Prof. Lazarus Ekwueme, NNOM, MON
In assessing him, you do not need the gift of clairvoyance, the ability to supposedly see things beyond the range of normal human vision, to know that he is an accomplished man. To some, he is even an extra-ordinary achiever. To others, he is an ‘over-accomplished man’. And despite his own humility, it is very likely there would be moments, in his private reflections on his almost 77 years on earth, he would soliloquize with a smile that ‘Truly, I have over achieved.’
If you think this is an exaggeration, check out the CV of Professor Lazarus Edward Nwanyelu Ekwueme, or Prof. Laz Ekwueme, for short, and see if the man is a happenstance or a flash in the pan. A prolific writer, author, national award winner, grassroots mobiliser par excellence, and respected traditional ruler, he is one of the pioneer lecturers of music in Nigeria. Indeed, Ekwueme, the Igwe (King) of Oko in Anambra State, and immediate younger brother of Dr. Alex Ekwueme, former vice president of Nigeria, is a member of that special breed of Nigerians known across the world by their first names. All these bear an eloquent testimony to his works and worth.
Born in Oko, January 28, 1936, the world acclaimed musicologist and stage icon, had his secondary education at Government College, Umuahia, from where he proceeded to the Royal College of Music, London, where he majored in composition. Like his brother, Alex, Igwe Laz Ekwueme has an insatiable appetite for knowledge. While in London, he hauled 10 diplomas in music, speech and drama, and obtained a Bachelors degree from the University of Durham. In 1962, he obtained the professional teaching diploma, Licentiate of the Guildhall School of Music.
Listed by Wikipedia as one of the best in his field, Ekwueme, who has a post graduate degree from University of Yale, has written many articles in academic journals, local and international, as well as several books that focus on the impact of music and theatre in the lives of Africans on the continent and Africans in the Diaspora.
“As a music scholar,” Wikipedia writes, “he explored distinctive indigenous African rhythm and melody in some songs of the New World and American music, a theme that was one of the focal points of his research efforts. As a researcher, he spent time studying musical patterns of Africans, Caribbean and African Americans. He noticed the similarities in ways in which African Americans in Louisiana sing songs and Africans in Dahomey (now Benin Republic). Also, the importance and employment of music in cardinal events in the lives of Africans and those in Diaspora is a theme prevalent in many of his research efforts.”
Little wonder, it was so easy for General Olusegun Obasanjo, in his time as Nigeria’s military Head of State (1976-1979), to appoint him as the coordinator of the Nigerian National Choir at the Third World Black Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, otherwise known as FESTAC ‘77.
As a man diligent in his works, Professor Ekwueme has, many times, stood on continental and global stages to receive awards after awards in recognition of his contribution to intellectual development, music and theatre. Even as King, Ekwueme, husband to Professor Lucy Ekwueme, formerly of the University of Lagos, and mother of his three children, is never ashamed of his work. Till date, he accepts roles in films, and conducts the Laz Ekwueme Chorale Group, and the national choir.
Early October, I visited Oko, and sat down with Prof. Ekwueme, in the home of his elder brother, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, who made him a throne in his (Alex’s) home as a mark of his respect and loyalty to the Igwe of Oko. The product of that encounter is this biographical interview you are holding.
As pilots say, please, sit back, relax and enjoy the flight.
Your elder brother, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, former vice president of Nigeria, turned 80, last October. Looking back, what manner of man did you grow up to meet?
Well, I don’t know what you mean by growing up and meeting him because we grew up together. He is my immediate older brother. We went to the same primary school and the same secondary school. He left to go to King’s College in 1944 and I left to go to Government College, Umuahia in 1948. He left Nigeria in 1952 for the United States and returned in 1957 to establish an architectural firm in Lagos.
I later went to England in 1960, came back and taught at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for two years. Then, I went abroad, stayed in America for eight years, from 1966 to 1974, and came back to the University of Lagos.
What were you doing in America for eight years?
I did a PhD, and it was mostly the war years. My PhD is in music and theatre arts. I came back to the University of Lagos in 1974 and taught there until 2001 when I retired at the age of 65.
That makes you 77.
No wonder you asked what I meant by you growing up and meeting him (Dr. Alex Ekwueme)…
Yes, because he is three years older than I am.
So, what manner of man is he?
He is a wonderful man. He is a very unique human, specially blessed by God to lead. Even at childhood, he was bigger and far ahead of his mates intellectually and physically. Some people would think he is ten years older than I am, but because he had double promotion in primary school, he gave me a four-year gap in education. He took school certificate four years before me, instead of three. He did school certificate in 1949, made higher school certificate in 1950. In 1952, he won a scholarship to go to America.
While in America, he did not only study architecture and town planning, he did other degrees in history and sociology, including law. He came back at the age of 25 in 1957, at a time many of his mates had not even gone to the university, and established his architectural firm. He also took part in many activities such that the people who were his contemporaries in the field of business and industry were old enough to be his father.
When you say he is a unique man, what makes him really unique?
Unique in the sense of the gift of extraordinary intelligence. He could calculate and foresee things we could not. He planned ahead and was able to remember things. He had such an electronic brain. Before computers came, he was able to succeed in academics by simply looking at something once, and that thing sticks. These things were a gift to him. Be it in sports, intellectual application in design, law and philosophy, and such things, he was an extraordinary man because he thought far ahead of others.
As a result of the short difference in your ages, was their any rivalry on your part? Did you, at any point in time, have to make some deliberate efforts to show some class, or fashion your life in a particular way?
Not really. Our eldest brother, who was the most senior, died and because of the difficulties and financial hurdles that we had, he (Alex) was the first to go to each stage. But we didn’t compete at the time. My younger brother is also very brilliant. I am the dull person in the family. So, he had his own thing. He was more of an arts man than science. Well, I did high school science but I was more interested in arts, music and theatre, and my younger brother was a pure scientific man, a medical man, studious and systematic with his own brilliance. But he did his own thing and I did mine, and we were not really in any form of competition.
I am just thinking of he (Dr. Alex Ekwueme) being an inspiration to you in certain regards?
Well, he was only three years older than I am. So, there wasn’t so much to look up to except that your older brother had achieved and you must achieve. It (brilliance) was already running in the family. We had this head start in education in the Ekwueme Family anyway.
Despite your father dying early?
Yes! He was a pioneer himself and his children applied themselves in education. We went to school much earlier than our contemporaries.
Are you sad that your dad died so early without seeing what all of you became?
Yes. But it (his father’s death) does not pain me because we were too young or really too small to realize what it meant. All we knew was that we suffered from that disadvantage. But looking back, we are glad that wherever he is, he must be very happy that we have achieved so much in spite of his not being with us. My mother was a very wonderful woman. She was a widow for 50 years and she worked hard and brought us all up in strict discipline and religious ways and gave us education. We had uncles who also ensured that discipline permeated the family. Yes, we missed our father but we didn’t groan over it as it were.
What were the deprivations that you suffered as a result of he having to leave you early?
(The deprivations were) Mostly financial, because we had to depend on my mother to pay our school fees. Virtually, every term, we were sent away from school for not paying our fees. We had to go and crack palm kernel or fetch snails in the bush at night to raise the money for our fees. So, virtually every term we missed three to six weeks in school and yet, every term, each of us led his class with a wide gap. So, it was really God’s doing.
So, those deprivations were there. Those days, in schools, we were provided with a shirt and a pair of shorts every term. We were given soap for bath, for washing, for everything. Our hair was cut free of charge. We had toilet paper. We had buckets. We were provided everything-textbooks and exercise books for all your subjects including two for rough work. So, you pay nothing. Even cutlery was laid for you on the table; you ate and left. We ate three square meals a day, including fruits at break.
So, I had no pocket money, I didn’t need any because all you had to do was get yourself in school and you had everything. It was God-sent.
You were good both in sciences and arts?
Why did you jettison sciences for arts even when the craze was to become an engineer, a doctor and the rest?
Well, my focus was in science, pre-engineering, but you see, I suffered from being interested in too many things. I had a wide range of interests. You could call me Jack-of-all-trades, master of none, but maybe multi-talented. I did all sorts of sports. I was an artiste, painting and drawing for school and house magazines. I danced, composed music, wrote plays and directed them, produced them and also acted in them at Umuahia. So, I was more or less interested in too many things.
At the Eastern Nigeria Festival of Arts, I won prizes and medals in music, drama, literature and fine arts. But you could take examinations in music, there were none in theatre and I didn’t get a scholarship to do engineering, which I would have wanted. But I was more interested in the performing arts. As a teenager, I was more concerned on being a star.
I got scholarships and I did music up to diploma in Nigeria whereas many Nigerians were going abroad to study to get a diploma in music. I got a Federal Government scholarship to study music and that was how I took up music. But I didn’t leave theatre arts. I still studied it and found out that even the mathematics and physics were not useless. They were applicable at the highest level of studies and knowledge and love of language. So, all knowledge is united. Because I got examinations, diplomas and graded examinations papers, I got a scholarship to do music. That’s why I went to do a degree in music, unlike those who just wanted to do a diploma in it. Later, I did a Master’s and PhD, and then taught at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I got another scholarship to do another PhD on the theory of music at Yale. While I was there, I was involved in linguistics and theatre. I couldn’t leave those things and computer application to the study of music. So, these things were all integrated.
You made your mark in theatre arts and music and suddenly this traditional stool came…
Well, it is my brother really who should have been the traditional ruler (of Oko, in Anambra State).
Which of your brothers? Dr. Alex Ekwueme?
So, why did the lot fall on you?
Well, he is my real brother but he has made such a huge mark, nationally and internationally, in the field of politics and human sociology that it was felt, both by himself and the community, that it will be a waste making him a traditional ruler. Whereas he could do much more for the community if he were not. There was still the hope that he could be president of this country at some point. So, he suggested that I should take over and the community agreed. That’s why I am here.
I would have thought that before such a decision is made, there would be some traditional rights, divination of some sort, that would direct the community in the way they must go…
Well, that was in the olden times, not anymore. All this divination actually is human divination. There is always the common-sense approach, the political approach and the what’s-best-for-the-society approach in these things among those who are qualified to take the position.
So, everyone thought I could do as the next best person after him. Though, there were other people suggested, I was chosen and that’s why I came. Then, I was retired also after 38 years of university teaching and I had turned 65 and retired from the University of Lagos as a professor. So, it seemed natural that I would step in.
When you said it is not so much of divination but human divination, in other words, human wisdom, you seem to be downplaying that aspect of our traditional belief…
Well, because my friends in Lagos and other parts of Nigeria who are none Igbo used to wonder how I could accept to be a traditional ruler with all the perpetual demands entailed therein. But I tell them, we don’t have that type of demands anymore where you had to go through an idol, a shrine and the rest. No.
Are you sure, Your Highness? Is that the absolute truth?
Yes. That is the truth. I mean, why would I lie? Why should I go to a shrine? I am a full-fledged Christian. My father was a Christian missionary teacher.
If the community demands and says you must perform some traditional rites, would you say because you are a Christian you won’t do it?
Of course! I am not the first person on this throne. My ancestors didn’t do that. So, why should I? Things have changed a long time ago. I believe that some Yoruba Obas still do that but not in this part of the country anymore. No, we don’t do that anymore.
So, when you were chosen, during your ordination or installation, there were no rites performed?
Yes. Pagan rites.
None at all?
Not even one. There were Christian rites. There were traditional rites but nothing hidden or pagan about it.
If there were any, would you have rejected or refused?
It didn’t arise because there wasn’t any. My uncle, before me, was a Knight of the Anglican Church; he never took any of such. He was Ekwueme III. I am Ekwueme IV. There is no such thing, not in our society. People who hear these things are astonished because once you become a traditional ruler in this country, they think you have automatically gone through some sort of ritual.
What if the society demands of you to be involved in some of these things?
Who is the society? We are the society. Community is made up of man. How can the community demand such if it does not believe in such things?
But the community has a set of cultures and traditions?
Yes. Exactly! But culture is dynamic. The community cannot change its own tradition against itself. The community is the culture. For how long has this been in practice? So, you can’t start creating things that have long been abolished. The traditional stool is not synonymous with paganism. No.
What are the main functions of the Igwe of Oko?
Well, simply put, he is the traditional head of the community. He is the monarch, in quote.
Why in quote?
Who has monarchical powers anymore? Things are all gone now. It is not a time when you can put ese (Yoruba word for leg) on a woman and she automatically becomes your wife.
It can’t happen in this day and age. The law would remove the ese (the leg).
Of course. So, those powers no longer exist. You can’t do those now, else the law court would find you guilty of an offence. So, as the monarch and traditional head of cultural organizations within your community, you determine rites and festivities when they occur. You still adjudicate over traditional matters like land disputes, quarrels between people. But you still have a council of chiefs from the various villages and quarters that make up the community. So, you don’t have such dictatorial powers anymore.
But they respect you, provided you also maintain that respect and deserve it. You have to abide by the truth and fairness and justice for all concerned. As the chief security officer of the town, you must make sure there is peace in the place. You have various religious organizations; you must make sure that everybody is treated fairly. At annual festivals, you preside.
But what are the things that your being Igwe of Oko have taken from you, especially as an intellectual, known all over the world?
Well, the main thing is that you have to be more or less in the community. Not that I don’t have to go where I need to fetch what would upkeep me. Unlike Yoruba Obas or northern emirs, we are not well remunerated; so, you have to find your means of livelihood.
So, I still have to go about finding a means of livelihood for myself. I have to also attend meetings. For example, I am the chairman of the traditional rulers council of my local government area and we meet every month. I am also in the state’s council of traditional rulers and we meet every month as well. The senatorial district also has a traditional rulers’ forum; we also meet every month, and I am very active in these things.
With all modesty, the traditional rulers at all these levels respect me and count on my counsel. So, it means I have to be here most of the time to attend to these things and yet I have to be in Lagos because that’s where I set up my choir and my family. My wife retired two years ago from the University of Lagos; otherwise she used to be there too. She is retired now and has been appointed visiting professor at the new university in Ebonyi State. So, she is going to move over there now. Otherwise, Lagos is still the place.
You were saying you still have to move here and there in search of means of livelihood. How do you mean, sir?
Yes, that’s right because nobody pays you as king. You only get the stipend that the state government gives and it is nothing.
But while we were growing up, we were told that the land and all that is on it belongs to the king?
No! Not here!! Not in Igboland!!! Our own tradition is different from that of the Yorubas.
How are you able to combine all the many activities you are involved in? You are here as King and you also go to locations to shoot films and the rest. As a King, how do you combine that?
Unfortunately, I have not been too much at locations because I really need to be there to earn the little livelihood that I used to get from that. People think once you have appeared in a film you have made so much money. They don’t pay very well in those things but those things are just part of you.
Apart from remuneration, the quality of the script you are going to do is also very important. Isn’t it?
Of course! I have always been discriminatory about that. I don’t just be a part of any rubbish. They know it, so they give me roles either as a monarch, doctor or very wealthy businessman or politician, a role that reflects dignity. I don’t dabble into anything that is not of quality.