Popular flutist, Tee Mac Omatsola Iseli, who clocked 71 late last year, has opened up on the journey so far. The musician also talks about the pain of losing his dad at a tender age and what the death of highlife legend, Victor Olaiya portends for the Nigerian entertainment industry. Enjoy it.
You are 71 but you still look so young and vibrant. What is the secret?
Everybody is the captain of his destiny. That means he decides how healthy and how long he wants to live, because it is all a combination of what you eat, how you exercise and how you abuse your body. Everybody is free to smoke but you have to realise that you may die early, because you could ruin your lungs. You may drink alcohol occasionally, but if you take hot drinks like brandy and whiskey, it will burn your stomach and that means you die early. The best combination is a diet without red meat. Fish, chickens are acceptable occasionally. We are not built to digest red meat because it rots in our system and it causes the degenerative diseases. I was 23 years old when I stopped eating red meat and I am 71 years old now. Secondly and very importantly is exercise like walking, cycling and a little bit of body building. But one of the most important things is your frame of mind. Have good friends around you and listen to good music, because it has a beneficial spiritual effect on you. Having good friends and being nice to people is also an important aspect. So, there are many things that keep you young and okay.
Tell us about growing up?
I was born in Lagos. My father was the then West African Ambassador to Switzerland while my mother was an Itshekiri princess, half Scottish. Unfortunately, my father was assassinated when I was three and mum sent my siblings and me to Switzerland. On the Swiss side, my family was very wealthy, so I had the best of education. I studied music economics and had a beautiful childhood.
How did you come about your love for animals?
When I was 14, my uncle in Switzerland said ‘you can go and choose a dog’. So, we went to Liechtenstein, which is not too far away from Zubrick, and I chose a bull terrier puppy that I called Bully. And I became so close to my dog, which was so obedient and intelligent. Every day, before going to school, I walked, fed and bathed him. And when I went to the university and it didn’t see me for a few weeks, it became very aggressive; so my uncle put him to sleep. It was a big shock, so I didn’t go home for two years because I was angry. Then I came back to Nigeria, and from then I had dogs everywhere I stayed, because I found out that dogs are spiritual and intelligent beings. My dog, Balewa acted in Papa Ajasco for four years; he is the celebrity dog called Bingo and he has an incredible memory. He understands when I talk to him and he talks back. I realise that it is one of the reasons I cannot kill animals. They are here for a purpose; we don’t understand. We are killing millions of cows specially bred for us to eat meat. They cost devastation through their waste. I cannot imagine a life without having a couple of dogs. And suddenly, I realized that every animal has sense, even chickens. I had one dog called, Queen. She had a chicken friend and when we walked in the streets, that chicken would follow and they would walk side by side. Then somebody ate the chicken and Queen kept looking for her for months. It is amazing. My dogs love music. They sit here when I play my flute. Sometimes, Balewa sings along by howling. I also found out that any child who loves animals has a good heart.
You have a habit of naming your dogs after popular Nigerians, why?
Some people name streets after presidents, ministers or kings. I name my dogs after remarkable people. Unfortunately, my dog, Queen Elizabeth died about three months ago, but I still have Princess, Sambo and Balewa. My youngest dog is called Donald Trump.
It’s because he is very stubborn, loud and aggressive. I see a trend in the dog and I am like ‘this dog reminds me of Donald Trump’, and that is how I name them. Every dog has a different character and that is amazing. Every dog is different and unique.
Let us look at the state of Nigerian music today? Burna Boy got a Grammy nomination…
In the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, musicians were hard working. They had bands. Before you could get a record deal, you had your full album rehearsed because studio time was expensive. We were touring. There were so many bands and my first band was Tee Mac and the Afro Collection. We had Berkley Jones, Laolu Akins, Steve Black, Tunde Kuboye and the Lijadu Sisters, and we made mind-blowing music. And when Ginger Baker came along, he signed off my entire band and I was miserable. But it turned out a blessing in disguise because I left Nigeria to go abroad and met a lot of success. Since the age of computers and Internet, music has become different, more commercial and not as serious anymore. 80 per cent of musicians we have today are music illiterates. They don’t bother to study music. They don’t know what key they are singing on; they don’t train their voices, and I must say I am not satisfied with the quality of what is being produced, because if you listen to the elders, they are evergreens. During the Ariya Eko Festival, we launched Ebenezer Obey’s 600 songs collection. Which of these new generation artistes can write 600 songs? My advice is, to compete internationally; we have to raise the bar. There are some people who are working hard because they are playing a lot. I give Burna Boy kudos even if his style of music is not what I would usually listen to, but we have some other ones whom I will say are actually dreadful. They spend a few hundred naira to do a CD and then they spend N5 or N10 million to shoot a video, buy expensive cars and parade big yash women dancing. It is a disgrace, and if you look carefully, they don’t actually make money. Their music cannot appeal to educated people or those who know music. If you are music illiterate, then you will make music that will only appeal to music illiterates. I call the music they are doing now Naija trash. It is ‘pokripo rythym’. There is no harmony or melody; just one chord kind of thing and that is what they call music. Some people say, ‘Tee Mac, you are old school, that is why you don’t like it’. But I say no, I have lived and loved all my life good music. When I listen to somebody for one minute, I can tell you how far he would go and how much he should work to make it. Anybody can work hard and train him or herself to become good. But if you believe you are a superstar with the little you know, because the girls love you, then you are stuck.
At 71, would you say you are fulfilled?
When I look back, I would say that somehow I am happy, but on the other side, I regret I came back to Nigeria. I put a lot of efforts into the development of classical music in Nigeria being a co-founder of the Nigerian Classical Music Society, with Akintola Williams and Sir Melvin Brown. We were also the founders of MUSON Centre. I put in N500,000 when it was one naira to a dollar. We raised money from AGIP and Shell and we built the centre. I trained musicians; I did master classes. There are many young flute players now who went through me. I didn’t realise that I was like trying to climb Mount Everest with bare hands, because the illiteracy level in music is too high. I did not achieve what I wanted to. I am very popular and still am. I did tours in this country for big crowds, though my record sales were always more abroad. When I made big money with Silver Convention, I went into mining. I had one of the largest mining companies and a quarry business. I was doing very well until I realized that this country is not the right place for me to invest, because the fortune invested did not yield anything. That is sad. But you know it is not good to cry over spilt milk. I still have good businesses going and I think when I fulfill my last dream, which I am working on, a music academy, that is going to be my legacy, then I can say ‘yes, I have tried’. There are many businesses I would want to bring to Nigeria but my partners and I have decided to wait because of the state of the country.
What would you say was the best decision you ever took?
Leaving Nigeria for Europe in 1972 after Ginger Baker stole my band. That was when I had a job and built a band, Tee Mac United, which became Silver Convention, and from then on spent more time abroad, coming home only for Easter and Christmas. Though, I wasn’t living here, when (then President Olusegun) Obasanjo wanted me to be part of the Clinton Gala Night, I returned in 2000. Even now, I spend quite a lot of time abroad because I have to do things for oil and gas and also for shows. I am not happy with life as I used to be in Nigeria. There is too much stress, the killings, the traffic, and electricity problem. These are things we overcame in the ‘70s. Nigeria was great and everybody could feed. I always tell my kids how I bought four brand new Beetle cars for my Surulere Night Club staff for N2,800 each. I bought the land where I built my house for N4,000. Those days, there was no poverty but now there is incredible poverty. What I experienced during Christmas 2019 will go down as absolutely incredible. I received hundreds of phone calls and emails every day. My friends, musicians who had no money to buy food, who could not celebrate Christmas, were on my neck and I tried my best to help. But I am not on the same level with Dangote, financially. I bought a bag of rice for N29,000. I was in the rice business with Hope Harriman from 1976 to 1983, and we sold a bag of rice for N20.50k, and I ask myself, ‘where have we gone wrong?’ It is because of leadership!
Recently, we lost legendary highlife musician, Victor Olaiya. How did you take the news of his death?
I heard on February 12, about three hours after his passing, that my friend of so many years, Dr. Victor Olaiya was no more. He had been sick for some time and the death happened at Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Lagos. The news so hit me and I have been unhappy since I heard the sad news.
Olaiya was credited to have been one of the creators of highlife music. How true is this?
Highlife was not created in Nigeria but Victor Olaiya contributed tremendously to the development and popularity of highlife music in Nigeria.
When was the first time you met him and what’s your relationship with him?
I met Dr. Olaiya around 1971 when I started to perform with my band at Batakoto Night Club on Broad Street, Lagos. But we became close friends and competitors when I took over the lease of the Surulere Night Club in 1977. We used to visit each other’s club and perform with each other.
How would you describe his loss and for what would you remember him most?
Everybody will feel his loss, especially his old fans. His impact on the highlife scene was tremendous! His highlife recordings have created a legacy for him that will last forever.
If you were to advise government, how do you think Olaiya should be honoured?
It is hard to advise government, they have their own agenda and ideas, and having buried 13 top musicians as PMAN president, I realized that government is too slow and will do something many months after the burial of a music star. Let us the musicians and lovers of Victor Olaiya put our resources and time together to give him a befitting send off. Let the world see what we can do to our colleague, our legend. May Victor Olaiya’s soul rest in perfect peace and may his music live forever!