(Continued from last week)
In the first tranche of our encounter with him, last week, Prof. Lazarus Ekwueme, world acclaimed musicologist, composer and scholar, and the Igwe of Oko, Anambra State, spoke about his childhood, the crucible he and his siblings had to pass through on account of their father’s early death, his insatiable thirst for knowledge that saw him acquiring a long chain of degrees like his elder brother, Alex Ekwueme, and those moving incidents that shaped his life and defined his destiny.
In this final part, the elder statesman talks about his disappointments with Nigeria, and his primary constituency, the academia.
It’s quintessential Laz.
Please, read on:
How do you see the theatre in Nigeria?
Well, like I told you, theatre was my original love, indeed. Music was part of theatre. As a teenager, I saw myself as a film star, in the musical type where you would sing and dance like in an opera. I did opera at school. I studied in England and did a lot of theatre in England. I played for BBC for four years (radio and television); so, I don’t see any conflict in being in theatre. The stage thing would take you a while to rehearse and memorize your part and then you have one or two shows. But the film is still Nigerian method, soaked up so that you don’t have to stay for too long. You do it bit by bit. It becomes laborious because people are not educated; they speak bad grammar; and they are generally not well versed with the theatre method. Otherwise it’s fun. I enjoy it. I can do with some more such appearances because the little sum you get there helps you make ends meet.
There is this impression out there that your generation has not done enough to help Nigeria get the type of theatre it deserves…
(Cuts in…)Well, it is not my generation, nor the generation below us. There is nothing wrong with our generation or the generation below us. What is wrong is the fact that Nigerians don’t believe in hard work. They don’t believe in training. They don’t even know quality. They don’t accept this. So, it’s anything goes because people are not prepared to subject themselves to the rigours of study. They are not ready to go through the pains of studying methods and sharpen their talents.
Look at our politicians, it’s anything goes. Nobody wants to learn anything and the populace is equally ignorant. They don’t know the difference, so, they accept anything; the cheap material goes. If you believe in aesthetic quality and you have studied and trained for it and have it as a value, there is not much you can do. The marketers who promote these things are just making money and as far as they are concerned, the lower they can pay, the better for them. Why should they pay somebody because he speaks Queen’s English when they can get somebody who can do it for one-tenth the price and they sell their movies? These are the problems. It is not that the generation does not care much, but the country itself is uneducated and does not want to learn. We have written about this so many times but what do you do? If you can’t beat them, you join them, and if you can’t join them, you opt out like I did. These are the problems.
How often do you sit back to see Nigerian movies and plays on television or on the big screen?
Not very much. I don’t really have much time to watch them. But occasionally, I do and I look at them analytically.
When I came back in 1974, what was on then were Village Headmaster and Masquerade and those who were playing leading parts then were people like Ibidun Alison and the rest. These were people who were playing minor parts for me in the BBC in 1960s. So, they said ‘come back’, and I came and saw how the place was so ill-provided for. There was no constant electricity; there was no air-conditioning; the cameras were not working and quality was not there. So, I said this was not for me and I backed away from the movies.
It was not until the 1980s and 1990s when the standard started becoming better that I got back into it and decided to take part and see what I could make as a contribution towards improving the situation. That’s where we are now. Sometimes, when I watch them, I look at it critically and laugh. At times, I accept it as a growing up problem and say to myself that we are improving.
As it is now, can you put your money into the Nigerian film industry by way of investment?
Well, I had put in some money in the past and got burnt very seriously because you still have to sell it through these marketers. You cannot go into the market; they control it and you have to depend entirely on them to sell it. It is difficult. I am still hoping that if I have some money, I would do some more but that’s the situation as it is now.
Looking at Nigeria of today, compared to the one you grew up in, what are your regrets?
One has too many regrets. So, where do you start? The truth is that every society gets the type of government it deserves. The Nigerian society has myriads of problems like ethnicity, lack of general education, lack of idealistic dose, ignorance, lack of intellectualism. And when merit does not count, you find that you have to lobby for everything and anything.
For instance, look at myself, 38 years of humanistic teaching, I have the highest honour Nigeria can bestow on people for intellectual and academic achievement, that’s the Nigerian National Order of Merit. I have made my mark in scholarship, leadership, artistic performances, led Nigerian contingents abroad many times and in many ways, yet I have never been appointed to a federal board or the board of a parastatal or anything like that. Why? Because I don’t know how to lobby. We were brought up with the orientation that merit would count. People would see you for what you are doing. But here, if you don’t ask and demand and go and fight for it, you don’t get it. My brother is the last man to recommend himself or his brother for anything.
In the field of the arts, I mean drama, music, literature, painting and sculpting, drawing, fine arts, the average Nigerian is like a primary school boy who believes that his headmaster’s English is the best in the world because it is beyond him to judge. So, the same thing in the arts, and this Nigerian includes ministers, bishops, governors, presidents, vice chancellors.
Yes! They do not know the difference in the arts, between an organ played by Fela, or Ayo Bankole, and an organ played by a village organist in the backroom church. They do not know the difference between a painting by Ben Enwenowu and that of the local artist who draws crocodile heads on lorries. They do not know the difference between a work of poetry by Soyinka compared to the primary school teacher because it is beyond them to judge.