people say that “O ji oso agbakwuru ogu amaro n’ogu b’onwu” (the one who runs towards war doesn’t know that war is death). You don’t get food to eat, except if plane brought food from Gabon. After the civil war, when we were coming back, I trekked for three days from Umuahia to Enugu with my family.
It was the problem and sufferings we had during the war that made me to sign the Polygram agreement which they said was in perpetuity. That court case; at a point I asked them (Premier Records) if we could settle out of court, because the case had stressed me so much. There was a day I fell down and fainted in front of the court. I had bruises all over my knees and body, I was with my son. So I asked them for settlement out of court.
My lawyer, Barrister Agbo from Ngwo, got angry with me and asked me why I wanted the matter settled out of court. I told him I had suffered enough on that case; that was when the matter was about eight years in court. I told him that this matter had no end. For 12 years, only the plaintiff was giving evidence; I had not even been called to give my side of the case. And we were no longer talking about royalty, because they stopped paying that long ago; I just wanted to extricate myself. So when I started talking about settlement, they went and wrote that same thing that ended in perpetuity and said I should sign, I refused. I’m of the opinion that the contract should have a terminal date. They insisted that unless I signed the agreement, they would continue in court. That matter is coming up on December 16, 2018. My lawyer, after collecting N3,000 for each appearance, started collecting N5, 000, now he is asking for N10, 000. Today, I don’t have any money, I’m in penury.
What can you tell young people playing music?
What I can tell the new generation musicians? There is one mistake. During the time we were playing music, Mr. Onyekwere, my producer then, would always take us to his living room and feed us after each rehearsal session and subsequently. It was Osita Onyekwere that advised me if I wanted to produce an album that would sell, and remain in the market for a very long time, I should ensure that it had meaning. That if I produced an album with underlining meaning that every time somebody played it, there will be something people would learn from it; that I should not play music anyhow. That was where I got the idea and since then, every time I want to produce an album, I will write it down and lessons there to learn.
So, there is none of my music that you will play that you will not learn one or two things from. But the type of music young generation plays now is horrible that I begin to ask whether they take time to listen to what they produce or is it because of the almighty Jet Age that affects what they do or they do not have the time to sit down. Although, I have come to the conclusion that what they learnt is what they play, it will be better if they sit down and think, knowing that it is a message that they are passing to the society.
What they want people to learn are what they are putting in form of music and as such, it is better they sit down and write their music and do rehearsals. The invention of new technology, also contributed to the extent that one person now produces music; today he goes to the studio and sings, tomorrow he returns to enter the glitter, next tomorrow he returns, adds back up; that is why you see various types of uninformed music which has no inspiration. But during our time, if we have an album to produce in January, by November, we would have started rehearsals because there was a period for music production. Our music master then, when he comes, would listen to you sing your song and after that he would ask you its meaning, the lesson in the music. But it is no longer available. What is in vogue is a new trend of one person be a singer and a backup, guitarist but during our time once we go to produce, we finish it that day.
Music is a message that should teach people how to do or behave in certain mannerism. I learnt a lot from music. If our children will come back, because our children are going astray – they do not greet people any longer, none of them has boundary, after watching what is being played in the television I will tell myself ‘Mike Ejeagha you have stayed in one life and two separate generations’. Our children are going naked in the name of playing music.
You said you still have music engagements. Do you still have your band and people that play for you?
Yes of course. I have a band and my workers are still there. I went to Mmaku to play in 2017. Last year, I also went to Lagos to launch the promotion of Igbo language, precisely on December 10, 2017.
You said if it were now, you would have gone for priesthood. Are you regretting being an artiste, a husband and father?
Somehow, yes. I would have gone for Catholic priesthood because there is so much trouble around. As a Catholic priest, after ordination, you are given a car and you concentrate on the evangelisation of the gospel. I have moved wide because there was a time when this music was disturbing me, I carried this anti-clock radio and guitar and went to Kano to play music uninvited. When I got there, I would call people and play music for them so that I would be better, but this younger generation cannot do it. There was a year my vehicle almost plunged into the river at Ikom in Ogoja, where we were searching for the road in the night. That is why I said that if life should be rewound, that this suffering, I would have gone into priesthood to ease the suffering and have some rest.
Looking at Nigeria of today, is this a country you envisaged for your children?
I was discussing this with somebody one day; the one major problem that has continued to hold this country backward is because the country doesn’t learn from her past mistakes. They always say that experience is the best teacher but Nigeria doesn’t want to learn from the past and correct the mistakes because of money.
Everybody wants to grab government fund, everybody wants to be the only influential and wealthy man. If the country and the leaders should imbibe the leadership steps of M.I. Okpara and his contemporaries, things will be better. But now, everybody wants money. That is our problem.
Corruption is too much in our country and it has continued to be the bane of our nation. Look at Nigeria @ 58, there is no electricity but in small countries, they have electricity. Are the people ruling those countries better and more intelligent than our people? Or are they better endowed than Nigeria in resources? It is because corruption has eaten deep into our system; anybody you put in the position of authority will go there to loot the treasury. Look at Enugu; is there any industry again? There is no industry in Enugu; iron industry, coal industry, Nkalagu Cement Industry, AVOP (Anambra Vegetable Oil Production Company) among others.
Nothing is working again and it is our people that looted those companies. When the white people were ruling us, those industries were working optimally and they created job opportunities then and there was no problem. There was a time electricity was on for more than three months, no power interruption for even a day, but look at the state where we are. Nobody wants to take it easy. Nobody wants to support another.
Can you tell us some of your record titles?
‘Omeka-agu’; ‘Onye Ndidi n’eri Azu’kpo’; ‘Uwa Mgbede K’mma’; ‘Nnamaeze Akpatam Enyi’, ‘Ifem furu n’ime ohia’ among others. I have about 20 albums.
Among all your titles, which one is most dear to you?
All are passing different messages; it depends on the title you like, based on the meaning it conveys. For me I like all of them, but the one when I listen to it I feel elated is ‘Agbatobi onye bu nwanneya’ and once it is being played, I will leave everything I’m doing to listen to it, even when it is played on the radio. I composed that title immediately we returned from the Nigeria – Biafra civil war. It conveys lots of meaning; that when you are in need, go to your neighbor; if you want to travel, tell your neighbour to look after your house. Neighbours should not quarrel because you don’t know who will help each other tomorrow.
As an elder statesman and eminent Igbo son, what is your advice to Ndigbo in Nigeria of today?
My advice is that Ndigbo should bring themselves together, they should strive for unity. We have a lot of divisions today among Igbo leaders and elites. That was not the case during the time of Nnamdi Azikiwe. I performed for Zik (Azikiwe) and (M.I.) Okpara at a sports club in Abakaliki and Enugu. They always sent for me. And they never fought. Then, we didn’t play highlife music, we played classical music, fast tempo, and others. But today, Igbos are divided, which is not proper and it will not help us. Our people said that if you tie a bundle of broom, it will sweep well but if you pick one stick it won’t sweep well.
Yes, during the time of Zik, they had small problem which they resolved with maturity; there was a time he had issue with K.O. Mbadiwe, who went to form his own party.
During your time, did Ohanaeze play active role?
Ohanaeze is doing its best; I must tell you the truth; because so many groups have emerged with different Igbo names and fighting Igbo cause. There was a place I was invited the other time; But I couldn’t go because I was not feeling well. But they conducted all the proceedings in English language, yet the meeting was about how to revive Igbo language. Is it good? When you are discussing with your brother, instead of you to converse in Igbo language, given to you by God, you will start speaking grammar. But people say that it’s easy to tell lies in English language. All you hear is billions, billions.
Yet the masses don’t see the billion. We need to come back and reflect on how Nigeria started, know the forefathers who laboured for her Independence, people like Zik who traversed Nigeria and Britain with unity of purpose despite their tribal differences. But present leaders are enjoying the food cooked by others, and they are looting with reckless abandon. Nothing appears to be working, no power supply, nothing functions again. – Culled from New Telegraph.