My Career in Music started Under A Big Tree
- Legendary Anioma Musician – Etiti Okonji
It is impossible to write the history of Anioma traditional music without his inclusion. Such will appear below expectation. Legendary Ibusa-born musician, Etiti Okonji speaks to EMEKA ESOGBUE on issues relating to his personality, lifetime experiences, career and generally, the state of traditional music in Anioma. These and more are brought to you in this explosive interview. Excerpts:
Esogbue: You are a famous Anioma traditional musician from Ibusa, well-respected for your accomplishments in this endeavour. Can you share with us how your career started?
Okonji: My parents were music inclined so I inherited music from them. And when we were young, Ogbogu (Okonji) and I used to play at a particular place, under a big tree. From there, I became serious about music. When I was 12, we, Ogbogu (Okonji) and I started playing traditional music together. We were so inclined in traditional music that once our Igbuzo people discovered that we were talented, they began to invite us to perform for them. This motivated us to establish a traditional dance band together. Incidentally, we met one Ejeteh, who is now late. I cannot remember his first name now. We kept moving and around 1979, we came to Lagos and it was at this stage that Ogbogu (Okonji) informed me that he had started a group known as “Otu Ife Onye Lolu Nwa Nmadu”. Then I came to Lagos immediately and joined them.
Esogbue: Your mention of Otu Ife Onye Lolu Nmadu has taken me down the memory lane. This musical group shook Ibusa and Anioma as a whole. You did some releases, parted ways and returned to do “Angelina” but…
Okonji: … (cuts in) That was “Ajukwu Special”
Esogbue: … Oh yes! Now, I remember this “Ajukwu Special” as the title of that particular album. Your group also did “Egwusi” but along the line, something happened, just at the climax of the group, which I am trying to point out. Incidentally, you and Ogbogu Okonji parted ways just when the people were beginning to enjoy your band. Looking back, our readers will like to know what was responsible for the disintegration.
Okonji: (Cuts in) I would say it was difficult because we didn’t seem to understand each other. Personally, I believe we formed Otu Ife onye Lolu Nwa Nmadu as a brotherly group and loved ourselves at the time. Well, that was between 1978/79. You would see us eating together and going to places together. We could even go from Palm Grove to Alaka to see one of our band members. We really loved ourselves. But all of a sudden, let me say because of money, Ogbogu (Okonji) deserted us and left for Port Harcourt on invitation by a traditional group in that area to join them. Despite that, the rest of us vowed that we would continue with the group to play together. After about five months, when he came back, around 1983/84, Alhaji Ajukwu, a prominent person at the time from Ibusa, you should know him; came to my house and requested that we come together because he wanted us to do an album for him. I agreed and later explained to Ogbogu Okonji that we needed to reconcile and he agreed. So we did the album for him. That was the reconciliation. We started playing together once more. All of a sudden again, this time about 1989, he (Ogbogu Okonji) came to my house to say he was not satisfied with what was happening in the group and I asked him what the matter was. He said he wanted to form his own group. So I said okay if you want to form your own group, I cannot advise you against it. As for me, I am satisfied with Otu Ife Onye Lolu Nwa Nmadu. So he left with some of the key members of our band like Nwadishi, late Cletus Okocha and Obichie that played the big gong. Obiechie is one of the oldest members of his band today. With determination, I regrouped Otu Ife Onye Lolu Nwa Nmadu and we released our first album, “Uwagadi Nma” which is also “Ndi Oko”.
Esogbue: You are renowned for the use of proverbs which touch on societal values. They say you bring out the ills in the society and help to impact moral lessons. How do you derive this inspiration?
Okonji: (Laughs) it is as a result of the good work of the Almighty God. When I was involved in accident in 1993 and hospitalized, I was praying to God to heal me as I was limited to a particular spot. Interestingly, every minute or hour, a song would just strike me on my hospital bed, I was always singing. Now, you can see that my inspiration comes from the Almighty God (laughs)
Esogbue: Some traditional musicians from Ibusa often complain that despite their musical contributions to the community, the society itself does little or nothing to promote them. Why do these people dance to your music but don’t promote you?
Okonji: (Laughs) well, well, it is a surprising situation anyway. It is true that many admire my genre of music but I would say that a few like Frank Nwabudike found my music exciting. Frank Nwabudike helped me a lot. He provided us with part of the musical instruments that we are using till today. Really, a few Ibusa people encourage traditional music while others don’t care. When you go to Lagos State or Yorubaland as a whole, you see a lot of “small” traditional musicians encouraged by their people. You will see them traveling to USA and other countries to perform. For example, when we started, me and Ogbogu (Okonji), Obesere was always helping musicians to move hired musical instruments around Itire area. Back then, when we came to hire instruments, he would be the one to load them inside the van for us. All of a sudden, we just observed that he had started playing music. All of a sudden, he is in the UK; he is everywhere. Our people should begin to help the young generation.
Esogbue: Mr. Okonji, in all, how many albums do you have to your credit?
Okonji: well, roughly over 16 to 17.
Esogbue: …And which is your favourite sir?
Okonji: I find all my songs beautiful and unique in their own ways.
Esogbue: One could assert that your generation of traditional musicians does little to mentor others. Is this true?
Okonji: Not true! The young ones are learning but they are always in a haste to learn. All of a sudden, you just hear they are on their own. I always encourage and mentor many of them.
Esogbue: But why is it that they hardly take over from you, Mr. Etiti Okonji?
Okonji: Well, some people are taking over. If you come to Ibusa you will see small boys learning how to sing and coming up with their own dance band.
Esogbue: Is any of your children already manifesting the talent to take over from you in music as a whole?
Okonji: Well, at the moment, I will say none. But my first son sometimes plays English kind of music. However, for the traditional aspect, you will hear him say, “No, I no fit”.
Esogbue: From Anioma, a lot of them say they are missing you. Are you still active in music?
Okonji: Yes, I am fully on it
Esogbue: …. That is when invited to perform, do you honour it?
Okonji: Yes, I am always available. As I said earlier, I was dormant after that accident but now, I am very much active. They have been inviting me round Anioma and I have been meeting up.
Esogbue: That’s very wonderful sir, but now, Mr. Okonji, what is wrong with the music of the old and now? Have you noticed any disparity?
Okonji: That is true because when we started our music, we didn’t introduce modern instruments such as guitar and keyboard but now they are in vogue in our cultural music. Our core Anioma genre is dying. Some of my fans are asking that I should drop the guitar and play undiluted music to retain our typical genre. I accepted but this could only be possible if a willing sponsor comes up to springboard me. I can play it but I need some encouragements to achieve it.
Esogbue: I hope I can ask you this particular question: If an opportunity throws up in which case, you are requested to do collaboration with your cousin, Ogbogu Okonji, would you readily accept it?
Okonji: (Laughs) Yes! Yes! It’s not a big deal. I will do that. I am not God. I have that brotherly love for him.
Esogbue: That’s good to know! So far, any regret in this journey?
Okonji: (Laughs) Yes that was around 1993/1994 when I had this accident. It was a period the Ibusa society was at its peak and needed me also to offer my own contributions and I was unhappy about it. That was the time I lost everything but I am happy seeing myself and my family. Nonetheless, I am comfortable today so I thank God. I give him the glory.
Esogbue: So who is Etitibueze Okonji?
Okonji: I grew up in a good family. My father, Nwanze Okonji was a man of integrity. Obi Okonji, my father was a man the community loved. He was the Onu Diokpa (Diokpa’s Spokesperson). People loved him and I grew up to emulate him because he was my mentor. I live a simple life and never quarrel with people. I believe in myself. I am myself.
Esogbue: Any advice for the young ones who intend to take Anioma traditional music?
Okonji: I will advise them to be up and doing. They should be diligent and be close to the experienced ones to learn very well.
Esogbue: Thank you very much for talking to us.
Okonji: Thank you Elder Esogbue