Veteran singer and Queen of waka music, Salawa Abeni, speaks with KEMI LANRE-AREMU and TOFARATI IGE on her career, recent illness, children and other issues
What can you recall of your childhood?
I started my career when I was 13 years old, which was 44 years ago. I lived with my guardians, Mr. and Mrs. Ganiu Otun, until I got married. Later on, I lost one of my children and it has caused me a lifelong pain. However, I believe that whatever happens to a human being is destined by God, and if one overcomes it, you should simply move on.
Why didn’t you live with your parents?
I come from a polygamous family and my mum was sick for 15 years. My mother gave birth to eight children and I was the seventh one. It was my father who said I should go and live with my relatives in a place that wasn’t far from our home town.
How did your music career start?
Before I went to stay with my guardians, I was living with some of my mum’s relatives. While with them, I always sang whenever I had the opportunity, especially if I was sent on errands. It was because of that my father took me from there to my guardian’s house in the hope that I would no longer be interested in singing. Being a singer in those days was tough, with a lot of challenges. It is not like now when you are encouraged to be a singer.
However, even while living with my guardian, I used to listen to a programme on Radio Lagos called Ka lo sun (Let’s go and sleep), and they used to play music of people like King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, the late Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, among others. I used to wish that I would become a musician and people would also listen to me on the radio. I just made the declaration within me, not knowing what plans God had for my future.
Before you began your music career, did you go to school or learn a trade?
It was after I started my career that I went to school. While growing up, my father did not have the financial capacity to sponsor my education. It was the headmaster of the school in my guardian’s area that advised my guardians to allow me attend school so that I would be able to read and write in the course of my career. My guardians told him that they didn’t have the money to sponsor my education but the headmaster told them to enrol me in the school for free. As old as I was, I started my schooling from primary three.
How did you come about the waka genre?
I will like to say every musician on earth sings waka music; people just give it different names like juju, fuji, apala, highlife, among others. Waka is a word in Hausa language and I wasn’t the one that originated it. There had been people singing it even before I was born. It was Alhaji Bushura that discovered me. He had a band then and I joined the band. The difference between those who did waka music before me and my style was that I performed standing while they used to sit to sing.
What were some of the challenges you faced at the early stage of your career?
Anybody that would succeed would surely face lots of challenges. I was just a child when I started my career and there were lots of problems. At times, we would go for events and come back without a penny. At other times, our instruments wouldn’t work. However, I continued to endure. When my father saw that my career was getting bigger, he advised me to quit music because of the challenges associated with it and go to school. However, I refused his advice and continued to face my music career and I thank God that I’m still here.
Nowadays, musicians charge millions to perform at events. How much did you usually charge back then?
In the 70s and 80s, I was usually paid N500, N1000 to perform. The first person to pay me considerable money was Alhaji Olayiwola. He invited me to perform at Ijebu Isiwo and I gave him a bill of N2,500, and he agreed without negotiating. I was so happy. After I went to the show with my band members and subtracted the expenses, I still had about N1000 with me.
When do you regard as the breakthrough in your career?
I made my first album, Memoriam: Late Murtala Ramat Muhammed Volume 1, in 1976, and it did quite well. My second album was Iba Agba Volume 2. Then, Nigeria was good and we used to record three albums in a year; in January, during Eid el-Kabir and in December. When I recorded Gentle Lady in 1991, it further boosted my profile and popularity.
How do you feel that artistes now charge millions of naira and the industry is more respectable?
My health has been challenging and annoying. Whenever I think about where I’m coming from and the things I have done, I feel bad but I also shrug it off. To answer your question, you know I have a son who sings, Big Sheff. After his secondary school education, he told me he wanted to go into music. I said there was no problem with being an artiste but he had to complete his education first. That way, he would be able to go anywhere and express his feelings freely. I have been pushing him and investing a lot of money in his career.
What kind of advice did you give your son, Big Sheff, regarding his music career and why is he not singing Waka?
I always advice him because my children are my best friends and there is nothing we don’t talk about. It is very important to train children how to behave and how to serve God. It is not easy for a woman to train even a child alone, much less four of them. Like I said earlier, I advised him to complete his education before going into music. He is a homely boy and we are very close. Even though he is not doing waka, he did a remix of one of my tracks, Gentle Lady. I am sure he will still do a remix of one of his father’s songs.
You were ill for some time. What is the state of your health now?
I am still ill and receiving treatment. I thank God, my parents, my children, the Lagos State Government, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, Alhaja Abibat Mogaji, former Governor Babatunde Fashola and Governor Akinwunmi Ambode. Actually, I have many reasons to be grateful. I am still nursing my health through. I just came back from Dubai where I went for treatment, courtesy of the Lagos State Government. When a person is ill, she wouldn’t be able to work or do other important things. This is the time that I should be reaping the fruits of my labour but my health still poses a major challenge. I pray for every parent reading this interview that they would never mourn their children. It is very painful. Above all, I am thankful to God because I was paralysed for about five years but now, I can move around.
Even Baba (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo saw me recently and he asked why I have not been visible on the music scene. I explained my predicament to him and he said I should come and see him. I thank God for assistance from all of these people. Given the volume of work I have done, I should be living in riches but my sickness hasn’t made it so. A lot of resources has gone into managing my health. However, I thank God I am alive to tell the story.
Have your colleagues in the music industry been supportive?
The only artistes that supported me were the late Sikiru Barrister, Alabi Pasuma and Sefiu Alao.
Do you still record songs and perform?
My last album was Recovery, and that was about two years ago. I also recorded an album for the Lagos State governor, Akinwunmi Ambode. However, I have not been able to do as much as I want to because of my health. Despite that though, I will continue to sing till my last days. I will not disappoint my fans.
What role has your ex-husband, Alhaji Kollington Ayinla, played to help you get back on your feet?
I thank God that we have children together. I don’t want to say anything more than that.
Why haven’t you remarried despite your beauty and fame?
I have trained my children to a point where they can stand on their own and I am a grandmother now. Life is not meant to be lived alone. Definitely, I would have someone in my life. I would continue to be myself because I don’t know how to pretend and lie. However, many musicians lie a lot and they claim to be what they are not. I just got into a relationship and I am sure it would go the way God wants it to.
How do you handle advances from male fans?
I have had a lot of experiences with men. When I left my husband’s house, different men, even those not up to my level, would approach me. It happens like that in every profession. The key is to know how to handle such people without offending them. Some people, who have never met you, would even lie that they are dating you.
What are some of your most notable performances?
I performed at a Benson and Hedges concert at Tafawa Balewa Square alongside musicians like Oliver de Coque, Sir Shina Peters and Femi Anikulapo-Kuti. I was to perform last at 5am and I felt bad because I thought everybody would have gone at that time. However, by the time I got on stage, the venue was still filled and I had a very wonderful performance on that day. Whenever I am on stage, I have no worries. I forget everything and I feel so happy while performing. I also featured at Afrima Awards, One Lagos Fiesta, among others.
Apart from music, are you involved in any other business?
I don’t have any other business apart from music. Shortly before I fell ill, I planned to invest in business but my sickness took a lot of money and property from me.
How do you like to dress?
I dress according to my mood. My daughter also gives me fashion tips.
How do you relax?
I like to travel because whenever I come back, I feel refreshed. I could also decide to spend some days in a hotel to recharge my system.
All rights reserved. This material, and other digital content on this website, may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without prior express written permission from PUNCH.
Contact: [email protected]