By Fred Iwenjora
What makes Chief Romanus Nwaementa Okonkwo, managing director of Rogers All Stars, a rare human being is that he was able to set up, and still runs a gigantic business empire with tentacles across the globe without a secondary school education. A consummate business genius and grand master in business administration, he combines his rare knowledge in the management of men and materials for the production, distribution and marketing of music. He is also a real forecaster who recognises a star artiste whenever he sees one.
In this interview, the man, fondly called Rogers, goes down memory lane on the bits and pieces of his life and continues to glorify God for all his successes. He also gives an insight into the expansive world of recording business and the secret of the company’s survival over the years, amongst other issues.
How did you start the journey of music production and marketing?
My master was Sir Fabian Igbodoukwu, owner of Right Time Records. He showed me the way. He, on his own part served CT Onyekwelu, the big recording mogul of that era. They both hailed from Nawfia in Anambra State . My sister was married to one of the close relations of CT Onyekwelu and they handed me over to Right Time for internship just immediately after my first school leaving certificate exams. In those years, we sold records of great artistes like Rex Lawson, Eddie Okonta, Celestine Ukwu, Erasmus Januari. From Ghana came the famous Ramblers Dance Band, Star Gazers, etc. Serving one of the top music dealers in Nigeria at that time exposed me as we traveled at will to seek out the best in music. I learnt so much about music production and marketing at that tender age.
How did the name Rogers All Stars come about?
I spent seven years with my master, and I was settled to go on my own. After that, it was time for me to take a name. I first toyed with the name, All Stars, but there was a clash so I changed it to Rogers All Stars, which linked up with the name I was already known with. I used to be a regular DJ about town and I used to take our equipment to different dances. Most parties rocked because Rogers of Right Time Records was on the musical box.
Could you make a list of your albums?
We have recorded over 200 albums of different artistes from Nigeria and the entire West Africa . There are even several of the albums that were recorded without making it after release while some others may not have been released at all. We had a lot of musicians both local and international on our label with several catalogues. There are some that were not recognized; there are artistes when they come we take them to the studio to start their albums but along the line, if we discovered that the person is not talented to do that work, we stop there and advise the artist to go to school because it is not everybody that will be a super star. If I see the born artiste, I would know.
How do you know a great artiste?
I listen to the message and the voice. The rhythm is our work to create. We also take note of the artiste and his art, stature and physique to see if it is sellable. We also check out the number of tracks you have to make an album and give the listeners variety. Nowadays young people go to the studio to record a track and pay radio station to play the track. When you start looking for the album you would not see it. The quality may also be very poor. So many artistes of these days come together with other 12 artistes to do what they call collabo album. I don’t know what is happening. There seems to be so much unhealthy competition in the music business now as every one wants to be a star. You only find just a few unique artistes as every one imitates the other.
You have come a long way and have the secrets of getting out the best from an artiste. Could you share these secrets?
When I have an artiste I know what to do to get the best because I have seen the highest standards of artiste management and the business of it because my music was sold internationally. I worry these days about what we record as sound. It is unfortunate. People can’t sing; they bark like dogs and people are dancing. In those days, music was played with discipline and not anyhow. I gathered so much experience in seven years. I started by buying and selling records until I decided to record artistes. I would take my artistes to DECCA, Lagos where many big artistes from across Africa were recorded. At that time also, I traveled regularly to East Africa, Kenya , Congo and all those places to buy records. I knew Franco Makiadi, leader of the famous Ok Jazz, Tabu Ley and Rocheroux first hand and sold their music in Nigeria . They were big artistes from Congo and Zaire known world wide. Their names still ring in world music.
When did you make the first trip to Congo?
I traveled to Congo Kinshasa for the first time in 1965, two years after getting freedom from my master. I went for the passport and then to the Zaire Embassy in Lagos for visa. I told the man who interviewed me that I was going to his country to buy music as a dealer. He expressed surprise at my boldness considering my young age and advised me where to get my ticket. I bought it from Air Sabena and travelled the next day. I employed a translator who assisted me because I couldn’t speak French. They took me to Franco Makiadi, leader and owner of OK Jazz Orchestra. We met at one of his very expensive hotels. We discussed several business ideas and I was taken to the record company that manufactured his music as well as other big musicians. I made my selections of the best; the ones I knew the fans would love. The moment I landed at Onitsha , the stock I had bought finished immediately so I was encouraged and had to travel again? It went on like that until the last trip which shook me to my marrows. It was in 1967 when we were on air and there was an announcement that the Nigerian Civil war had started.
It must have been very traumatic to hear that announcement?
We were to land in Lagos but were diverted to Ivory Coast because of the disturbances. We spent four days in Abidjan . After four days we landed in Lagos where the Army was in control of everything. There were no immigration officials anywhere. We were all very apprehensive. When they opened my boxes they saw that they were records. They had suspected it was ammunition in the boxes and had corked their guns to fire me to pieces. They started jubilating when they saw that what I had were records some of which they knew. They started taking their choices until their boss ordered them to leave them for the owner. They asked where I was coming from and I told them. They asked where I was going and I told them Asaba. Again they saw my name Okonkwo and asked more questions. Asaba people also bear such names. The boxes were four and I eventually gave them some complimentary copies of records. They dropped me at Maryland where I took a taxi to Iddo where I saw confusion. Igbo’s were jammed at Iddo Park leaving Lagos for the east. So, I chartered a car to Asaba. All the boxes were neatly packed at the back of the car while I sat in front with the driver. At Ikorodu road, there were massive road checks, with soldiers everywhere. Whenever they saw the boxes, there was an alert and the solders holler again and again about boxes of arms until they saw the records. I learnt that music had no enemy just as musicians have no enemies. Those records saved me throughout the trip until we landed at Asaba. It was at the Niger bridge head Asaba that my suffering started. The Army and the police kept asking where I was coming from. They dragged me for over one hour asking for money and I didn’t have. They also took records of their choices after subjecting me to declaring all I had. I took the next cab to my one room apartment on 71, Old Market Road , Onitsha , close to CT Onyekwelu’s house in those days. It was later in the evening at about 8p.m., that I took the consignment to my shop at Bright Street , Onitsha . Record dealers and other music lovers lined up and I made instant money from the trip. I make bold to say that it was the relationship I had with the Congolese that gave me rights to negotiate with the artistes and companies in Congo to reduce the regular trips to Nigeria and begin to manufacture in Jos where a factory was located. At that time music was profitable, unlike now. The atmosphere then was good for music business and entertainment. During the raging war, I stayed in the east until the war was over.
How did you pick up again after the war?
The three-year war killed every business. My shop was blown away and damaged by enemy planes which shelled everywhere until Onitsha fell. We all went into the army and fought in the war for about two years until the war ended. During the war, I was a member of the Fourth Platoon of the Biafran Army. We fought at Uzuakoli. I went back to my village after the war. I had a black suit which I used whenever I traveled to Congo . My mother had safeguarded that suit for me as a prized possession. So, she gave it to me when I arrived from the warfront. A voice spoke to me asking me where to go from then. I waited for the answer. It was a soul searching period for me. After the war there was one Nigeria soldier who stayed back at my village, Umuokpu who bought the suit for some Nigeria pounds. I drank beer and got drunk for two days before I went to Lagos with some of the money. When I got to DECCA and the white manager saw me, he showed me my old account books and told me that I had accumulated some commission worth 245 pounds or more. They had asked me if I was still interested in the music business so they could supply me. I said no because I could read from the mood in the east that what the Igbo man wanted at that time was not music and merrymaking but food for the injured, the subdued and the defeated. I told them I needed to get into food business. I recalled that when I was coming on that trip to Lagos I saw Igbo women rushing for salt at the River Niger waterside in Asaba because the bridge was broken and it was ferry that served to cross people from Onitsha to Asaba. I had seen John Holt office around Broad Street , Lagos and saw salt so I went in and negotiated it to 200 pounds worth which turned out to be a Bedford lorry load of goods. The John Holt people assisted me. I also bought a Raleigh bicycle. I was so happy that I didn’t remember I hadn’t eaten.
Your excitement must have been because you had so much money in that goods lorry?
I believe so. We left in the evening. I was seated at the front while the guard, the driver’s assistant who puts the wedge was at the back. The journey was good, the road was clear, no robbers on the road and I didn’t sleep. The driver stopped at Ore for us to eat. I was just praying to reach Asaba. I was anxious. When we got to Asaba around 8 a.m and were driving to park, an inquisitive businessman that saw the lorry and its contents ran to tell me the going rate for salt. I calculated it with my Daily Reckoner which was always around me like calculator of nowadays. I checked the cost of the salt, the chartered vehicle, the bicycle and all the loading and offloading and pegged the price. Someone cleared the entire load and paid for it there and then at the front of the vehicle.
That marked your return to the business world?
Oh yes. I went to look for a shop in Awka that same day I returned from my Lagos trip. I gave my mum money to cook rice and chicken. I decided that I may never go to Lagos again in the nearest future but opened up a provision shop and regularly traveled to Agbor for the goods. It was much later that I started again with DECCA after the provision store had stabilised. That is why I tell any one that I have every reason to praise the Lord as God did plenty for me. I don’t play with Him. Before I do anything I call on him. That was why I took the Knighthood of St. John’s International because I believe that whatever I have today comes from Him.
How did you meet Prince Nico who is arguably one of your famous artistes?
He was one of the musicians playing around Onitsha in those days. He knew me while I did not know him very well. This time around, I had moved into a flat on Benjamin Street , Onitsha . I recall he strolled into my house wearing bathroom slippers one day. He had come to plead with me to come to Plaza Hotel where his band played to listen to his new composition. My wife was with me when he came. I made out time and went to the Plaza Hotel to listen to the band. They played very well, the kind of sound I brought in from Congo . I challenged him to compose something for mothers. I told him to think deeply about it. I recall all the time what my mother did for me and the importance of mothers all over the world. It was not long after my challenge that he told that he had the track. I went again to Plaza Hotel and he played Sweet Mother, I cried uncontrollably because it was very good music. My head was swollen and I emptied all I had in my pocket on the group. The crowd enjoyed the music and I was very happy. I told him there and then that I was going to record him. Before Sweet Mother, Prince Nico had done Man don tire which sold for a while and dropped in sales. After Sweet Mother came Aki Special and all the great albums and a star was made.
Another group that made waves in those early years of Rogers All Stars records was the Ikenga Superstars. How did you meet them?
The group was then playing at Central Hotel, Onitsha . They said they wished to record for me. I went to see them play and I loved their sound. I made arrangement with Pele Asampete from Agulu and they recorded Awala awala and Ikenga Ga anum which was an arrangement I gave them from my East African experience.
When you look back, what do you think about yourself and music?
When I look back, I realise that God made me for music. I have ears for good sound that is of commercial quality and I think it is a gift from God.
At what point did you incorporate Rogers All Stars?
The company was incorporated in 1977 as a limited liability company. It was in the course of production and marketing of African sound that my international connections widened. And this expansion gave rise to the setting up of Rogers All Stars Studios at Umuokpu. Then, musicians started coming to Nigeria from all over Africa to record. Umuokpu became commercial community as some of these international musicians rented houses within. We first set up a demo studio at Okolo Street , Onitsha . It then graduated to the main studio at Umuokpu. Several notable producers including the late Jake Solo started bringing their artistes to record and they attracted others. The studio was opened in 1982. I have been a busy man since I started out. I thank my God because I am healthy and can run anytime any day.
Piracy is said to be the music producers trouble, how did you face these faceless people in your days?
The issue of piracy in the world of music is a real and serious problem dealing blows to the business of production and marketing of music worldwide. Sweet Mother was pirated worldwide. Even today, I still see it as the most pirated song in the world. I recall when I was almost killed in Nairobi , Kenya while on the heels of pirates who pirated Sweet Mother then. I had heard of this Kenyan pirate and went to see why he was doing that. He said it was Right Time Records, my master who gave him right over Sweet Mother. He also said C. U. Nwiga who was then of EMI also gave him permission. I knew that no other person had right over the sale and distribution of Sweet Mother except me. I hired a lawyer in Kenya where the music was selling like hot cake. I did not know that the lawyer had connived with the pirate and they sent two bad guys to run me out of town. They had dark goggles and were monitoring my movements throughout my stay. They trailed me to the hotel, sat before me and gave me a stern warning to leave town with the next available flight. I left that hotel that night and checked into another one. I left Kenya and have never been there again ever since.
Also, in those days, Tabansi Records had imported about 20,000 copies of Sweet Mother from Europe . It was pirated by an Indian company. Till today, piracy seems an evil no one can curb. We have set up task force after another yet, piracy still thrives.
What advice do you have for up coming musicians?
If you do not have talent, don’t force yourself into music as there are other things to do aside from music. Most studios are fully booked these days yet all that are recorded are not sold. You tend to hear music which are hits only on radio, yet you don’t see the products. How is sales measured other than numbers duplicated and duly bought and paid for? Nigerian air waves are flooded with rubbish, but only few that are called to do music make it. If you have someone willing to pay your school fees why don’t you stay in school and graduate? Must you play music because there are other people playing it? I keep praying to God to forgive us and show us the light because we have strayed so much. Our radio and television stations are not helping matters. Music is played on radio because musicians pay for it to be played. No one knows that there is music that should not be broadcast. Have you gone to a children’s party lately? Even five year olds want to whine and reveal their nakedness as if the world is coming to an end.
Aside God, what other things has kept you going strong?
What has also contributed in keeping us going is that we are doing this business the way we feel it is good between God and man. I am grateful to God for the life he has given me. As you can see now, my children are now involved. One of my sons is making corrections in the sound and video while the other is at the studios working as well. The other is involved in importation of entertainment products. I have three daughters as well as three male children and I am blessed.
Who are your most influential artistes?
I won’t fail to mention Prince Nico whose family is still receiving royalties from all his works. Also Bright Chimezie had been with Rogers since 1982. Chief Sammy Kofi of Okukuseku is still a bossom friend and still in touch with us even after relocating to his home country. They are still receiving good royalties. Rogers All Stars studios are still running strong because we have the best equipment and we maintain them.
Do you see the recording business as tough business?
Recording business is very tough. For you to complete any good recording and have quality video require several millions of naira. If the music does not sell, then you would have lost that money. So, it is tough to make the right investment decision because that money would have bought you a car or built you a house but you chose to record music and release an artiste who may end up calling you names. It is tough really.
What kind of upbringing did you have?
Why I always say my success is in the hand of God is that I come from a very poor family; my parents couldn’t pay my fees to go to secondary school. How can I lie about my background when I know the reality of my existence? I got a grade A in my First School Leaving Certificate. I had passed all my secondary school entrance to go to Hussey College , Warri, Urhobo College , St. Patrick’s College, Asaba or Government College , Ughelli. There were no funds. My master who I lived with then couldn’t muster that. I hoped on a scholarship but all the awarding organisations wanted me enrolled first and my performance noted before considering me for scholarship, so I missed secondary school as no one stood to pay the first enrollment fee. I cried and came home to my village where someone negotiated for me to go and do apprenticeship with a records dealer and God has blessed me abundantly.
How old are you sir?
You won’t believe me if I tell you this, I do not know my birthday because my parents were too poor to record that day. Everyone is guessing. However, my elder brother who also did not know his age told me a date around the year of the eclipse, according to what my mum said and I have used that date since I got an international passport. But I don’t want to tell dates because it still may be a lie. However, I tell people I was born April 14, 1946. In that case I would be 67 on April 14, 2013. I know there are several people who can’t tell their ages and whatever they say may be mere guesses. I am one of them.