*We rehearsed for six months to perform at 1960 Independence Day – Chris Ajilo
Veteran highlife singer, Pa Chris Ajilo, shares the story of his life with OLUSHOLA RICKETTS
*When were you born?*
I was born on December 26, 1929, at Okepopo on Lagos Island. Growing up in Lagos was difficult and fun at the same time. Despite all the challenges, I give glory to God. I lost my father when I was nine but my mother did a good job in training us. I am the only musician in the family and I have three brothers and two sisters.
*How did you develop interest in music?*
I attended CMS Grammar School, Lagos, and for three years, music was compulsory. We were only allowed to drop music as subject in Form 4. When I went to Europe, England precisely, I started an engineering course at the Birmingham Technical College and I also joined a youth club. While watching bands playing, I felt the desire to pursue a career in music. I told my mother about it and she did not understand why I wanted to abandon engineering for music. I went ahead to enrol in the School of Music in London. I finally made up my mind to go into music fully in August, 1955.
*Tell us more about your days at CMS.*
My days at CMS were fulfilling and exciting. I graduated in 1948. We didn’t play with our studies, but we played pranks among ourselves. Inasmuch as we loved to play, we were very careful because once you were caught, it was a big trouble. Though I am not certain about how things are being run nowadays, during my days, it was compulsory to study music in my secondary school. I was well exposed to music then at the school.
Our principal loved playing football with us, but he didn’t withdraw discipline. He was the only one who had the freedom to punish us; teachers never flogged us. Whenever the principal wanted to whip us, he made it a big deal. He would do it in front of the entire pupils and there was no pupil who wanted such experience.
*Did your parents support your decision to study music?*
My mother didn’t support my decision to study music and like I said, my father died when I was young. In Yorubaland, at a time, a musician was called ‘alagbe’ (beggar). My mother didn’t want me to return to Nigeria after studying in England to become a beggar. But due to my exposure, I knew that musicians were having a good life in England.
Since my mother was far away from me, she didn’t know what I was doing. I went ahead and made the best of the opportunities I had. I had to go through a lot because I wanted to prove to everyone in Nigeria that I would never be a beggar. When I returned to Nigeria, they were all happy for me.
In my book, launched in 2013, Reminiscences of a Nigerian Musicologist, everything about me is there. The book is for people to know about me and learn from my experience. The book is my gift to the future. It took me two years to complete it and I am proud to say I wrote it.
*Was it true that you changed your name to Johnny Foster while travelling to England?*
I didn’t call myself a Jonny Foster because I wanted to do illegal things. I only did that to help myself. I was determined to travel out of the country; so, whatever I needed to do, I was not afraid to do it. I had my identification card as well as a birth certificate. When it got to the point I needed to tell my real name, there was no difficulty.
*When last did you release an album?*
I released my last album when I was 83. I am not just a recording artiste; I do other things in entertainment.
At a time, I was a producer at Polygram Records and I was grooming artistes. When we started the Performing and Mechanical Rights Society of Nigeria, I was the first general manager, a position I held for 14 years. I retired in 2007. It is now known as the Copyrights Society of Nigeria. Composers and performers now understand that they can make money from their works but it was never like this. I made musicians know what they deserved and the need to claim it.
*How did you feel performing on Independence Day on October 1, 1960?*
The Independence Day’s celebration was held at the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos. I led the national band, comprising musicians from various parts of Nigeria, including the late Chukwuwetalu Arinze and Victor Olaiya. Then, I was the president of the Nigerian Union of Musicians, which is now called the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria.
It was not easy to perform on Independence Day as the celebration committee members wanted to bring in bands from Europe. The union refused and insisted that we didn’t need a foreign band to perform on our Independence Day. We said we could form a national band and we rehearsed for almost six months before the celebration.
*Did the government reward musicians who performed on that day?*
We didn’t do it for the money. All we got from the celebration committee was uniforms – white and green – for all performers. It was actually all we asked for. It is our beloved country and we represented the musicians of Nigeria through our union. Since it was our contribution, we didn’t collect any money. We showed the world that we could host them. It was a grand ceremony. The Queen of England was represented and other top personalities around the world were in Nigeria.