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Sir Victor Uwaifo: An Eclectic Man and His Guitar

uwaifo caricature

September 05, (THEWILL) – He could do tricks with his guitar like the legendary Jimi Hendrix except that he never burnt one on stage like the rock star used to. With his signature sideburns connecting a huge Afro, his fancy footwork mirrored that of another legend: James Brown. In his native Bini or English, he could sing you to sleep or get you to boogie down on the dance floor as long as the party lasts.

The party stopped last weekend for the man who made “Joromi” a household name in Nigeria. Sir Victor Efosa Uwaifo, iconic man of many parts – graphic artist, sculptor, inventor, painter, lecturer, designer and musician – died on August 29, 2021. He was 80.

He packed so much in those 80 years segueing seamlessly from one professional calling to another. How else can you explain the many roles he played in real life? He started playing the guitar at 12, self-taught, presumably. By the time he became a professional highlife artiste, Nigerians could not but notice that, for real, a star had arrived on stage along with other reigning musicians of his time.

There was Rex Jim Lawson, Eddy Okonta, Celestine Ukwu, Victor Olaiya, Herbert Ogunde, Roy Chicago, Ik Dairo and Sir Warrior and the Oriental Brothers. Nearly all of them had their time on stage, sometimes in the same city or town.

Colonel Gary Usman, a cultural aficionado and himself a music guru, recalls watching these highlife maestros perform in Auchi back in the seventies. It was some kind of healthy rivalry, the big names of highlife performing alongside one another trying to outdo themselves. It was great for the fans. Venue was Paradise Hotel and Central Hotel Jattu. As he tells it, the musicians had their favourite haunts.

“Top highlife musicians used to come around any of the two places,” Col. Usman told THEWILL midweek. “Paradise Hotel hosted Rex Jim Lawson, Celestine Ukwu, IK Dairo, Dele Ojo, Orlando Owo. Central Hotel had the likes of Sir Victor Olaiya, Eddy Okonta, Hubert Ogunde and Roy Chicago.”

Like a diehard fan following a superstar on musical tours, Usman watched Uwaifo again in Lagos, this time Greenland Hotel Kirikiri, Olodi Apapa. He remembers the late musician as “good looking with his unique Afro, driving an sun roof red sports car with his image holding a guitar…he was a real show boy then, young and full of energy. A musician and actor, his stage performance was out of this world. He could do anything with his guitar while playing. All the acrobatics done by Jimi Hendrix were done by Uwaifo. I admire him for his untiring research into Edo culture and creating different musical genre with good melodies, fine rhythm and lyrics. His solo guitars, sax and flutes were done with a touch of genius.”

Something close to genius is the word tripping out of many lips since Uwaifo’s demise last weekend. For Edi Lawani, entertainment maharishi and producer, Uwaifo belongs in a class by himself, a “rare breed.”

“Sir Professor Victor Uwaifo was a total artist and an accomplished artiste,” Lawani told this newspaper. “He straddled the world of the arts like a colossus, an accomplished inventor, he was a pacesetter on many fronts. He was an academic as easily as he was a showbiz maestro, strutting his stuff and excelling in many endeavours. Prof. Uwaifo was a restless spirit whose destiny had been tangled in a thousand web of activities. As a musician, he was a veteran multi-instrumentalist and producer of award-winning songs and albums. He was an administrator of the arts and also a foremost advocate of African culture. He had a great sense of humour and an avid physical fitness enthusiast. He was a rare breed.”

Uwaifo was born on March 1, 1941, certainly without the prefix ‘Sir.’ Nor did he kneel before the Queen for two swords to be placed on both shoulders. It was a common practice for musicians of his generation in Nigeria to add fancy titles to their names. Thus, you had Commander Ebenezer Obey, Emperor Pick Peters, Admiral Dele Abiodun, Sir Shina Peters, Sir Warrior, King Sunny Ade and so on.

But Uwaifo’s professorship was real, earned as a lecturer in the Department of Fine & Applied Arts from the University of Benin, an institution where some of his sculptural pieces are to be found to this day in the Ekenwan campus of the school.

As the story goes, Uwaifo strummed his first guitar as a pre-teen. It was clear from then on that the man had found his métier. He didn’t disappoint. He excelled in it, becoming the first Nigerian artiste whose record won a gold disc. He had many other firsts, notably the first musician to be made a commissioner in Nigeria. (He was Commissioner for Arts, Culture and Tourism during Lucky Igbinedion’s tenure as governor of Edo state.)

The current governor, Godwin Obaseki of the state with the unique motto “Heartbeat of the Nation” offered his condolence to the Uwaifo family. “Uwaifo,” Obaseki declared, “was a great cultural influencer, a multi-talented artist, songwriter, theorist, inventor, academician, administrator, a master of colours and designs and, above all, a humanist who used his songs to aptly encapsulate all circumstances of human existence and our relationship with the divine.

“During my tenure as governor of Edo State, I had occasion to meet him on several occasions. In each of those instances, I was always impressed by his depth of knowledge and understanding of issues well beyond his areas of expertise. He was not just a lover of music and art, he loved people, was jovial, accommodating and could lighten up the mood in any circumstance with his signature smile. Although he was non-partisan politically, he was quite supportive of my administration. He attended all engagements that we invited him to and obliged us with his evergreen tunes to the admiration of all present. “Guitar Boy” as he was fondly called will never be forgotten but will be remembered even by generations yet unborn.”

Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Uwaifo has an impressive musical oeuvre, popular songs like “Joromi,” “No Palava,” “Vulcanizer,” “Austerity,” the immortal “Guitar Boy” and “Mammy Water.”

The last is both famous not only for his masterful display but the circumstances surrounding it. Uwaifo has repeated it in interviews how the muse came to him on one quiet visit to the Bar Beach way back. According to him, he took time off work as a graphic artist at the time to visit the beach. It was while there that the muse for that number called unexpectedly as a mermaid or Mammy Water. She did not only inspire the song, she also presented him with a guitar and that was it.

“If you see Mammy Water o, never, never run away…” so the popular song begin. It was good that Uwaifo didn’t take to his heels because we would never have had that hit song.

Journalists who have met and spoken with the late musician talk of a jovial and receptive man, knowledgeable in just about any topic on the table. They also talk of a DIY man. On one occasion, for instance, a journalist from Lagos visited him in his mansion on College Road, Benin. He was then in his seventies. “We met a very fit Uwaifo washing his car by himself,” Chux Ohai, Copy Editor of THEWILL said. “Before you knew it, the man crawled beneath the vehicle and started fixing things the way mechanics do.”

Uwaifo also singlehandedly built Revelation Palazzo Museum which he began in 2004. Now in a state of disrepair, Uwaifo himself lamented to Assistant Editor, Arts of The Nation newspaper, Ozolua Uhakeme. Bemoaning its decline, the late Akwete, Sasakosa exponent said: “I am bothered by the poor state of the museum because I am funding it alone. That is why I am calling on the government and private organisations for support. I am okay with any arrangements, be it partnership or collaboration, because I spent too much of my flesh and blood since inception.

“I invested so much money into the museum, which I could have put in fixed deposit. I am fulfilled as a musician and artist. For me, there is nothing better than music and art because it gives me satisfaction. It makes me look forward to the future with pride.”

Whether the government or private concerns will heed his call isn’t exactly clear. But there is just that possibility, judging from the condolence message by the Director-General of National Council for Arts and Culture, Otumba Olusegun Runsewe last week.

“Being a unique fellow, loaded with lots of talents, ”the DG said, “the late Uwaifo had contributed to the development of the entertainment industry and NCAC would immortalise him.”

Renovating the Revelation Palazzo Museum might just be the place to start.