Debuting his music career at age 7 where he performed at the ECOWAS conference concert in Sheraton Hotels, Abuja, Ayodeji Mayowa Ajayi has grown not just in music, but with the understanding that he can do much more with art,  using it to tell stories that might never be told.

Ayodeji Mayowa Ajayi

Born into a musical family, Ayodeji was nurtured and encouraged at the CMS grammar school where he later became the choral director and pianist for the school, in addition to directing music for theatre.

This journey got its finesse when he got a 2 years tuition-free scholarship from MTN Foundation to study at the MUSON SCHOOL where he was taught the technicalities of musicals and shown how he can beautifully merge the two art forms that are close to his art, music and theatre.

After the MTNF scholarship, Ayodeji Mayowa Ajayi has since been a part of great national productions such as Saro and Wakaa the Musical. He has also successfully produced four musical theatre show including Legends the Musical, which will be showing again for five days starting from 22nd December at the MUSON Centre.

In this interview with Linda Orajekwe, Ayodeji Mayowa Ajayi talks about the upcoming production, Legends; some challenges producers in Nigeria face and how MTN Foundation is helping the art and culture sector in Nigeria.

  1. Kindly walk us through your journey of stage musical productions. How did it start?

My journey started with music, I was born into a musical family, trained in one of the best institutions, MUSON SCHOOL with Scholarship from MTNF. However, in the year 2013, Mrs. Bolanle Austen-Peters called me to interview for a music directing job on one fateful day but I failed to show up because I practically don’t interview for jobs and having known her many years back and done top-notch events with her, I expected her to know my capabilities.

I presumed the interview held without me but I got a call later on from her chiding me for not turning up for the interview. She invited me to her office afterwards and had a private audition session with me and I got the most coveted job of the Music Director for one of the best Broadway-styled musical theater shows in Nigeria. Presently I have directed music in over 40 musical theater shows both at home and internationally.

Aside directing music for theater, I have about four (4) musical theatre shows that I have produced and these are Fela, Arrest the Music, which showed at the MUSON festival 2016 and African International Film Festival (AFRIFF) same year; GULA that I jointly produced with Mr. Tunde Oduwole in 2017 and Ununcha the Musical which I produced for the Obi Jackson at the Face of Okija 2017 in Anambra state. This year 2018, it’s all about LEGENDS with my partner Gbenga Yusuff.

  1. What is it like being among the beneficiaries of the MTN Foundation Scholarship and how has that helped you to surmount the obvious challenges of building a creative career?

After my entrance examination at MUSON Diploma School as a pioneer student, there was then a moment of silence, no communication. I assume even the school was scared of telling us how much we were to pay as tuition, so 25 of us were back to square one.

The Diploma course was just a mirage after all. Later on, that same month, news started spreading that the course would go on because MTNF had decided to pay for the programme. It seemed too good to be true at first because who would just wake up in our society and pay other people’s children school fees.

L-R: Gbenga Yusuf, Creative Director of ‘Legends the Musical’; Nonny Ugboma, Executive Secretary, MTN Foundation and Music Director and Composer/Arranger of ‘Legends the Musical’, Ayo Ajayi, at the premiere of MTNF sponsored ‘Legends the Musical: Kings and Kingdoms’ at the MUSON Centre, Lagos in October 2018.

To cut the long story short, it happened and we got the best tutelage ever without travelling abroad by world-class professional tutors who gave us the best we could’ve had.  We also got study materials for free.

So, to answer the question of what it’s like, I’ll say it’s like a miracle, very hard to believe yet true because we live in a world where people think of self and it has helped me greatly in terms of knowledge, exposure, network and the list goes on.

It has provided me with a platform I wouldn’t have had and that platform has been a great boost to my career. So, I felt and still feel great to have been a part of the beneficiaries because what I’m doing today and who I’m becoming might not be possible without the scholarship.

  1. What is Legends, the Musical all about and what inspired it?

Legends, the Musical is a musical play centered on the lives and triumph of Africa’s legends. The five Legends captured are Sango, Shaka, Yaa Asantewa, Queen Amina and Queen Nefertiti. In this Musical, the earth is besieged by an evil which calls itself The Shadow. In fear, the people of the earth raise their voices to the sky, calling for the help of THE LEGENDS, men and women who have long walked the earth before, men and women long forgotten.

As the legends hearken to the call, we find out that most of the social virtues and vices in the society now have long existed; pride, love, hatred, jealousy, unity and so on. Eventually, it is revealed that love is the strongest of all virtues. Love was the weapon used in conquering their common enemy- Shadow. Readiness to look into Africa’s past inspired this story. History is one important aspect of our culture. It helps us keep our culture alive.

  1. What are some of the challenges one is likely to face in making an average stage production in Nigeria? What are some of the challenges you faced in putting Legends, the Musical together?

The major challenge in putting up a show is lack of infrastructure. We do not have the theatres. Also, technical equipment like sound; lights cost a fortune to hire. Non-availability of funds is also a major challenge as we have to pay cast and crew most times out of pocket.

What role do you think the MTN Foundation is playing to reduce these challenges for producers like you?

MTN Foundation is playing major roles in making sure these productions come alive and these include enough funding to help us deal with the issue of infrastructure, PR, marketing and so on and this is why producers like me are excited and grateful to have a brand like MTN who isn’t just supporting us because they have cash to spend, but because they also believe in what we create and want to see it thrive.

  1. Considering that stage musicals are not a mainstream art form in Nigeria, how well do you think it is presently being appreciated, accounting for its rising popularity?

People only need to see a good musical once and they become glued, that is how potent the art form is. I know that musicals are well appreciated by those who have seen it. In terms of its appreciation, it is actually being appreciated by those who have had the opportunity to experience it. So, it is presently being appreciated, just that there need to be more theatres so that more producers can create shows for more people to experience this art form.

  1. How well do the plots of stage productions tell authentically Nigerian stories?

I am an ardent believer of telling our stories in our own way. What do we achieve by telling our stories? There’s the positivity that comes with knowing we have lots of challenges as a people but in all, we still thrive and we are beautiful and can stand any other race in the world.

This is what the plot of many stage productions do, with an understanding of our present reality as a people, they try to project an achievable reality with their productions; a future we should have, which I believe is part of the authentic Nigerian story.

  1. What measures do you think needs to be taken to ensure that this art form is given the appreciation it deserves?

Many organizations, governmental and non- governmental need to emulate MTNF by joining the cause of reawakening and rebirth of the arts and culture. MTNF has shown their passion for this industry and I think it’ll only get better and more appreciated if more organizations emulate what MTNF is doing and support this art form.

L-R: Gbenga Yusuf, Creative Director of ‘Legends the Musical’ and Music Director and Composer/Arranger of ‘Legends the Musical’, Ayo Ajayi, at the premiere of MTNF sponsored ‘Legends the Musical: Kings and Kingdoms’ at the MUSON Centre in Onikan, Lagos in October 2018.
  1. What other productions have you been a part of and what was it about these productions that made you decide to do them?

I was Musical Director of Saro and Wakaa the musicals both Lagos and London editions, Obele and the storyteller for the World book Festival in Port-Harcourt by Beeta Arts Foundation and many others. Most of the productions like Saro and Wakaa the Musical, I was simply called to be involved and I’m very glad I did because the experience launched me into a new horizon considering the expanse of the work and the large number of people in the theatrical field in Nigeria.

  1. What was the most challenging and most interesting scene to produce in Legends, the Musical?

The most challenging and interesting scene is the turnaround of the lover boy who is depicted in the production; he turns around to become the villain and then it’s a scene where you’ll see a normal human like you trying to defeat the legends that have come to save the world.

So, it’s a very big scene, it’s an interesting scene and it’s a scary scene. It’s very challenging not just for the producers, even for the actor who played it because you’ve been playing a very nice lover boy role and just in a twinkle of an eye it’ll become the villain.

And also, at this point, the music and choreography will also change. So before we even got to the rehearsal stage, we’ve started thinking about it mentally as to what this would be because at that point, there’s a turnaround with what we’ve been coming with and since that’s the high point of the play, I should not give all out. (Laughs) There are also a lot of technicalities where this scene is concerned and that involves more mental work and serious mind shift for actor, producer and director for it to be executed as smooth as possible.

  1. With your experience producing musicals, what are your frank expectations about how Legends, the Musical will be received?

So far, this musical we started showing since October has been massively received by both theatre and non-theatre lovers. I know people who came to see this in October and now they’re still calling for tickets for every day of the show.

They’re not just buying for themselves, they’re buying for family and friends to also come and experience what they experienced in October. Fortunately for us, this December we’ve done a lot of PR, but the PR people have been doing for us has been more than we did and that’s because they’ve seen the show.

The Legends on stage during its first run in October 2018.

The reviews have been great so far and they’ve expressed interest to be a part of ‘Legends The Musical’. Our expectations are very high. We started out to create something phenomenal, unusual and different from what has been the norm; we’ve seen people appreciate musicals in our theatres but this is on a different pedestal.

  1. Judging from where we are, how would you predict the future of arts and culture in Nigeria?

To predict the future of arts and culture in Nigeria, I’ll say it is looking really bright as we grow but that has been made possible so far with MTN Foundation coming on board. MTN Foundation has taken on the responsibility to be the pacesetter

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