Ikem Mazeli, known as, Material ,Onye nwegwu, Igwe Egwu, is an award-winning traditional highlife musician and a political stalwart. In an insightful interview with Okey Obiozo of Inlantown.com a society and culture website of Onicha people, he reveals his inspiration, passion for music; culture and plans on take his music to the next level.
ILT:Let us meet you?
IKEM:My name is Honourable Ikem Mazeli, known as Material Onye Nwegwu. The honourable that is attached to my name is because I was once a supervisor for Works and later, Education in Onitsha-North Local Government Area. I am a politician cum musician.
ILT: How was your growing up?
IKEM: My growing up was modest because right from childhood, I have been focused in life, knowing quite well that I was from a poor background, therefore I had to focus on working extra hard to forge ahead in life and ultimately aim at upgrading my family’s status. Thank God, today such dream has been achieved and I have put my family’s name in the fore-front through my music. That notwithstanding, there were some hitches along the line but being focused helped tremendously in charting the right course.
ILT: your educational background?
IKEM: I had my primary education at Nwora Umunna Memorial Primary School, Onitsha, and proceeded to Washington Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha for my secondary education. My higher education was at Edo State University, now Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, Edo State for a Bachelor of Science Degree in Political Science.
I had a post graduate degree in Business Management at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State.
ILT: How did you venture into music?
IKEM: I had been into music right from my tender age. I started from cultural music. As a kid, I used to be the lead dancer for Ncheta Ka Cultural Group. Interestingly, wherever we performed, I used to entertain the crowd. It was from there that I graduated into being a flutist, specializing in the local flute called, Oja.
Later, I was attached to Nkolika Cultural Group as their flutist. I still play flute professionally till date but my singing career actually started from the gospel band; while in secondary school, I joined Anglican Youth Fellowship (AYF) Band of Emmanuel Church. It was during my membership of that gospel band that I discovered and nurtured my singing talent. In the process, I became the band’s lead vocalist and we eventually released two gospel albums that were hits and commercial success in the early 1990s; Ocho Mma and Asi n’arum abulu s’onu.
ILT: What happened from there?
IKEM: Along the line, during 1994 some Onitsha talented musicians and I came together to form Onitsha-Ado Youths Band. The group consisted of; Ifekandu Onwuatu, Ejiofor Ayadiuno, Amechi Egbuna, Sunday Ejamike and my humble self. Though band started purely as a gospel band and flourished but we diversified into fusing gospel music and circular highlife, dishing out varieties of music at social functions and before long it became the toast of the town. While in Onitsha-Ado Youths Band, we released Niru Niru K’anyi gaga as a joint effort and played together as a group till 2001 when the group split and I went solo after my graduation from the university in 1998. My decision to play music professionally motivated me to go solo so as to stand the test of time.
It was afterwards that I established my band; Ikem Mazeli and His Material Band and started releasings my songs as individual effort. Discovering that I could play music professionally even as a graduate and getting to know that music is lucrative was a huge motivation to me. I realised that for me to churn out the type of play music I want, I need to go solo and that was it. Playing as a group however never gave me the opportunity to grow musically because of other views to be considered before things are done but as a solo artiste, minimal interference is made during decision making and it allows for creativity. Also, I decided to go solo in order to make decisions that are supposed to help me in the music industry. When I went solo, I decided to choose a genre, meanwhile, as a university student, I met Victor Uwaifo who is my role model and a big influence on my style, I discovered that he plays traditional highlife music. Seeing that the older generations of highlife musicians are gradually fading, I observed the need for the younger generation to step in and carry on, so I decided to play traditional highlife music to keep it alive.
ILT: How did you start?
IKEM: I grew by learning and applying what others have done in the musical industry, thereby creating my own kind of music. Today, I play my personal composition; I write and perform my own songs. As a professional traditional highlife musician, I see myself as a philosopher. You observe things that happen in life and nurture the ability to compile them into songs for people’s learning and entertainment. So, I started by researching into what happens in life within my domain and use it in my lyrics to teach people life’s lessons from the standpoint of others’ experiences. Also, as a traditional highlife musician, we use our music to pass across relevant messages. We use music to expose things that happens around people which they don’t take into cognizance. Through music one can pass across messages on how best to do things or handle situations and people.
ILT: How have you fared in this regard?
IKEM: There is an age long perception that musicians are loafers in life, I have used my experience largely to change that perception. I have made effort in changing the way people see musicians because music is lucrative. As a role model, I have been able to motivate the younger ones into charting career in music because as a graduate, I am a professional musician. Gone are the days when parents discourage their children from music, preferring they face their studies. Nowadays, people’s ideas of musicians have changed, parents can now easily invest in their children who are interested in music, and some even buy them instruments as a means of encouragement. Just like in the days when children were discouraged from playing football or engaging in any sporting activity or music professionally because the practitioners were considered to be failures in life but nowadays, things have changed and I’m glad to be instrumental in changing that perception within our locality.
ILT: Where do you draw your inspiration?
IKEM: Once the creativity is there, songs ideas could come at anytime even while driving. The inspiration to compose songs comes often. Even as we are discussing, it could come but the important thing I do is to write it down when it comes or if possible record it with a device. The most important thing to me is that I love to create new songs using things that happen around us or what has happened in the past. Sometimes, you might even be out to correct an impression. Due to so many things that happen in the society, as a musical ambassador it is your duty to bring it to people’s attention.
ILT:What is your level of involvement in politics?
IKEM:Part of the reason why I remarked that I am a politician cum musician stems from the fact that I read political Science and after school, I contested for councillorship in 2004 which though was never conducted, I was later appointed the supervisor for works in Onitsha-North Local Government in 2005. I served in that capacity till the end of my tenure, I was once again appointed supervisor for education in 2007 the same local government. I have always being in politics ever since
ILT:What can you say about Onitsha culture?
IKEM:Personally, I love the culture and the tradition of my people. I grew up within Onitsha so there is nothing about the culture that is strange to me. That is why I play traditional highlife music. I am in tune with the traditions of my people and it has helped in enriching my music. There is no aspect of my activities that will make me lose focus of Onitsha because it has been my source and what brought me to limelight. My fans’ appreciating my music was because I started with Onitsha concept. Onitsha though has been a pace-setter that is why people travel from far and wide to the city to learn some aspects of the cultures. I believe that through my music I have helped in showcasing the culture of Onitsha people in a way that will allow people easy access. I always projected the traditions in positive light.
ILT:Have you won any award?
IKEM:I have won so many awards and the climax is winning the best highlife musician twice organized by City People Entertainment.
ILT:What do you feel about those that copy your music?
IKEM:For those who play the copyright of music, I see it as a challenge for me to work harder. Most artistes that play my music see me as a role model and by doing that they in return promote my music.
When they perform my music, people will only be keen at knowing the originator of the music and on further enquiry it will be told that it is Ikem Mazeli’s music. Also I am very happy for the young artistes because it brings to my consciousness that the industry is competitive and for me to stand the test of time, I have to step up my game. I encourage them a lot though but I am very glad that a lot of young people are now embracing music because it is lucrative.
ILT:What is your advice?
IKEM:Whether you are playing hip-hop, gospel or highlife music there is need for us to embrace unity because our job is to entertain people.
ILT:How is your relationship with your fans?
IKEM:It is amusing because most times when people see me, they don’t recognize me as Ikem Mazeli because I look younger than my music and their expectation. Although I play traditional highlife, most time my dressing does not reflect traditional attire as people expect.
ILT:What is your dress sense?
IKEM:I like to look simple and other times corporate even while on stage, except the show demands otherwise.
I prefer simple outlook and that is why when I meet some people, they mistake me for someone else because their mindset is to see a very elderly man behind the name and my rich lyrics.
Often time, it is until people introduce me before people recognize me in the public as Ikem Mazeli due to my dress sense, i love wearing fedora as part of my style.
ILT:Do you play any instrument?
IKEM:Apart from flute, I play Set drums, and Conga perfectly and a bit of keyboard.
IKEM:I like red and black colours.
I like rice and can eat it however it is prepared.
ILT:How have you managed female fans?
IKEM:It is quite a huge challenge managing female fans, but one has to carry them along so as not to be termed arrogant or a snub. There is always a special way of treating them except for some that might try to act funny, at that stage the line has to be drawn.
ILT:Are you married?
IKEM:I am married with five kids; a son and four daughters. My children are happy and doing well. My marriage is 15 years.
ILT:How will you feel if any of your children indicate interest in music?
IKEM:If any of my children show interest in music, I will encourage the person. First I will ensure that the person is educated, though many are not aware that education helps a lot in the music industry. I believe that my rise and the impact I have made so far in the music industry has my education as a contributory factor.
ILT:What are your plans for your music and yours dreams?
IKEM:I am not relenting, however, I see my present position as a stepping stone to where am going. I look forward to international tours and taking my music across the world. With the right contacts and exposure, I will be playing my music to the world. The most important thing I need now to move to the next level is hard work.
I look forward to being the next biggest representation of Igbo music and traditional highlife music worldwide because since the demise of prominent highlife musicians from the region that has taken the music of the region across the globe nobody has yet stepped in to continue from where they stopped.
When you go to the west, Sunny Ade and the likes are there making impact and when you go to the north, they have their representative but here is the east there is none, so I’m hopeful that soon they will hear my voice.
ILT:Any parting word?
IKEM: I give God the glory that though I have not reached my destination, there is still room for improvement but I am contented nevertheless. I am still a work in progress. Till I get there, I am not relenting, I thank God.