Without any warning, you left the music scene for construction business even before you became old, why?
I don’t know if the question is correct for I have always done something alongside music. Years ago I had my music centre at Fadeyi, along Ikorodu Road in Lagos. While I was doing music, I had my transport business going. So I have always done something alongside music, so it’s not that I left music for anything, instead, I left something for music.
You gave Nigerians so many beautiful and original songs, what inspired them?
I think inspiration comes from where none of us knows. You just woke up one day and found a lady and a man there as your mother and father. You might look like them or not.
We don’t know a lot of things; I believe that inspiration comes from the Almighty. And that is putting it very simply and mildly as it is a bit more complicated than that. If I tell you I know more than that, I will be fooling myself and even fooling you, for we don’t know a lot of things.
Your songs are soulful, how much influence would you say Isley brothers, Elvis Presley and Harry Belafonte had on your music?
Very little. But I like Elvis Presley, in particular. I know he liked singing a lot of blues and gospel songs. I remember one of his songs that I like so much, where he was talking to God Almighty, saying, ‘But this time Lord, you gave me a mountain.’
I was influenced by the people you named but there are other people that influenced me like The Temptations.
You formed the Cubana Boys along with friends even before you went to university, why did you not just study music instead of engineering?
I don’t know why I did a lot of things; that is the kind of questions I can never answer because I don’t know. I don’t even know who I am. I don’t know why I look like me, I don’t know why I do things that I do but I believe that there is a governing power that controls everything. You see, I’m not a religious person either; I’m anti-religion and pro God. That is to show you that I think I know so little. People may think I know a lot, but I believe I know nothing at all, so there will be many questions you are going to be asking me that I will have no answers to.
You dropped out in your second year, how did you come to that decision?
I have always taken my decisions myself and I don’t regret anything. At that time, that was the only thing I wanted to do. So I have never looked back and said, I wish I had done this thing this way.
At the time I left university, I was ready to leave. I don’t like to criticise things but we have such a false sense of many things.
What I’m saying is that there is so much that we don’t understand and we falsely believe that we know too much. That is why human beings are arrogant over nothing. For instance, your driver is standing in front of you with his hands in his pockets, and you are angry because he has his hands in his pockets. You forget that his hands and the pockets belong to him. If you are not arrogant, you will be quiet because that is his right.
There is nothing that should make you challenge your driver for doing that, but we become so arrogant and forget that pride is the most destructive thing in the world. We need to be humble because we know nothing at all.
You had beautiful and evergreen songs like ‘Still searching’, ‘You can’t hurry the sunrise’, ‘What’s gonna be gonna be’, ‘No more water in the well’ and ‘Cockcrow at Dawn’, which is your favourite of your songs?
There is a poet friend who was asked what his best poem was, he brought out a white paper and pointed at it. The interviewer said, ‘I cannot see anything. ‘The poet told the interviewer to look well and the man said he still could not see anything. So, my answer is that my favourite song is the one I have not written yet.
You had a wonderful band…
Which particular band are you talking about because I had a few.
I had the ‘Rooftoppers’ when I was in Kaduna. Then, I was playing at Hamdala Rooftop Hotel in Kaduna. So, I called my band the ‘’Rooftoppers’. Then I had ‘The Groovies’ but before all of these, I had ‘Cubana Boys’ when I was in secondary school in Okene and another one in university, so I had all kinds of bands.
I have ‘Double Express’ now because I started playing music at Double K Hotel.
So what happened to the bands?
We still get in touch. Some have grown old, some died long ago, while some drifted into different things in life, but I wish we could get together.
How much do you miss your old life, having shows, playing before large crowds, paparazzi and all that?
I miss that a lot. There has to be a level of connection between artistes and the listeners or the audience and that is the most wonderful thing a singer or artiste wants. It is how people respond to what you do. You know with entertainment, judgment comes instantly unlike it is for an exam where you wait for it to be marked. You are marked as you are performing. There is a saying that a showman is as good as his last show. So you must take every show seriously. You might have Bongos 50 years ago, are you still Bongos today?
If you flash back your mind to those days, how does it make you feel now?
I tried to show my children what I looked like when I was much younger, but I couldn’t find it from old recordings because we are unable to maintain a proper archive in this country. TV stations should remember that history is very important and they must find a way to go digital to be able to preserve things that are happening now for the future.
So when I flash my mind back, I realise there are so many things that have been lost. I will like to see how I performed when I was much younger in Kaduna so that people can also see it. I may think it was wonderful but if I see it now, I may realise it was probably otherwise and it may help me to think in some directions.
I should be the one asking this question because I wish I could flash my mind back to those days and see, listen to, dissect and try to understand so many things.
You have daughters who also sing, why are they not doing it commercially or out there after learning from the best?
I wish one of them was here to answer your question because this question is directed at them. They may be my children but I don’t own them; nobody owns the child. You can only relate to your child like a friend. Maybe someday, you will get the opportunity to ask them that. And then it also depends on what you mean by commercial. Your definition of commercial may be different from theirs. Unfortunately, I cannot answer the question for them.
There was a time you said you had about 40 new songs not released, do you still plan to do anything about them?
As I speak to you, I have more than 40 songs that have not been released and I plan to release them. I still have the over 40 songs.
Do you think you can release all these before God calls you home?
I hope to release them as soon as possible. I told you earlier that I am anti-religion and pro God, so one of the songs is titled ‘Your God is my God’. I did not say ‘my God is your God’. It is more philosophical than religious. There is another one called ‘Mustapha and Christapha’, which I have taken to another level. There is ‘Wake up’, and I have many others. They are about life. There is no rich name in any history book; if you are looking for money, you are doomed because nobody has enough. You think that such songs are not commercial, but the deeper they are at this time, the better for me and my listeners.
How much has music changed in Nigeria compared to your time?
Well, the change is in the mind of the listeners and the definition of music. What do you think of music, is it the one you hear every day on the radio or is it the one that people don’t hear at all or the one you play to yourself in the house? What you call change, how did it come about? Is it as a result of what the media think people should listen to or is it that you don’t have any choice to make?
I think that in my days, there were very few FM stations and you had more time to listen. There were very few adverts given air time. All those things have helped into either disorganising or organising what you are looking for. But the ability to think straight to make a choice is grossly being contaminated. So many people are forcing people to listen to their kind of music. You don’t have much choice.
What do you think caused the dearth of highlife music and other types of music that had substance in the country?
So many things have happened. I remember that a long time ago, I was being interviewed by VOA and the interviewer said to me: Bongos, you don’t play any highlife music, you don’t play Nigerian music and I said, ‘Can I hear you one more time’, and he repeated himself. I said to him again, ‘Can you say that one more time’, and he said the same thing.
I said the highlife music (is done in) English words, what makes you think that suddenly highlife music is Nigerian. I said to him, they have washed the spirit out of our existence to the extent we don’t even know who we are anymore. We need to wake up from this slumber before we can go into any state of proper realisation of what we are, who we are, what we are doing and how we can find answers to the questions.
So was there highlife music or we thought there was highlife music? And from what I just said, in what language should highlife music be sung? Is it in Igbo, pidgin English, Idoma or Yoruba? See the confusion I’m talking about; we don’t even know what is happening and what has happened to us.
What current crop of artistes do you listen to or like?
That is serious question and you asked it very nicely. Some people will ask: which do you prefer? It is a difficult question to answer because I don’t want to say how much I listen to whom and don’t listen to whom. My statement would be grossly misunderstood. I think those you call current crop of musicians are thriving because they are playing what the people want to hear as a consequence of what the media houses have consistently played and made them believe. I like blues a lot and some people don’t know what blues means. If I say play me a blues song, they will play highlife or whatever. They will play anything western and call it blues, so there is so much confusion in the field.
But you listen to music, which ones do you see as good music?
I listen to music. For me, good music is a great song that can make you very unhappy and can make you very happy. It is the coexistence of the positive and the negative. If you are always dancing to music, then something is wrong with you. If you are always crying when you hear music, something is wrong with you. There must be a balance and the understanding of balance stems from the listeners. I’m a listener; if I’m listening to your music, what does your music do to me? Has it made me cry? Has it made me happy? Has it made me sad? Has it made me want to listen to you again? Since individuals are not the same, it is very difficult to take my answer as a universal answer. The only answer you can get from me is an answer that will confuse you more.
Where has Bongos been all this while?
I have always been around. I live in Nigeria, I spend a lot of time in Otukpo and sometimes, I go to Abuja, but I’m mostly in Otukpo. I’m very easy to find. They say, seek and you will find, knock and it shall open for you. A lot of people have not tried to find. So tell the rest how you found me.
You were recently ill, how tough was the period for you?
There is no period of ailment that is not tough for anybody. I had never had an ailment. I think I was hale and hearty for the first 60 to 70 years of my life and to suddenly fall sick and suffer a stroke was not easy. It is not an ailment that anybody deserves. It is a time of reflection; you know, a lot of people pray for long life but when they begin to get old, they are scared. If you are asking God to give you long life, you should know that you are also asking him to give you old age along with it because there is no long life without old age. And there is no long life without ailment.
You must accept growing old with dignity. You will also learn one thing from falling sick; that no human being is going to live in this world forever. Above all, despite your wealth, you will die and you are not going to take a pin along with you. When you know these things, it helps you to become humble.
Let me try and simplify what I’m saying so that people can understand it better. Supposing they give me all the wealth in Abuja and ask everyone to leave their houses for me, they mean nothing. I have realised that nobody owns anything. You are sitting in my hotel now, but it will outlive me because when I die, it will still be here. So we don’t own anything. You can deceive yourself and think you own something. So, develop a trinity, but not the Trinity we know, that is, God, the father; the son and Holy Spirit. There is another trinity which is dangerous. That is, I, me and myself.
If you are a contractor and you develop the proper trinity of us, you will know that every road you build is for us. When the builder dies, there are other members left. So, we need to grow into a state where the other person is the only important thing, not you.
What is your philosophy of life?
You know I did a lot of mathematics in this world. You are talking of philosophy. In mathematics, what did they tell you about zero? They say zero is nothing, I think that mathematics is wrong. For example, when you write one (1) and add zero to it, it becomes 10. With two more zeros, it becomes 1,000 and on and on like that. So how can you say nothing becomes something, that means something is wrong.
When you humble yourself to the state of zero and think you have nothing, that is when you have everything. There is power of zero. Zero is the power of God.
When would you describe as the best moments?
I have so many best moments; they come and go. But if you make somebody happy without knowing it, it is fantastic. If you deliberately want to make somebody happy so that you can make yourself happy, that is nothing.
On the other hand, what periods have been very difficult for you?
I have been thinking of that. How do you measure this thing? Supposing I punch you on the head and you become disoriented, you can say there is no God but does that put God out of existence? It is the brain that discerns everything. That is how confused we are.
It will be interesting to know how you wooed your wife. Did you sing for her, write poems or what?
Musicians hardly write something about themselves. Well, wooing my wife is a mystery, you cannot understand the chemistry