Eliel Otote is a popular Nollywood actor, writer, director and instrumentalist. He was the lead guitarist of The Junior Orchestra Band in the 80s. He has featured in so many stage plays, TV drama series and movies. In this interview with TONY OKUYEME, Otote, talks about his recently released single, ‘Ooh Africa’, his career, music industry Nollywood and other issues
You were the lead guitarist of The Junior Orchestra Band in the 80’s, opening shows for the legendary Sir Victor Uwaifo. Tell us your experience….
Making music with the legendary Sir Victor Uwaifo was and still remains one of my most cherished memories. We particularly enjoyed the status established by the legend as an artist who would not condescend to doing unbefitting gigs like many of his contemporaries. He would never perform on bare floor or “in the dust”. He was more into promoted concerts which often took place in big hotels and event centres all over the country. And we the Junior Orchestra members were so regarded, just like the ‘Titibities’ – the Senior Orchestra band. For a band that was always on the road, life was fast-paced, as we had to race from one state to another for a night gig or an afternoon ‘jump’. The experience was exciting. Punctuality was our watchword. Discipline was our stuck in trade. There was never ‘African Time’. On one occasion, we had a punctured tyre at top speed! That was an ugly experience. But God took control.
What happened to the group?
Well, juniors cannot remain junior forever. (laughs) Some members of the Junior Orchestra Band went back to school, some travelled abroad for “greener pastures”.
How did you learn to play the guitar?
Initially, I learnt on my own, relying solely on aural perception and tonal identification. I made my own guitar too! But I learnt the basics and the theory of music at Victor Uwaifo Academy of Music and the Royal Schools of Music, London.
But you also played with The Black Boys Experience, a resident band on NTA Benin’s Music Panorama in the 80’s, and in the early 90’s, you joined Shock Band… What were the attractions to join these bands? How have they affected your music career?
The passion for music…the desire to express my artistic prowess was a motivational factor. And the fact that bills were getting paid too was an added advantage. Playing in bands does not only fortify your talent, it also teaches you collaboration.
Why did you leave?
Leaving was a progression. So no problem. I had to move to bigger things.
Why didn’t you consider releasing an album or a single then?
I attempted cutting an album in 1986. I did my “demo” at TEAC Studio in Mission Road Benin City. When I submitted it to Tabansi Records in Onitsha, I was told I was sounding too “foreign”. I got discouraged when they advised I should sound like some existing musicians. And it’s really annoying when they mention the artist they want you to sound like. Funny.
Growing up, did you really set out to become an artiste, a musician? Why?
I grew up in a very musical family. My mother was a leader of a local Kokoma Dance-Music group and my father was a Thumb-Pianist. So growing up was more or less guided and guarded musically and artistically. So I am in the arts, not by chance but by choice.
Tell us your experience growing up…
Hmmm. Quite nostalgic. Growing up was rough and tough, but fun too. Ours was not even a bronze spoon, it was a clay spoon! Notwithstanding, there were core values to live by. So, we had a descent society. There was good reward system. You were not respected based on ill-gotten wealth, but by your virtue and values.
Tell us about your own band, ‘De Minstrels’. Why was it so important to set up your own band at the time you set it up?
‘De Minstrels’ was formed when I relocated to Lagos around 1994, after my performance in the NIB’s stage play ‘Kurunmi’ by Ola Rotimi. While in camp at Ife for the play, I nurtured the need for a band. That was how ‘De Minstrels’ was formed.
You are an actor, writer and director. At what stage did writing and directing come in?
While on the road tours in the ‘80’s, I also spent time writing scripts for various programmes on both NTA and BBS Television, (Bendel Broadcasting Service), which later became EBS (Edo Broadcasting Service). For over a decade, I wrote for the popular NTA programme ‘Tales by Moonlight’, and later the NTA telemovie series. I was also a freelance feature writer with the Nigerian Observer and the Speakers Newspaper. Writing was more of flare until opportunities opened up for training. My directing skills were developed while in Earthpot Kulture Theatre as one of the Artistic Directors. I had the privilege of directing the movie adaptation of Eni Jone’s ‘Princess Esilokun’ in 1993.
Which of the movies you have featured in is your favourite? Why?
I love my outing in the movie ‘Veno’, directed by Uzodinma Okpeche. The movie starred among others, Ramsey Noah, Regina Askia and yours truly. The role I played as a Manager and employer who would prey on his female employee was rather demanding artistically. It was quite memorable.
Which of them has been most challenging?
‘Veno’ was quite challenging.
Acting on stage or acting on screen, which of them do you like most? Why?
I like acting for the screen. But I love the stage. The stage prepares you in all ramifications. The discipline it instills in you sees you through all facets of life. I particularly like the creative depth of the stage.
You recently released a song titled ‘Ooh Africa!’ What is the idea behind it?
The song, ‘Ooh Africa’, is a highlight of the precarious situation in Africa, where citizens live in poverty even amidst plenty… the obvious irony of existence. And as a line in the song says: “Our problem na ‘leadership’ and ‘followership’.
Why was it so important to release it now?
Indeed, no other time would have been more appropriate for the release than now. Many African countries are in political crisis. And the song reminds us what our problems are. When you know your problem, you are half way solving it.
What kind of genre of music do you play? Why?
I play Kokoma culture music. The music uniquely combines deep message and danceable fusion of highlife, calypso and kokoma rhythm.
Now that you have released a single, when should Nigerians expect an album?
Not necessarily an album for now, in the right sense of the word. But towards the end of the year, there will be an EP.
Who really is Eliel?
Eliel Otote A. is a simple, down to earth and versatile entertainer. He is humble and accommodating.
What is your opinion about the Nigerian music industry today?
Great. Innovative. Robust. I’m a huge fan of all the young guys making good music in their own way.
Have you been embarrassed? What happened?
There is hardly an embarrassing moment for me. I will rather consider every moment that embarrasses others as a challenge to be better prepared and be more careful the next time.