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Meeting Tam Fiofori

Tam Fiofori

May 15, (THEWILL) – There’s something to be said for a teenager who, while awaiting results of his final exams, is employed as a teacher by his alma mater. Look at it this way: you’ve just sat for your WAEC. The results are not out yet and your school employs you as a teacher.

In December 1959, a certain student of King’s College Lagos wrote his final exams and probably felt that would be the end of it. No! The school authorities who were mostly British at the time didn’t let him go. By January 1960, they retained him as a teacher like one of them, teaching A-level and Form 4 students Botany and Biology respectively. From the principal down to other tutors, they must have noticed, as most observant and trained guardians are wont to, something peculiar about this chap who was not even 20 yet: a super bright student. 

Nearly seven decades after, traces of that super brightness are still evident in that student though age may not have been kind to him physically. There are not many eighty-year-olds – particularly those prone to intermittent forgetfulness – who can recall quite clearly and chronologically what transpired in their school days. 

But Tam Fiofori remembers it all, following his peripatetic parent, Emmanuel Fiofori, to Government Middle School, Owerri, which became Government Secondary School and then Owo where he was headmaster at Owo Primary School the same town where he met his wife, Gladys Owupele Fiofori. Fiofori’s next location was Government Secondary School Benin opposite the Oba’s Market and then Edo College where he also taught. 

Almost always on the road like some in the Civil Service at the time, teachers especially, Fiofori Senior next went to Ubiaja where Tam did his Common Entrance exams to King’s College Lagos. He was a little over 11 but a bright student who found a brighter future in an institution modelled after British public schools with the inspiring motto: “a sound mind in a sound body.”

With readily available teachers most of them British – graduates from Oxford or Cambridge thus the acronym Oxbridge –   KC students were supposed to address their minds to rigorous academic work indoors just as they applied themselves to hard-tackle outdoor sports like cricket, hockey, rugby. Tam played hockey for the school, also cricket. But it was in athletics he excelled – triple jump in which he represented KC becoming Nigeria’s school boy champion and setting a national record as well.

Tall and possibly blessed with long Archilles tendon which enable marsupials that effortless spring into the air, Tam skipped his way to King’s College London where he was to study the three Ps – physiology, psychology and psychiatry, sort of preparing him for the ultimate course – medicine. 

Instead of browsing books by Bates, Skinner and theories on the brain and human motives for certain actions or inactions, Tam turned his attention to what has always fascinated him – writing and music. By this time, he had read most of the great African American writers of the time, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison Langston Hughes, Leroy Jones (Amiri Baraka), Richard Wright and much more. He also got acquainted with African American music, Jazz particularly – Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and those who came after them, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Sun Ra, etc. 

When THEWILL got an invite from Tam Fiofori on Friday May 8 to be part of a house-warming party on Sunday May 8, it was impossible to say no. He had recently moved from his former crib in the same street to 20, James Robertson in Surulere, an impossibly quiet neighbourhood in an otherwise noisy suburb. For one, commercial motorcyclists are not allowed on the cobble-stoned street and when they do come around, they have to compulsorily turn off their ignition.

Such was the loud silence on the street that when the newspaper met and spoke with Tam Fiofori on Wednesday May 11, we heard fairly audible toots as if they were from a distant land. Good for us. Call Tam Fiofori a metropolitan sophisticate and you’re right on the beam. A product of two King’s Colleges, Lagos and London, manager of and great friends with two internationally acclaimed musicians – Sun Ra and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, 

But beyond all that is his protean interest – photography, writing, documentaries, teaching at KC and Nigeria Film Institute in Jos. To date, no one has captured the coronation ceremony of a Benin monarch more than Tam Fiofori. 

Writing in Vanguard of April 21, 2011, for instance, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, himself a senior journalist, poet and author, reflected thusly on the crowning ceremony in March 1979: “The book, A Benin Coronation: Oba Erediauwa by Tam Fiofori, paints a poetically enchanting picture of the March 1979 crowning ceremonies of Oba Erediauwa as the 38th Oba of the Benin Kingdom. Fiofori’s offering is essentially a print documentary and a photo book with explanatory notes.” The Iyase of Benin, Chief S.O.U. Igbe, who wrote the foreword to the book said: “Tam, or Sonny, as the small boy was called in those days, would fill a lot of us Benin people with a sense of inadequacy with this expression of his knowledge of Benin history and his seemingly endless but sincere current of love for the Benin culture.”

The high chief couldn’t be more correct. Dominating a wall of Tam Fiofori’s sitting room in his new residence is a photo of Benin royal drummers. If you didn’t know his origins, you would naturally conclude that Tam Fiofori is Edo by birth. He is not, as he told THEWILL in this interview. Excerpts:

Tell us about yourself.

I come from Ijaw, Ijo stock. My father is from strictly fishermen profession whilst my mother is a trader. My father showed signs of brilliance as a kid. So, his mother who loved him a lot decided to give him the best possible education in those days. Eventually, he attended what was known as Bonny School. It was a precursor of Yaba College of Technology. Interestingly like he made us realise, his classmates included Daddy Onyeama, father of the current Minister of Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama. After that he joined the Civil Service as a teacher. His main break came at a time when he started teaching at Government Middle School Owerri which eventually became Government College Owerri.

From there he was transferred to Owo in Western Region then. It was a journey of three days. That was in the early forties. He became headmaster of Owo Primary School from where he was transferred to go and teach in Edo College. My father met my mother whilst he was at Owo. Her father was a clerk in the then Resident’s Office. I remember my grandfather was transferred to Lagos to work in the Resident’s Office. By that time, I had started school in Benin, Government Primary School which was situated opposite the Oba’s Market. So, I had my primary school from Standard One to Standard Five in GPS, Benin. Then my father was transferred to Ubiaja. I did my Standard Five, Six in a Catholic School in Ubiaja from where I took the Entrance Exams to King’s College Lagos. I got into KC in 1953 at just over 11.

Both my parents were teachers so, forgive my arrogance but I think I was quite clever. I had a good stint at KC both in sports and academic.

How do you mean, sports and academics?

Both in sports and academic. From Form 2 I got into the first Cricket 11. I also played hockey for the school. Then as from Lower Six, I got involved in athletics, triple jump and then I not only became Nigeria’s school boy champion, I set a national record, school boy record. It used to be called hop, stop and jump.

But is rare to have students perform excellently in academic and sports simultaneously. 

KC was patterned after the British public schools and the philosophy was “a sound mind in a sound body.” If you look at the British public school system, sports like Rugby came from public schools and most of our teachers were British. Not only were they British, they were Oxbridge – graduates from either Cambridge or Oxford. We were also the first school to have a Cadet Corp. Because at that time, they were trying to groom Nigerians to take over the Officer Corp of the Nigerian Army. I was a member of the Cadet Corp. And some of the nice memories I have of the record is that in 1956, we mounted a guard of honour for Queen Elizabeth 11 and in 1958, we mounted a guard of honour for Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. I think the photograph was published not too long ago.

But without guns anyway.

No! We had guns because we were given the whole gamut of military training.

What about the Nigerian Army then? Why did they choose KC?

Back to the British philosophy. Their Officer Corp was made up of gentlemen mostly from their public school system. So, if you remember, after King’s College, other government schools like Government College Umuahia, Government College Ibadan also had Cadet Corps. At the risk of sounding pompous, I was quite clever or bright in the sense that I took my A-Level exams in December 1959 and by January before the results were out, I was employed as a teacher at King’s College.

The same school you just graduated from?

Yes. And guess what. I was teaching A-level students Botany and Form 4 Students Biology. Now those that I taught in Form 4 included Ola Balogun (filmmaker) JK Randle (businessman cum intellectual) the late Tunde Edu just to mention a few. They were very brilliant too.

I had other siblings, an older sister and myself from my mother. Then I have an older half-brother, Ferdinand who is older than both of us.

Was Ferdinand born out of wedlock?

Well, that’s interesting because in Ijaw/ Okrika culture, there are no such things as illegitimate children. In other words, children from girlfriends are not illegitimate so my half-brother is also part of the family. Very interestingly, he attended Baptist High School in Port Harcourt. He was a classmate of P Dele Cole. He went on to study French and Mass Communication. He has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in a discipline called Business in Communication.


I now went on to King’s College London where I studied the three Ps – physiology, psychology and psychiatry. The whole idea was that I would’ve gone on to study medicine. From there I went to the States. I went to the States to pursue my love in culture – writing, specifically, and involvement in music. Whilst I was still a student in London, I was very impressed by and interested in writings by African Americans – James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Leroy Jones (Amiri Baraka) Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright. Langston Hughs, I believe, has not been given his rightful place in writing.

Why did you say that?

There is something about white America. They have this in-built arrogance that they must control or be experts on everything, including the culture of other people around the world. Langston Hughes does not fit into the kind of Black American they want  to either love or attack. Unlike Richard Wright who they attack for “his communists views” or Baldwin for his views and possibly his sexuality (Baldwin was gay). That’s the problem with White America and that’s why sometimes they are a nuisance to the world, and we saw the epitome of that in a man called Donald Trump: arrogance in ignorance. Trump is always insulting other people, not only Africans. He was very badly brought up. And like one of the Bushes told him, you might insult your way into the White House, but insults will not help you become a good president.

Even as a kid in Nigeria, I had always been fascinated by the lives and culture of Black Americans, and Black American music, especially, made me keep my sanity while I was a student in England.

How do you mean?

In the early sixties in England, that was the height of racism in the world. I remember when I met Soyinka in 2007 in France. There was this lady in South of France who celebrates Nobel laureates every year. She chose to celebrate/ host Soyinka in 2007. They organised a package to accompany Soyinka. I was chosen to be part of that package. And I went with a photography exhibition with George Oshodi. They invited Tony Allen from Paris to jam with Ara the lady drummer. This event usually holds at a place called Aix-en-Provence. Soyinka’s friend, Abiola Irele, professor of Romantic languages was also there. It was a great occasion, a whole week. That was my first encounter with Soyinka and I told him how his poem Telephone Conversation impacted on me. There you were as a student and you were looking for accommodation and you see a notice: “No Irish. No dogs. No Blacks.” We were right down the rung of the ladder, beneath the dogs even. So, “Telephone Conversation” is a great poem. Soyinka told me that day that TC had been adopted into the school system.

I always told him about an incident that happened to me on the underground. I was very smartly dressed with my college scarf. Nobody will come and sit by me except an old woman with her dog. She sat by me, brought out a bar of chocolate, bit it and gave the other half to her dog. I now flashed fback to 1983 when I was in Finland to cover the first World Athletics Championship. I remember I went to the Games Village on the outskirts of Helsinki. On my way back and there I was at the Bus stop and there was this grandmother. She came with her grandson, a boy of about three or four, who kept looking at me. Apparently, he had never seen a black person before – in 1983! The woman then politely asked if the boy can tough me to see if my colour will rub off. I obliged him. After about the fourth try, he smiled, then brought out a piece of chocolate, broke it into two and gave me one. I am telling this story because, basically, kids are not racist, they are open. It is something that is bred into them. He was just curious and when his curiosity was satisfied, he smiled.

One thing that I found about America is that the African is more confident than Black Americans because I was able to move in circles that they couldn’t go to because they had this limitations, they didn’t have the confidence we have.

I had developed a liking for Jazz before I went to Britain. It was in Britain that I now became more enthusiastic and I found out that it was a solace for me. So, I now got more into Jazz, got to know more about the music and the musicians. So, by the time I got to America, I was very well versed in Jazz. It’s no accident that I got involved with Sun Ra.

How did you meet Sun Ra?

A musician that some consider to be then father of Avant garde jazz or new jazz, Ornette Coleman, the man who made records of the shape of jazz to come, toured Europe in 1965 and he had a concert in Fairfield Hall in London. I attended the concert, did a review of it for an American magazine. So, when I got to America it was obvious that I sought out these musicians. Apart from the mainstream musicians like John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, I gravitated towards those who were playing new jazz or Bee bop. I had listened to Sun Ra before I got to America. Interestingly enough, one of my favourite writers was then known as Leroy Jones. I met this American I will call Henry Hank and we hit it up immediately. We both realized that were poets and also loved music. I hung out with him. He took me to see a play called the Black Mass written by Leroy Jones and the music was provided live on stage by Sun Ra’s orchestra. After the play, talking about the confidence of Africans, I walked up to Sun Ra and said this your music should be heard by more people in America and the rest of the world. He kind of looked at me and said: ‘what are you going to do about it? Can you help?’ I said yes. How? I will be your manager. I will organize and make sure that it happens. I can manage you. He said, why not? He then said “It is very interesting, a lot of Black Americans, intellectuals, don’t seem to appreciate what I am dong. But here you are from Africa and you seem to understand and appreciate what I am doing. That’s how I started. And like some of the blurb of the book says, “More than anyone else Tam Fiofori made Sun Ra known internationally. I was able to succeed in not only improving Sun Ra’s image but got him a wider audience and took him on a tour of Europe where we played 30 concerts in eight countries and ended up in Egypt at the foot of the pyramids. So, that’s my Sun Ra’s story.

Again, there were so many firsts that Sun Ra achieved which people deliberately ignored because he didn’t fit their model. One, he wasn’t trained in their schools. Two, he didn’t have the kind of profile they expect from Black musicians. He wasn’t a drug addict. He wasn’t a closet homosexual. So, white American music press never deliberately wanted to appreciate him.

How long were you with Sun Ra?

Six years.

What do you remember most about him?

Sun Ra personifies the adage that you shouldn’t just judge someone by his mien, by the way he behaves. Sun Ra is soft-spoken, from the old school that musicians have to be entertainers. He came through that school where the Black man in America usually went through hard times. So, the entertainer was his relief and the entertainer knew that he had to lift them up.

What about your time with Fela? When was the first time you met him?

I think I should put it in perspective. Fela is older than I am. But when we were in England in the sixties, we all kind of bonded and Fela and a few others who were either in music schools, we used to get together in pick up bands. And the student union used to arrange dances (Independence Day, Christmas,) and we all gravitated towards them. That was my first time encounter with Fela. Then I left them and went to America.

I came back to Nigeria. I’ll say something for Fela: he had a very accommodating spirit. So, he remembered me from our young days in London. So, when I came back, I will always gravitate towards the Shrine and Fela is somebody I will give credit to: He values friendship. He cultivated that relationship and he also valued the wealth of experience I had gathered in America. So, I became something of an unofficial consultant but in the background. He also noticed that, unlike a few other people, I wasn’t hanging around just to prey on his girls and all that.

Fela was quite deep, he was a good leader of people and he made sure the people around him knew how he valued me. I remember in those days when I got to the house, ah, ore Fela ni o. They will give me some place to sit, made sure they treat me with respect because they saw how Fela treated me. Fela valued friendship and I always use this story to explain that. It was the 10th anniversary of FESPACO in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

There I was seated in the courtyard of the Secretariat. Fela comes in with a throng of journalists. He sees me and he shouts: “Tam, motherfucker. I was in jail and you didn’t come to see me,” walking towards me and asking: “where is the smoke, where is the smoke?” Of course, I should have been embarrassed but I wasn’t. That was Fela’s way of showing friendship. He walked over and sat with me and the journalists were like “who is this guy?” We had a wonderful time in Oagadougou. Fela is not properly appreciated because I believe that if people will work as hard in their various professions as Fela did in his, we will have a better country. Fela was a consummate musician – his rehearsals were thorough; he made sure his band was in top gear. He strove for excellence and like I say, if others were equally as dedicated as Fela was, Nigeria will be a better place.

Can you tell us about how that number “I No be Gentleman” came about? 

I obviously was a Fela fan so I got to know his schedule. My mother had gotten me a place in Surulere here on Ajao Road and Fela used to rehearse and play at Surulere Night Club. I knew he rehearsed on Tuesdays. There was a Tuesday I walked across and he was rehearsing and he played an instrumental. He turned and saw me and he said: “Tam, I want you to write lyrics.” Then I wrote some lyrics and he said:  “ah, ah Tam this is too Oyinbo.” I was a bit taken aback and then an incident happened.

One of my friend and Fela friend I will just call him Alex decided to send small boy Kolobo to go and buy him rice. My mom had this very interesting thing about inviting my friends to come and have lunch. She got to know some of my friends and she took interest in some of them like Naiwu Osahon, the writer – she used to engage them in conversation and she was very intelligent, she was the first or second lady to attend Queen’s College in the thirties from the entire Eastern region – so I would say in a sense I was fortunate to have parents who were very educated. So they gave me a good liberal education. But they did not play with discipline.

So, my mom had invited Alex and I to come and have lunch: she still had this Oyinbo thing about hosting people to lunch. After Alex sent the boy to buy rice, I joked that Alex when we get to mummy’s place you will chop small and say you belle full so that they will say you be gentleman.

Immediately Fela said “yes, yes, yes, that is it, that is the lyrics.” That was how I No Be Gentleman took off we started developing it. I must confess that there were certain parts I had nothing to do with, that bit about Africa hot.