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Igbo Masquerade Dance More Than Opera – Gerald Eze


November 21, (THEWILL) – If you happen to watch Gerald Eze perform anywhere like he did at Bubbles Cubana Pool Side Bar in Abuja last September, two things will catch and rivet your attention: his leonine features and his skillful playing of the Oja, a traditional Igbo musical instrument. The man is as good as they come, musically speaking. His mother hand-held him to church choirs. His uncle drove him in his car to masquerade dances in his village, and sometimes a solitary tagalong to Igbo night masquerade dances with male-only audience.  A university don encouraged him to attend the Confucius Institute and then he graduated with a First Class in Music. Is it any surprise he ended up teaching and playing music, authentic, traditional Igbo music? Gerald Eze spoke with Michael Jimoh recently. Excerpts:

I will begin by asking how you started your musical career.

My music career started officially in 2016 but some events in 2015 propelled me to a professional performance career. Some major events kicked off my career. In 2015, I won the Christopher Kolade Prize for Music Excellence and we were received at MuSon Centre, Lagos. Later same year, Ed Keazor invited me to perform in Lagos after watching a performance I did in Awka. He was particularly stunned at my ability to make good music by playing Oja along the guitar and so he featured me in Freedom Park, Lagos. After this performance, I was invited by Theo Lawson to perform at Felabration 2016. Later, within that same Lagos visit, Obi Asika interviewed me in his home and this interview got me to perform at Headies Awards.

My university did not miss out in this. Professor Joseph Ebelendu Ahaneku strongly recommended me to the Confucius Institute Unizik as a Nigerian representative person in the Asia-Africa and China music festival. There I was the only music ambassador representing Nigeria in the two festivals. Truth is that prior to these events, I never set out to be a professional. The uniqueness of my art made me people recommend me here and there and I had to perform, so I fully became a professional performer from 2016.

I understand you made a First Class in Music. Did this in anyway influence your career choice?

Yes. Making a First Class in Music made people expect so much from me. No one asked me if I could perform music, I was simply asked to perform music with a high expectation of excellence. Honestly, I anticipated this and groomed myself to perform uniquely. My mentor in the Department of Music, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Fr Emmanuel Umezinwa(PhD) advised me to research on the Oja. And so beyond playing the piano, clarinet, flute and guitar, to mention a few, I developed a special skill on the oja. And this was as unique kind of performance for a music graduate.

Also, making a First Class equally made the university to employ me as a Graduate Assistant. And teaching worked for me as well because I liked to teach children and my fellow students while I was in school.

Tell us about yourself: your younger years through primary, secondary up to university education.

One special experience I had in my primary school days was the encounter with my uncle Rev Fr. Herbert Ezeji. He always took me to masquerade dance arena in the village. In his car, he would play Njima music (igbo traditional music) by Pericoma. In his room, he would play Igbammanwu (masquerade dance) videos for me and instead of cartoons I watched masquerade dances. This naturally got me interested or initiated into the traditional musical systems of the Igbo. This made me interested in the Oja which has become my major instrument.

Equally, in my primary school days, my mother took me to choir. I was a passive member of the choir, playing around and absorbing the sounds subconsciously. This allowed me the freedom to discover my sound when it was time.

I attended Tansi College, Awka. In Tansi, everybody was a star. You either excel in music or you excel in fine arts, or sports or academics or leadership or in all. This was the legacy Fr. Anthony Ejeziem left us then. I found myself in music. I participated actively in the school choir. I guess this was the time to belong to a choir and the experience I had when my mother took me to the church choir came to my service.

We had several traditional troupes in the school as well and this was where I learnt traditional Igbo musical instruments, especially the Oja. I equally learnt the guitar, piano and trumpet during my secondary school days. I started composing music when I was 14 years old. So, my uncle got me interested in traditional music without having to say anything about it. My mother helped me develop my musicianship further by taking me to the choir, and in Tansi College, I started practicing both traditional music and choral music.

Does music run in your family?

Yes, my maternal grandfather was a chorister. In January of 2020, after submitting my thesis, I became curious to understand if anybody from my father’s side practiced traditional Igbo music. I was sure it was not from my mum’s side because my maternal grandfather was a chorister in the Catholic Church. I had to ask my dad if traditional music was in our family line. He then told me that my paternal grandfather was a drummer, his brother an Ogbu-oja. In fact, the Igbammanwu (masquerade dance) of Ibughubu Umuchu, as I was told, had my uncles constituting about 70 percent of membership. My paternal grandfather’s compound was the rehearsal arena. The Rev Fr. I mentioned earlier who always took me to the masquerade dance areba is my father’s cousin. You can understand the connection now. In addition, my uncle, Luke Ezeji, is one of the foremost Gospel musician from the South east. So, music runs hot in my blood!

What is the name of the instrument you play and when did you begin playing it?

The instrument is called Oja. I often refer to it as the Oja without having to explain it in any other culture. The flute is a Western musical instrument, a transverse instrument. I find it more confusing calling Oja a flute, especially since it already has a name. My duty as a performer is to make it known to people and the name keeps spreading. Being a performer of the instrument, I learnt Oja and not Igbo flute.

Most young men your age in Nigeria gravitate towards Hip-hop and rap. Why and how did you settle for your kind of music?

I found Hip-hop to be a commercial music. I found Igbo traditional music to be classical music. I have experienced the night masquerade of my people and it was more than Opera to me. And so, the spirituality of Igbo music requires one to grow with music. It requires one journeying with the music, allowing the music to nurture the soul. And from time to time share the journey with the society through entertainment in various styles. Going commercial will cut this process short for me. So, I am staying true to the process, taking my time to reveal my art. And people are really following, feeling and dancing along.

You sing mostly in Igbo language. How do non-Igbo speakers understand you?

Non-Igbo connect to my music. I play from the soul. And I am yet to meet someone who doesn’t connect to my music because I speak Igbo. Sometimes, language is even a barrier. Interestingly, it was Mr. Tam Fiofori who listened to me play at Shekere festival at Freedom Park and picked interest in the Oja to the extent of doing a documentary on Oja. I have been playing Oja in Igbo societies and the instrument didn’t speak “hey, do a documentary on this special art” to Igbo listeners. But Mr. Fiofori who is not Igbo heard that within him. He called me by the side and expressed to me how the Oja spoke to him and how he feesl what I played was poetic. Serious music speaks clearly to those who have sharp ears.

You teach and also go on concerts tours. How do you juggle both given that they are quite demanding?

One thing I have learnt from studying indigenous music is that the music is existing in the first place because the people I studied were performing it. So, those of us who keep studying the music to discuss what the musicians put on, what they play, the animal they sacrifice before performing, the colour they put on when performing it, etc, without eventually performing the music and applying themselves are simply writing and teaching the music away into extinction back the students will find it hard to connect.

So, I perform the music and take my students along to my concerts. My band is made up of my students. I don’t find it difficult to work hard, so I still do the classroom job. But if I don’t travel to Lagos, Abuja, China to play Oja, all I will have to teach them is what my ancestors did with Oja. I find that to be laziness and I am not interested in being that lazy. So, my performances make my teaching easier. They complement each other.

What are your hobbies?

I love to play table tennis and swim. I do these two sports well and whenever I travel I connect with friends in town who can play tennis or swim and catch up with them. Some days ago, I played with Peter, a friend of mine at the Lagos Country Club, Ikeja. I also like to play my music to myself. This is a special hobby.

What is the audience reception like for your music?

I was recently at Bubbles Cubana pool bar at Abuja in September for my concert, Uwa Mgbede. The pool bar was filled to the brim. I think that is the latest testimony that Nigerians want to hear my kind of music. My job is only to make myself increasingly available.

I am currently working on a number of projects. First is a collaboration with Chuma Anagbado. This collaboration entails reimagining Igbo musical instruments and making them relevant to the current time, and utilitarian also. There are 16 Igbo musical instruments in our selection. I worked on the sound while Chuma designed the instruments. It’s the meeting of music and arts.

I am also teaching children in some communities in Anambra how to play Ubo-aka, Oja, piano. This is a sort of itinerant musicianship which keeps me alive, active and relevant to my immediate society. This project particularly, keeps me away from intellectual aridity, since I have to apply my knpow;ledge and learn more while moving around. I have recently taken my itinerant musicianship to Lagos where I collaborated with Abdulrazak Ahmed on his ongoing art exhibition, KNoWMaDS, which explored then history, prospects and problems of the Almajiri system. The evening of conversations was organized by Jumoke Sanwo and held at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) Lagos.

I am currently travelling to various Nigerian cities with my band, the Ichoku Ensemble, performing in a concert seriesd called “Uwa Mgbede.” Uwa Mgbede means that one should take it easy and follow through the processes without bothering on who comes first – good message for my generation.