Bongos Ikwue no doubt is one of Nigeria’s most successful singers, song writers, composers and band leaders who bestrode the Nigerian music scene like a colossus from the 70s through the 80s and even 90s with his unique blend of folk, country and jazzy songs that soothe as they morally instruct. Bongos Ikwue has come full circle, after taking a detour from his musical habitat to fulfill his professional calling as an engineer. He was in Abuja last week for one of his official engagements where OSBY ISIBOR caught up with him. He spoke on his musical career, the future of Nigerian music industry and other sundry national issues.
As one of Nigeria’s musical icons who brought fame to the country’s musical industryright from the 60s, can you take us back to how it all started?
I was a chronic stammer and I got to find out that stammers don’t stutter when they sing. I got into lots of fighting each time I thought I got badly beaten. So, I started singing. In my days in the secondary school, we had what they called ‘record song books’ and records from foreign lands were written out in these books.
The young boys and girls would buy this book and sing along with the record as it played. But I didn’t do that; instead I would always want to write my own song. In the secondary school, they gave me a nick name “Forge”. They thought I was forging the songs, because I tried to write an original song.
So, at house parties, I would always get up and sing my own song about events in the school. And I kept that up from the secondary school until 1963 at the Provincial Secondary School, Okene where I formed and led a group called the Cubana Boys. And we sang songs about the school.
I remember very well, very well indeed when some groups came from Kaduna to show a film called the ‘British Movie Tones’ and these films would only highlight things about Britain, the Queen and her empire and all of that. I came up with the micro-phone on the stage and the students shouted that they should allow me sing for them.
They preferred for me to sing for them than to watch the film. That gave me a lot of encouragement. And I could go on and on, but that was how I actually started.
What actually inspired you into music?
Well, that is a difficult question for me to answer. I think a lot of artistes have influenced my musical career. I think people are born; a writer is born, a good runner is born and then, he begins to practice and he gets better. I think the inspiration must have come from above. That’s who we are and we are all created to add different colours to this wonderful world.
Looking back at the different albums you have been able to produce over the years, which of them would you say is most inspiring to you?
That’s a great question and I am happy today. Particularly happy today because the gentle man standing right in my front has come all the way from France. And I am going to use a French poet who answered a question like this. They asked him: “Which of your poems is the greatest?”
And he brought a plain piece of paper and said this: ‘And somebody said I can’t see anything.’ He said look well, pointing at the plain sheet of paper in his hand. Then, he said, ‘you see my greatest poem is the one I have not written.
So, I think my greatest song is the one I have not yet written.’ I have whole lots of songs coming up, may be out of what is coming in this couple of months, I may have my greatest song. But, you see, since I have written it, can there still be a greatest song there?
For most Nigerians who have followed your musical career right from the 60s, they believe you’ve always been original, never tried to imitate any artiste, local or international. How would you react to this?
No, I got influenced a lot by other artistes. You know, we all get influenced otherwise we will be so rigid. You must admire somebody and want to be like somebody. The only thing is don’t over do it, because you can never be that somebody. At the end of the day, if you have learned what you have to learn, come back and be yourself.
Of course, I was influenced by artistes like Sam Cooke, Hopkins Lightning, Jonnies, the Ishie Brothers and I can go on and on.
And when I was much younger, I almost had a voice that everybody said sounded like Sam Cooke and I think as I got older, the voice got bigger.
And there are great artistes out there that I admire and enjoy listening to: B.B King plays his own guitar like nobody else does and like I said, Jonnies was a great singer in this country, unfortunately he died. If he was alive I would have liked to work with him. He was such an original artistes.
What inspires you in writing your songs?
You asked what inspires me? You are writing about people, so you must take a look at people and write about them, for them and for us. Take a song like Mustapha and Christopher. We are living in a world today and I believe that religion has brought so many calamities and unnecessary enmity between people and so, I would play down religion and play up God.
You see, if you play down religion and play up God, we will be doing great work for humanity. And so, I have written songs like ‘Your God is my God’, ‘Mustapha and Christopher’ in recent times.
Mustapha meaning Muslims and Christopher meaning Christians. The boy called Mustapha, like the moon and star are far. He was brought up to be forever far from that Christopher.
This they called religion. But if we listen to nature’s call and don’t let religious differences make a wall, then Mustapha and Christopher will live together. This is my religion and my message.
One of your hit tracks, “What’s Gonna Be Gonna Be”, somehow along the line generated some sort of controversies. Different meanings were ascribed to the title of that song by different people. Can you provide an insight into this?
‘What’s Gonna Be Gonna Be’ is an old song, but everybody keeps playing it and it sounds like it is new. I think the song is almost older than you. I don’t have all the answers. You know sometimes you wake up and you start writing. I don’t know, but I know that I am speaking my own mind. A lot of things happen like that.
There is still one of your hit tracks “still searching”. What message were you trying to pass with that song?
You know, some songs that become hits, you can ask a lot of artistes, they have always wondered why. At the time of writing if you ask me to pick all the songs, I probably would have picked that song as number five out of seven or eight songs.
But, it became the number one. Everybody is always searching. I think at that time I was a very young man and I wasn’t married. So, how come you are asking me this question? What else could I be searching for?
What should Nigerians be expecting from you in the next one year?
As I said, the only thing is laziness, the only religion is work. My message for this country is very huge. Nigerians should be dedicated and committed to hard work. We should learn to preserve our natural environment and avoid wastages.
As one of Nigeria’s famous musician, how would you describe the music industry in Nigeria?
Unfortunately, the music industry has changed just like everything else. Today we are in a very different world. People are downloading and uploading through the internet. These things were not there before. The coming of the internet and cell phones has changed the world. And so must we learn to change with it. The way we promote and market things have all changed and so has the music industry.
A lot of artists don’t know how to sell their work. Again, because of the advent of technology, a lot of Nigerian musicians have become lazy. The industry has changed but we need to change. We need to find a way to play what people will buy and listen to, and find a way to market it. This is a huge job, a huge problem confronting us all in this country.
What challenges have you so far been faced with in your musical career?
Plenty of them. I mean there are as many challenges as there are many non-challenges. Without challenges there can be no success.
Just like I said, there are two tribes in this world; the good and the bad. If you look at life, there must be a state of equilibrium. If there was no justice, there will be no injustice. I can go on and on. Everything in this world exists because there is an equal and opposing element. There is nothing in this world that can be without the opposite. If there were no challenges, there can be no success.
What is your message to the young artistes who aspire to be great like you?
My message is very simple. Nigerian youths, Nigerian people I have a two line philosophy. The only thing is laziness, the only religion is work. Very simply put. I think they have their own fans, but you see, maybe we were all created differently, it’s not about me or about them, it’s about everything.
It is about society too. Why do we allow ourselves as a country to be completely bombarded by foreign propaganda? Why? You know today’s young Nigerians have their teams in Man-united and Chelsea, they don’t remember one local club’s name.
Our young people must be trained first to know themselves. Self esteem. We must come to terms with reality always. I am Idoma, I am a Nigerian. I have to come to terms with this. I will die Idoma, I will die a Nigerian.
Once you come to terms with that, then you are going to respect your essence. You are going to respect your people; you are going to respect yourself. And until you know yourself, until you understand this, we all have a long way to go.
With all your fame, your music has not really made impact outside the shores of Nigeria when compared with musicians like the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey. What would you attribute to this?
Well, I don’t know, maybe that’s good for them. I am a patriot; I like my country and I hope am going to make more impact in Nigeria first. And then, may be if the outside world is interested, that becomes their business.
I mean, I live my life for me. Am not going to sit down here and be told by a white man that pounded yam is not good or it is this. I like it because I think it is great.