Professor Laz Ekwueme, 'Eze Ijikala II - Ozioko' Igwe Oko, Anambra State, is a man of many parts. He is an actor, choir conductor, music composer, a teacher and traditional ruler of his community.
We hardly see you in films these days. Do you still act?
Yes I do. I play Igwe roles and I have played many other roles. I act, but recently, they have not been paying me well enough to act. People like to buy you cheap. Though I am not a proud man. People think I am an arrogant bastard, who thinks the world should fall at his feet because he has a degree in music. But people confuse arrogance with pride. People confuse self-confidence with pride. When you do what you know how to do well with confidence, they say you are proud. They want to pay me peanuts and I say to them, where do you see any Ph.D holder on the screen? Where do you see a Professor on the screen? Where do you see an Igwe on the screen? Where do you see a one time university orator on the screen and you want to pay me peanuts? Yet, you are prepared to pay midgets millions. I know they are good; I like them and they are my friends but the Nollywood has suffered misfortune of being piloted by marketers. They are not interested in the quality of speech. The are not interested in the nuances of interpretation, and they don 't notice the difference between this man and that man. Because of it, they have not been calling me so frequently, and I refuse to be belittled beyond a certain level. I am not exorbitant, but some others play politics. Once they ask for me, they tell the people that Prof. Ekwueme is so busy and you can't get him. They are intimidated. They are in apparent competition with me and they want to take the small money since acting is the only thing they do.
You are a composer, an actor, a teacher and a traditional ruler. How do you combine all these? That is a very serious problem I have had to live with in the last 72 years. I 'm a man of multiple interest. I'm so diverse. I have more or less done everything to the point that it was so difficult to choose a career. The career I eventually find myself was at happenstance. I had interest in very many things right from my childhood. I had flare for singing, music, mathematics, English, tradition. I had diverse interest. At school, Government College, Umuahia, I had interest in the arts as well as in the sciences. Back then in school, we were fortunate to have very good teachers. A balanced education meant that you studied virtually everything including Religious Studies and Carpentry. But you took school certificate in subjects at that time, four arts subjects and four science subjects. You could then choose your career in either the arts or sciences. Most of my mates got into the sciences anyway; only a few went into the arts. I was good in drama at Umuahia. I could also play games a lot. Everybody had to play every game. Some of us even went into boxing. I almost went professional in boxing. Later, I changed from boxing to Karate. I am a black belter in Karate, but not at 73. It would be foolhardy for me to break tables with my fists now. But this is to show you the diversity of my interests. It was difficult for me to choose a career and having no money made it more difficult. My English master, P. J. Johnson, wanted me to read English. He took me to St Johns College in Kaduna to help him teach and establish the school in the way of Government College, Umuahia. My Maths teacher wanted me to do Engineering. My principal felt I should be a writer because I wrote for the school magazines. Of all these, I was at loss to choose a carrier. I didnt have money to go abroad at that time. So, I worked in Enugu. I followed my principal 's advice rather than that of my Maths or English teacher. But then, we had what we called festival of arts. The festivals were held in regional centres like Enugu, Ibadan, Zaria. I was good in writing, music and drama and painting. You could take examinations in music, but couldn't take examinations in theatre. I took examination in music and I won a Federal Government schorlaship to study music. That was how I left the country.
Were your parents able to suport your education abroad?
They couldn't. In fact they couldn't afford to take me to Government College, Umuahia.
So how did you go to Umuahia?
Don't think I'm being self-centered or that I am blowing my own trumpet. But at the time we went to Umuahia, you had to be very brilliant and lucky. I say that because it is the truth. My primary school headmanster, the late R. O. Iwuagwu, was a very good man. He prepared 12 of us to go to different secondary schools. GCU was the first. The first test was on mental arithmetical. It was used as an elimination process. If you didn't score up to a certain point in that arithmetic, they wouldn't bother to mark your other papers. We did test in English, Mathematics and General Knowledge. Average students could do well in English and General Knowledge, but not in Mathematics. Out of those of us that went for the entrance from Ekwulobia Primary School, we took the eight subjects. About eight among us got seven out of the eight subjects. They did not come to GCU. Three of us remaining went for the interview. There were another four subjects. One of us got three out of the four subjects, he didn't come to Umuahia. Two of us were just the ones taken finally. That was why I said luck had to do with your being accepted in Umuahia. One mistake, you are out. At Umuahia, we had three square meals a day, we had soap, we had iron to iron clothes. I had a scholarship. My late uncle paid the equipment fee. If hadn 't gone to Umuahia, I wouldn't have got scholarship to further my studies. Many of us became doctors, many became engineers and a few went into the arts. Umuahia has produced great number of writers like Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, Saro Wiwa. But many of them didn 't go into the arts. Achebe initially went to study Medicine. I gave up Medicine, because the smell of formaline makes me throw up. When I started my music, I didn't leave drama; I continued studying Drama in England. Also, languages we did in Umuahia, I found them necessary for music studies at the degree level. I had to do a language course in Italian and German.
So how many languages can you speak now?
English and Igbo very well; German and Italian, fairly well; a little Yoruba here, a little Efik there. I am just trying to explain the diverse interest that made me go into different things. While I was in England, I did a lot of acting and modelling. People thought I was good looking when I was young. If you go for ten casting session and you were chosen in all sessions, you don 't need a priest to tell you that you are good looking. I did a lot of modelling and advertising in England. I was very much also into religion. I was a Lay Reader of the Anglican Church at the age of 20. Despite my sins and all, I was pure until at least 24. I had too many interest and that may have obscured my choice of a career. I thank God that things happened that way, other wise I would have ended up as an engineer which I didnt like. I would have been a very unhappy engineer.
How come you decided to come back to Nigeria after your studies abroad?
That is a million dollar question. When I was studying in England, I was always analysing and thinking, ah, this would work in my home, this would not. I believed that when I come back, I would be the authority in music. Very few people had degree in music. I Have been very lucky to have had the best of education and having the best teachers in the world. All the shortcomings were of my own making. God has given me opportunities that are so rare. One has to be realistic. You may be a good conductor but you can 't imagine the London orchestra being conducted by a black man at that time. I had to come home. There wasn't even a question of not coming home. I came back to University of Nigeria, Nssukka, as a lecturer. I then got another scholarship to go and do a Ph.D at Yale, which obviously is America's number one university though some may say, Havard. The temptation might have come for me to stay back in the U.S. especially during the war in Nigeria. I was there in the U.S., 1966 to 1969. That was the peak of Nigerian civil war. But then, go east go west, home is still the best particularly in 1974 where there was plan to hold FESTAC '75. Prof Ade Ajayi had this vision of making UNILAG the best university in Africa. He invited the best scholars in different parts of the world to come home. I had been in America for eight years and I felt it was time go home. The war had finished in 1970 so I came back in 1974. FESTAC was moved to '77 and I played my part.
How did you adapt, coming home to teach?
I was the second person in Nigeria to hold a bachelor 's degree in music. Two other people had a bachelor of arts in music, not quite the same as a bachelor in music. Coming back to teach at Nsukka then, I was just a young Nigerian coming back from England to teach in a Nigerian university. I founded the University of Nigeria Choral Society. We became a vibrant department. UNN was the first university to introduce music as a subject. I was one of the pioneer teachers then. It was challenging but I enjoyed it. Thank God I had set my goals in England. I was sorting myself out on what was appropriate to be taught in Nigeria and even when I went to Yale for my Ph.D, I was more careful, selecting and distinguishing what was necessary for our society.
Did your parents support you when you chose to study music?
I am reminded of a mad man in my town who made a very witty statement though he was mad. A younger nephew of his started being mad, he was at the threshold of madness. The old mad man called his nephew and told him, 'my friend, the thing you are trying to get into is madness. Are you sure you can cope? I have been into it for so many years and look at how I am.' Anybody who watches those of us who have been in music and see how poorly we have fared financially, will not advise his wards to get into it. Nevertheless, popular music is the one that pays and not arts music. Nigerians love arts music anyway, but they are not prepared to pay for it. My father died when I was six and I had three brothers. The first one entered Ibadan when I entered Umuahia. He died early. He didn 't marry before he died. My second brother went to Kings College. He read Architecture, the first vice president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Dr. Alex Ekwueme. My younger brother had the best West African result in higher school. UAC gave him a scholarship to read Medicine at Ibadan. My mother was a teacher, she didnt have much say in whether we went to Kings College or GCU. There was nobody to tell us what to do or not. If you have a Federal Government scholarship to go and study music abroad, who is there to say you should not go? Will the person pay for you? My younger brother had gone to America and returned before I went to England. He had no qualms in what I was doing. He was even the one that advised me to go to Yale and not Harvard for my Ph.D.
How did you cope without a father figure in the house?
We all gave our mother big stress. Boys will always be boys. My mother used to tell us, 'All these problems you are giving me, your children will give you more.' But my mother was a fantastic woman. She didn't spare the rod. If I tell you things we went through, you will not believe it. We had uncles who helped us, but I tell you, we had a difficult childhood. There was hardly any term in my primary school that I was not sent away for fees. We would crack kernels to sell and use the money to pay our school fees. It was just God that saw us though. My mother was a widow for 50 years before she passed on at 84.
How come you didn't marry a white woman?
That is a very difficult question to answer. The relationship one gets in one 's youth with people one lives with, may vary from individual to individual. In England, many Nigerians were not very happy. The standard of living in England was not very high. Many of the homes were not heated. You come back home from school and you use a paraphine heater in your house. Your face will be burning and your back would be freezing. Many could not afford to live in centrally heated houses. Many of our people were not so well-to-do as to mingle with the upper class of the whites. But if you were happy in England as I believe I was, you would mix freely with the best of the society. You date white and black girls. It would be tempting to marry one of them, but if you have come from a fairly good home, even if you are not rich, you will know that it will not be convenient for you to bring a white woman home under the circumstances of your society. We found that many of those marriages didn't quite work. An average white woman would look very beautiful in her teens, but once they clock 35, they age more rapidly. An African woman will keep looking beautiful even in her 60s. I didnt go straight from Umuahia to England, I worked for some time. Even before I left for England, I had friends who were white and I went to their homes. I interacted a lot with them when I went to England. But before I went to England, I had got engaged to a Nigerian. She was my first love and nothing could distract me from marrying her. I was a member of Students Christian Movements and I had my morals. The question of marrying a white woman did not arise. It was not as if I wasn 't tempted but I learnt self-discipline in Umuahia.
Tell us how you met your first love
You must remember that I am 73 and memory fades. Everything cannot be as exact as it might have been then. The girl I was engaged to was my godfather 's daughter. We grew up together, eight years younger, innocent and beautiful. We had same characters and we were naturally attracted to each other. But we parted ways. I was in England and she was in Nigeria. As at the time I came back to Nigeria teaching at UNN, she entered University of Ibadan. There was a war and she came back to Nsukka. For about nine years, we weren't together. By the times we came together, things had changed. Many waters had passed under the bridge on both sides.
So, you eventually married someone else
As a traditional ruler, it is allowed for you to take more than one wife?
It is not allowed, it is said to be allowed. If you are not a Christian, you can take more than one wife. I am a traditional ruler that can 't afford one wife not to talk of another one. I have enough headaches trying to maintain one wife and three children. I dont have girlfriends.
There is this belief that for you to be a king, you must appease the gods. Did you get to do that? What are gods? When an African Religion practitioner erects a shrine in the name of his forefathers and puts a stature there and he comes to offer libation and make sacrifices there. Is it that he is just using it as a symbol to reach the main God? I believe that is his intention. Since he cannot see God, he has a visible, tangible token which represents, for him, the unseen God. He is not worshiping the idol, he is worshiping God, but using idol as a symbol. To come to your question, I didn't have to go through any ritual other than the Christianity I know. When I was coronated, there was a bishop there. There was an archdeacon. People from different churches were there. But there was the head of the Ozo. I took Ozo title. If there is anything against Christianity in the Ozo title, remove it and take the title. If there is anything wrong in masquerade, remove it and continue with the festival. It is a sport and a culture of the people. No traditional ruler in my town has to go through any pagan rite to be made an Igwe or Oba. But some so called sanctimonious Christains think that you have sinned if you take an Ozo title.
As an Igwe, does your elder brother, former vice president, Alex Ekwueme, prostrate to you?
My niece got married recently and somebody asked me if my brother would stand up when I arrived. I explained this way. He would have been the Igwe but he felt, and I agree with him, that he would be more useful to the town not being the Igwe. There was no need for him to be tied down. Moreover, as at the time my uncle died, he was still in politics vying for the presidency of Nigeria. Because he couldnt be the Igwe, the town decided that they would accept whoever he nominated. It fell on me. I wasn 't prepared for it, but if I didn't accept it, the throne would have left my family. But the constitution has been amended now. The Igweship would be rotated from now on. You see, in Oko, Anambra State, everybody stands up when the Igwe comes, but when the Ide comes (and he is my brother), everybody, including the Igwe, stands up for him.
What do you miss as a teacher?
I have many things in my head I need to put down on paper, but I dont have time for it because I am called upon every time. After 38 years of teaching, my pension is only about N8,000 a month. It doesnt last one week. Our governor does not pay traditional rulers much. We are paid 75, 000 a month. I have to find a means of surviving. As to what I miss, I miss much, yet nothing. We dont have quality students any longer. We have many illiterate graduates and it upsets me.