BY FRED IWENJORA
Sometime in 1992 a barely 4 year old boy, Ofonime Felix Okon thrilled Late First Lady Mrs. Maryam Babangida as well as other first Ladies from the states with his xylophone.
It was at the Conference of Nigerian First Ladies held in Lagos where Okon etched his name in history because he was drafted to tour the nation with the Better Life for Rural Women programme after that performance.
Pictures and videos of his performance made world headlines and continued to show as fillers for NTA for years.
That singular show changed the life of little Okon who was immediately rebaptised Udo Mariam (Babangida) i.e. second son of Maryam.
He also got automatic academic scholarship award from Maryam Babangida, and later from Maryam Abacha, from the then Military Governor of Akwa Ibom as well as from other notable Nigerians.
Now, a fully grown adult and married with kids, Ofonime Felix Okon better known as Udo Mariam spoke with FRED IWENJORA recently after an exhilarating performance in Uyo on his life before and after that performance back in 1992.
What do you remember of the performance that made you so popular?
I just remember that there was a mammoth crowd of people like I never saw in my life. I was about 4 years.
To face such a large audience at that age was an awesome event and experience to me. It was overwhelming at first but my father encouraged me to go on and show them. I thank God. That was the day I got a new name that people still call me till today. I also remember that after my performance, Late First Lady Maryam Babangida adopted me. She told me publicly that I am her second son and my name changed to Udo Mariam right from there. Few people know that my real name, is Chief Ofonime Felix Okon.
Many think you were born with the xylophone and sticks in your hands….?
I noticed that I could play the xylophone as early as the age of 3 years. My late dad bought me a xylophone and sticks. He even made it possible for me to be a chief at that age because of the circumstances of my birth.
My life is unique. I lost my mum after my birth so did not know her except in pictures. When my father realised I was talented, he continued to buy instruments for me to encourage me to work harder. I think my talents originate from my dad who was a singer and a drummer and from God maker of the Heavens and earth.
Any other siblings of yours playing like or with you?
I had my brother playing drums in my band but he has dropped off to face his family according to him. I am the only one with the grace to play the xylophone.
How long has the Udo Mariam group been alive?
The group has been alive from the day I performed for the former First Lady. It was originally being organised by my late dad until he passed on and the mantle fell upon me. These artistes have been together with me since 1999 and that is 20 years. Two out of the original members who started with me are still here.
What do you think keeps your troupe together?
God is the main pillar of the group. We are bonded by brotherhood. I think mutual love for one another keeps us moving. One love keeps us together I should say.
You got several scholarship offers because of your talents….
Yes they were many and I did not even use all. I used some of them and graduated with HND in Business Management at Akwa Ibom Polytechnic.
Girls and girls everywhere for a talented musician like you; how do you cope with them?
I see them as my fans. I have a wife and two children, a son and a daughter.
Did you ever see your Late adoptive mum Maryam Babangida again afterwards?
Yes, I met her several times at other events that took place during her reign. She always invited me. When Bill Clinton visited Nigeria, I was also invited to perform. The last we met was during her son Mohammed’s wedding in 2005 held at Minna. After the performance, she invited me to the house. That was why I wept when news of her death was announced. She was my mum since I did not know my biological mum.
A handsome young man like you under normal circumstances should be playing hip hop music; why are you not drawn to such music?
I can’t be drawn to hip hop because my music is ordained by God even before I was born. This I know very well.
What do you think is the future of Udo Mariam cultural troupe?
The future is in raising talented children that will touch the world with their unique talent led by my son.
As artistic director of Udo Mariam Dance Company; do you regret that you did not study theatre?
As if you are in my mind. Yes, I want to go back to school to study Theatre arts and one day become a professor of dance. That is my dream. I figure that as the artistic director of the dance company, studying theatre arts will help me.