By Deji Aroloye
Mr John Yekini was struck with blindness as a toddler. The incident appeared to stop him for a while. But fortune later smiled on him as he relocated to an environment where his music talent flourished. He became a teacher imparting knowledge on visually impaired students until he retired recently after serving Lagos State government for over three decades.
However, one of Yekini’s former students is the popular music producer and singer, Cobhams Asuquo. The music teacher, who now works as a consultant with the Federal Nigeria Society for the Blind, Oshodi, Lagos, opens up to TS Weekend on his career, family and challenges. Enjoy it.
How did your journey into music start?
I started way back in the ‘60s. I had always love music. When I heard the sound of trumpet, saxophone or trombone, I get very inspired. When they brought an instrument then at the Pacelli School for the Blind, I decided I was going to learn music. But I was sent away because the authority said that I was too small. However, I had a deal with my music teacher to teach me privately. He would keep me in the store and I started learning the trumpet. I got good at that and went to the accordion, and from there I went to the piano. I was just going on until sometime in 1974 when I went to Scotland to study music. I came back and worked as a music teacher with the Lagos State government for 35 years. Now I am the music consultant for Federal Nigeria Society for the Blind.
You have taught lots of blind people including the famous Cobhams Asuquo. Can you tell us your experience with him?
Cobhams has always been a very intelligent person. When he came to the Pacelli School for the Blind, he wanted to learn the keyboard. I saw he was very good. He began to help himself. He went from us to Kings College and from there to the University of Lagos. From University of Lagos, he decided to take on music fully. Today, he is a great man and doing well. Some other visually impaired students that I taught are scattered all over America, Germany, and the United Kingdom etc.
What are the necessary things a blind person needs to excel in music?
It is not only in music but also as someone to be reckoned with in the society. He has to accept first that he cannot see. The second thing he has to tell himself is ‘I have to work hard’. Once you have that ambition, you will go places. Even when people try to pull you back because you are blind and want you to stay where they will give you N50, till you die, tell them that it is not your portion. Your portion is hard work. That has always been my strength. I work hard and I am always willing to learn.
How is it like working as a music instructor in this school?
I am a man of many parts. I can teach music and also help in teaching Braille. To teach music here, your Braille has to be really excellent. I just felt that I should lend a helping hand in that subject. Music is my official subject. I sleep and wake up with music. The students love music. This studio is always a beehive of activities. We have a lot of instruments here, like trombone and trumpets. Some of the students have already produced their CDs. To become blind at a latter age is not an easy thing. When people go blind at the age of 30 or 40, it is suicidal. But when they come here, we counsel them.
What do you tell them?
We tell them that they can do it again. To be blind is not the end of everything. Take a look at me, am I not successful? I am married with four children who are university graduates. What else do I want from life? I have a very good wife who is well read and she can see.
Were you born blind?
I became blind at an early age.
At what age?
At three or thereabout.
How were you able to manage the challenges that came with blindness?
I have always realised that you must not give up. In your marriage, you must not give up. In training your children, you must not give up. There are times when things will be down and out, like you don’t have money. But that is not the end of the world. You can handle it. Who doesn’t have a problem in this world? Even the greatest prophet of our time, Jesus Christ came and was nailed to the cross. Holy Prophet Mohammed had his challenges. If they could have challenges, who are we not to have challenges?
Is there a particular thing you are grateful to God for?
I owe everything to God. There was a time I used to question God, ’why me?’ I lost hope for many years. I was doing nothing but going to the farm with my dad. My dad was a big time farmer. But God has plans for everything. All you need to do is to persevere and wait for your time. One day, Reverend Sisters of Charity came to Ikotun (in Lagos) to look for young children. They saw me and took me to Pacelli School for the Blind and that was how I started learning. After many years, I came out from there, worked for a while and went to Scotland. I came back and a job was waiting for me.
How did you meet your wife?
The problem I had then was that all the girls I met were from well-to-do families. They would say ‘yes’ but when we got to their parents, they would ask ‘what do you want to do with a blind man?’ They would say ‘on the day of your marriage, we don’t want to pull any blind man behind you’. Even the pastors among them would say ‘lady, remember your body is a temple of the Holy Ghost’ as if I was a demon. Well, that didn’t affect me because I had my plans about the type of girl I wanted to marry. In God’s own time this beautiful lady came from another well-to do home. When you have been trying and you don’t give up, the right person will come one day. And when she came, I didn’t even encourage her to stay. I was always waiting for her to leave. But she stayed and her parents abandoned her for some time. Later on, they came back and they were happy. I am happy that I met my father-in-law before he died. He initially said he didn’t want to see me. But we met and he apologised. The thing is don’t give up on whatever you want. If you marry the wrong person, people will laugh at you. But today, things are better. Before now, it was tough for any sighted girl to say she wanted to marry a blind man. People would think she has mental problem or she is a prostitute.
What are the things that amaze you about the blind?
As a teacher, you meet different kinds of people. Some went blind when they wanted to graduate as medical doctors. Some probably when they were about to write JAMB. And you will see that intelligence in them. I used to marvel at the greatness of God. If you check yourself, there are talents you have not tapped. As a teacher, I see the rate at which people pick up music and even other subjects. That is why I thank the Federal Nigeria Society for the Blind and I want the government to give them more support. I know the Lagos State government is trying by giving scholarship to the students, but I think they can still do more.
Tell us about this studio we are in?
It is an ultra-modern studio with digital and analogue put together. Churches can come here. Individuals have started coming and they are happy with our set-up. We want to make money for the school because the blind world is an expensive world.
Is music what you want to do for the rest of your life?
Music is my profession. I have done it for almost 40 years. Why would I give up now? If I play for you, you will know that music is a part of me. I play keyboard. I am also a trumpeter, though not many people know that I play the trumpet. As a teacher, you should be able to play quite a few instruments.
Do you have relationship with any of the contemporary music stars?
I used to listen to their music a lot. I am very sensitive and don’t like people to treat me anyhow. I don’t really mix up that easily. I want to know that wherever I am going, I am accepted. I have few friends. I am a very busy person too. Once in a while, I go out to have nice time. But I work most of the time.
How do you create time for the family?
Oh, my family is intact. I thank God for that. God has been very good to me. I worked for everything I have. And I thank the Lagos State government for giving me the opportunity to serve for 35 years.
Sometimes, do you feel like regaining your sight?
If I see today, I will be a problem to many. Where do I start? I will look at a lady and say ‘you have a good voice but you are not too pretty’. What do you think she would do to me? I will have to learn a lot of things from the beginning. But I can tell you that I do not miss anything by being blind. And I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I have never sat down to talk or think about what I am missing being blind. Once you are contented in life, you are successful. It is greed that propels us to problems. I am a very happy man. I have a very happy family and my children are all graduates. What else am I looking for?
Were you a ladies’ man back then?
Who is not a ladies’ man? If you are very good at what you do, ladies will run after you.
How were you able to handle distractions?
Intelligence. Where you are supposed to act, you act; where you are supposed to calm down, you calm down (Laughter). I am sure you understand that. We don’t have time for all that anymore. We still have our little leisure time, but as you grow, you grow with more intelligence. You just watch people behave and you laugh.
How about the musicians you listen to?
I listen to Haruna Ishola, Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey and Lagbaja. I also listen to classical music. I have a rich library (of music) but my mood determines what I listen to.
How about foreign musicians?
I listen to Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, and a lot of jazz. I listen to anything because you learn from them.
How do you relax?
I have a lot of music around me. I listen to the news and all that. Once I start to play music, if I have anything at the back of my mind that is worrisome, it goes automatically. Music is food of life. When you are down and out, and you are a great musician and you play, you forget about everything, because you are in another world. I used to play the organ for my church, and anytime I was on that organ playing hymns, I was on another planet, not here.