"GUITAR BOY" By Sam Omatseye - Paul Ukpabio's Blog

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Tuesday, 31 August 2021

"GUITAR BOY" By Sam Omatseye


The first time I saw Victor Uwaifo perform in the flesh was at the State House in Lagos a few years ago. He did not have the vim and zest of youth. But the talent remained like palm wine in ferment or like slow-burning flame. His tongue unrolled some of his vintage familiars like Joromi and Guitar Boy. And the crowd, ever highbrow and starchy, abandoned its patrician airs and ploughed back to the old days of their youth and loosed themselves like boys and girls in ecstasy. They belted out soulful choruses with the master. But gloom fell as the man departed the microphone.

I was to meet him in person not long after when I addressed the convocation of the Igbinedion University in Okada, and was a guest of former governor Lucky Igbinedion for lunch. Uwaifo had his meal not far from me, and we spoke about his songs, and I contrived the melody of his songs the same way a mechanic worked the threads of a suit. His face always had the light of a boy, the entertainer’s eternal playfulness. He was about 78, and he did not bear any of the crimps of age, not in his steps or voice or even mind. He enjoyed the brio of a 70-year-old, and he seemed in all-round fine fettle.


I told him I wanted to come over to Benin before long to interview him, and he said I should call him, and he would give me a tour of his museum. The project was one of those you cherish and postpone, and you keep postponing because you cherish, and the hope of its spectacle of fulfilment is like a treasure you preserve in a special case in the recesses of your room. The expectation of use never happens but never wanes. But you rejoice in the hope. One day you find out it is no longer there, and it has been purloined by some itchy finger, and you regret that you should have enjoyed your boon while it was around. What seemed solid was, after all, like a soap bubble. When he entered his car and was driven away, I waved. But unbeknownst to me, it was a goodbye more permanent than a wave of the hand.


So death snatched away the icon, death always the sneaky conman. His death reminds me of the last words of Philosopher Socrates. “I owe a cock to asclepius. Do not forget to pay it.” In my case, it is in reverse. I owed Uwaifo. But I shall never be able to pay him.


Victor Uwaifo was a constant fixture of my boyhood, on television. I looked forward to his show on television because of his guitar. I marvelled at the double-neck instrument, and the way he wielded it on stage. When he performed at the Lagos State House, he did not hold a guitar and he was over 70. But when I first knew the man, he was a boy in his twenties. He held the guitar like a toy, flipped it, tossed it, placed it under his knee, under his shoulders, at the back of his head, he leapt, he sat, he stooped, he bowed. He did all forms of acrobatics while he strummed. I knew that as the melody before I enjoyed the melody. Up till today, I don’t know of any musician, living or dead, who did what he did on stage other than Michael Jackson’s human pyrotechnics.


I recall the interview he had after his 80th birthday with Channels TV’s Manu Onumonu, and how he related the story of mammy water, the mermaid. His song Guitar Boy derived from an encounter with a mermaid at the Lagos Bar Beach. Among other things, he described the vision of the water spirit as “blinding.” That adjective may allow some to interpret it as a moment of creative illusion, what some pyschologists or literary critics would define as phantasmagoria. But to the artist, it was a rich and unassailable experience. He described the waves in their obstinate surges and his retreat, and before he knew it, the vision was before him.


The music piece, Guitar Boy, was a testimony of his survival of the woman of the sea. “If you see mammy water O/ never, never you run away…” Rather he sang melodies because he snagged the mystic maid.


He was immersed in culture, especially Bini culture, and he was probably the first modern ambassador of the genius of the Edo culture. His song Joromi, which earned him accolades all over the world and gave him his first of many gold disc awards, was rooted in the narrative of a wrestler in this world and in the spirit realm, a sort of Edo rendition of a Jacob trading biceps with his God. The song, full of syncopating rhythms and onomatopoeia, will tell us that before rap, there was Uwaifo.


But what is not told enough is that Uwaifo was a renaissance man. My history teacher at Ife, Professor Femi Omosini, described Leonardo Dan Vinci, as “a veritable jack of all trade and master of many.” So it was with Uwaifo. We forget that he made his car from fibre glass and even drove it to Abuja. His recollection of how he made his first guitar has some of the trappings of the beginning of broadcasting with ropes transformed into instruments of communication. He was a sculptor, or professor of art. He was gloriously welcomed into the Nigerian Academy of Letters


He spoke to those who didn’t understand his language. He introduced the Akwete among others into genres of high life music.


We have great musicians in the country who have left us. We have had the inimitable Rex Lawson, the Abami eda Fela Anikulapo Kuti. We have had I.K Dairo with his paternal shadow over highlife. We had the soothing voice of Comfort Omoge, and the choruses of Christy Essien Igbokwe. We had the unique charisma of Oliver de Coque. We have had the feisty Bobby Benson. The ringing presences of the griot Dan Maraya Jos. And few more. We have a few elders of throaty grandeur still around. Let us cherish them and clasp them to our bosom and give them all the encomiums they deserve while they are still here to hear. Uwaifo’s life was a melody, but we cannot but feel threnody as he departs us.


Uwaifo has a special place in the pantheon and in our hearts. He now, as a poet once wrote, belongs to the ages.


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