By Benjamin Njoku & Lolade Sowoolu
An encounter with Mrs Christie Essien-Igbokwe is like an eternity. Her story equally reads like a novel. When she begins, you have no choice than to listen.
And that’s exactly what happened last Tuesday, when the Lady of Songs invited Show Time Celebrity to her office in Ikeja, to announce activities marking her 50th birthday anniversary. Her birthday comes up on Thursday, November 11, 2010.
The music icon seized the opportunity offered by the informal session to relive memories of her unforgettable past, her rise to fame and how she almost missed her husband.
Hear her story at 50 years…
How do you intend to mark your 50th birthday anniversary?
I intend to spend the day with the less-privileged children as usual. When I marked my 40th birthday I had a lot of funs with my friends and family members. I don’t think I want to do that again this year.
The celebration starts on Wednesday, November 10, a day preceding my real birthday anniversary. On that day, I will visit some orphanages in Lagos. During the visit I will make some humble donations to the Homes and share some time with the children. I’m not actually the person organising the event. It’s being organised by a corporate organisation that wants to honour me at 50.
Looking back, is there anything you think you should have done differently?
I don’t think there is anything I should have done differently because each time I look back , I’d have every reason to be thankful to my creator. Though it was difficult for me at that time to discover myself, given my background, and what I went through in life. Yet I was able to comport myself till date. Actually looking back, I cannot but show gratitude to my God for His mercies.
You started off with music before you veered into the screen ,and later returned to music. How would you relate the time you were playing music and when you were on screen?
During our time, it was a serious business. People were very serious with their activities and time then, meant a lot to us. But these days, things have changed.
People are taking things for granted. I started off with music , and you can imagine what that meant to me then. You have to be at the studio on time to quickly go through your assignment before hitting the air. Then, there was more understanding, and competition was out of it. It was like everybody’s show.
1976 was when you debuted with your album titled ‘Freedom’ at the age of 16. Tell us about the story behind that album?
I don’t like going back to my past. I wouldn’t say I sang that song because of anything. Freedom came to me from heaven and the angels of God insisted I must title the album “freedom” to convey the message of freedom to people. This is because God Himself has given us the spirit of freedom to decide wether we would follow Him or not.
The angels instructed me to sing the song to enable the people to appreciate the fact that they need to be free from oppression. So, I obeyed the voice and sang the song. But then, people thought I was looking for freedom .No, I was just an abandoned girl. How could I be singing for freedom when I was abandoned . The song was meant for people who were spiritually and mentally in bondage.
In those days, parents were always in the habit of influencing their children’s choice of career against their wishes. For me, I used the song to appeal to them to give their children the needful chance to take their destinies into their own hands .That was why God directed me to sing the song . It wasn’t as if I sang the song on my own accord.
Did you miss the screen?
Yes I did.
And it never crossed your mind to return to the screen?
I have been receiving invitations to come and feature in movies. But in a situation where the story lines disagree with my belief I don’t accept such scripts. I have some script in my possession till date. I featured in such movies as “Fresh and Blood” and “Sacred of Womanhood” because I believed in their storylines . More so, I realised that if I feature in such movies , it would help to educate the people in respect of the stories highlighted in these movies.
But in a situation, where you invite me to partake in magnifying the devil through movies, I will reject the offer .I want to be real ,and also feature in something that I can relate to, and defend whenever there is need to do so.
You talked so much about being ‘abandoned.’ How was your growing up?
I grew up in Aba and my childhood was very challenging . I used to have a brother who was a soldier then. He was always on transfer owing to the nature of his job. I was left to survive with his wife ,who almost turned me into a house girl.
But when I could not take it anymore , I walked up to that my brother and reminded him of what my mother used to tell me when I was growing up. She used to tell me that I would become a ‘great woman’ in future. I asked him, to tell me how he thought my mother’s prophesy would come to pass given the fact that I have been turned into a house girl to his wife.
There and then, I told him how I heard a voice ,telling me that it’s time for me to move. He thought it was a joke without knowing that I had concluded arrangement to go and stay with a friend in their hosue. I shared my plans with one of my women- friend in our neigbourhood who was looking for the fruit of the womb for some years.
She encouraged me by persuading her husband to support my movement financially. The following day, I packed my things and informed my brother I was ready to leave. He thought I was joking, until he discovered how serious I was. His wife quickly advised him to give me little money that would only take him to the park.
They believed I would come back to their house, but I never did. Instead, I wrote to inform him that I arrived my destination successfully.
At what point did you discover you could sing?
I didn’t know I could sing until I found myself doing so. I was like an abandoned child, my condition made me to discover myself. I lived a lonely life and each time, I found myself in that kind of sad situation I resort to singing.
Even while I was in school, I used to go to a solitary corner to sing. One of those days I was caught up with the spirit of music, while walking down the road. I was singing as I was going home when a man I later knew as Mr. Masel Imechieta of the old NTA, Aba confronted me, saying to me that ‘he likes my voice.”
He directed me to the NTA station , where I met a woman after much persuasion who auditioned and later offered a job at the age of 16 years. That was the beginning of my career in music.
From your story, it’s obvious that your journey through life was full of ups and downs?
It was not smooth at all. But I’m always grateful to God that I didn’t let my family down even after the death of my mother. I’m sure, my mother, even as she’s in the grave today, would be proud of me. My grandmother was already proud of me before she passed on. I used to be difficult when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex. Men then were scared of me because I never gave them a chance.
How was your husband able to penetrate through the fence of hardness you had around yourself?
He didn’t break the fence by himself, but the late Chief Olu Aboderin did it for him. Though while he was trying to woo me, a lot of people told him nasty things about me, and I did not help matters either.
At a point, my husband wanted to give up because I was proving to be stubborn and uncompromising.
But Chief Aboderin, who adopted me as her daughter kept advising him, letting to realise how much I needed to be loved and cared for, considering my sad experience in life.
The old man continued to act as a ‘go- between’ until it paid off, after he had arranged for us to travel abroad. But when I found out that my father (Chief Aboderin) wanted me to marry him. I said, ‘okay.’ And that was it.
So without Chief Aboderin’s intervention, you wouldn’t have married him?
Maybe, I wouldn’t have agreed to marrying in my life. My biological father didn’t make anything easy for me. When I stayed with my mother for almost 11 years, my father always treated my mother badly. I remember challenging him one day.
I also told my mum that if this was what being married was all about, I would rather remain single. My mother advised me to withdraw the ‘word’ but I refused. She then ran to my grand mother who was my best friend saying, ‘hear what Uduak said before she stamps it and makes it good.’ My grand mother them intervened
So what has it been like being married for 31 years?
Well, it’s an experience I don’t say I regret. I just owe thanks to God that I’m able to pull through and to encourage others to stay put in their matrimonial homes for the sake of the children. I sang a song at a time saying, ‘stay apart for a while.’ It’s just to urge people that it’s not the best place neither the worst place. It’s something that God has instituted since creation so we should do it.
Were there times you wished you didn’t make the decision?
Are you comfortable with the present state of PMAN?
Are we comfortable with everything happening in this country? So why is it PMAN. PMAN is still my baby. Everything that affects Nigeria must affect you as a person and also PMAN. So what’s happening is a result of human error and punishment and I’m not happy with it. And I try to discuss it once in a while with them but you know you can’t impose anything on people.
In other words, it’s not the same PMAN you formed.
PMAN is still PMAN just like Nigeria is still Nigeria. When the head is not good, every part of the part of the body is affected. Nigeria is the umbrella. If the umbrella is leaking, everyone under the umbrella gets wet. Help us pray for PMAN.
Seun Rere was one of your biggest hits released on Skylak Records. Did it give you as much money as the fame?
It gave me more than that. The label owner was a father to me. If that man was alive today, the industry wouldn’t be what it is today. Nigerian entertainment industry would have gone far such that America would be jittery of Nigeria. The kind of dream he had was huge. He was somebody who believed in being accountable.
He didn’t want someone to be cheated. The music was recorded and printed abroad. If the machine prints 50, you’ll know because you must pay tax to the government. Before he died, he printed 300, 000 copies. He was to honour me with platinum.
He sold 300, 000 under six months. In fact he said, my next album would be produced by Quincy Jones because of the sales. He went to Los Angeles to sign contract with Quincy Jones to record the next. Then Quincy heard an African sold 300, 000 copies in ix months, he was interested. He didn’t want any fees paid, just 2 ½% of sales.
Your biggest shows?
Till today, I hold the record in National Theater, Iganmu, Lagos for filling the theater to the brim. And then I was meant to pay for the things the crowd that thronged to the complex destroyed. The people that were outside the hall were more than those that were inside for three years.
It was called ‘Concert of Stars’ and it held for three years. Not even a foreign band playing in the country has been able to break that record. The show ran from 1981, 1982 through 1983.
Was the concert solo show or were there other performers?
It was the two sides of Christy Essien Igbokwe-the music and then acting with the New Masquerade.
What was the experience of your first time in a studio?
It was fun. I’ve always been confident and bold since I was a child. When I got to Decca Studio, they were trying to pamper me like a child but later were shocked at my confidence. Things moved fast and all the problems they expected to have with a first timer who was also a child didn’t happen. I even asked to re-voice some parts.
What year was that?
It was 1976. I was sixteen and so bold that I negotiated my own contract. God was the one telling me what to do. I walked into the office, saw a man and said to him, I wanted to record my song, and asked if was interested?
Christy Essien-Igbokwe Fact File
Nigeria’s lady of songs. She put Nigeria’s name on the world music map with her evergreen Soun Rere track.
She was the first female president of the performing musicians association of Nigeria. Born on the 11th November 1960, this singer and actress is the chairman and managing director of Soul Train entertainment limited.
Her Honours include Nigerian lady of songs award, Africa music mother award 1984, international special achievement award Mexico 1983 world song festival award Los Angeles queen of music international award association of theatre arts practitioners Lagos 1996 outstanding achievement in female uplifting.
She has also contributed enormously to nation building, peace and tolerance-which, alongside moral uprightness, remain constant themes of her songs. Her albums, which include Patience, Seun Rere, Ever Liked My Person, Taking My Time and Give Me a Chance, have remained evergreen, despite the fact they were released in the 70‘s and 80‘s.