Re Olunuga, an orchestra composer is on a mission to mould a world-class orchestra out of homegrown talent and change the face of classic music in Nigeria. AYODEJI ROTINWA reports.
At once, the meeting point, Bogobiri, an artsy boutique hotel, chosen by interview subject, Re Olunuga and I, seemed an incongruous choice. Hardly had we walked two feet into the establishment, loud, jarring pop sounds assailed us from the bar within. Simultaneously, an apparently mediocre live performance was in session, overhead, on the rooftop sitting area. The cacophony didn’t do much by way of setting the tone for the discourse at hand. We had come to discuss the sonic refinement and luxury that is classical music and had expected a serene environment. No such luck. We went in nonetheless. As the evening unfolded, Bogobiri’s atmospheric betrayal wouldn’t be the only thing that would take me unawares.
Having met Olunuga only once previously, albeit in a dimly lit room, I had made no judgments on appearance but had assumed he would fit into a sort of stereotypical bracket. To my surprise, Olunuga breaks the mold. Copiously bearded, hair cut in a subtle Mohawk style and a fashion sense that can be described as casual collegiate at best, he’s more likely to be regarded as a hippie poet than a classical musician. On the back on his looks alone, he’s a contradiction to the usual and expected and this may go some way in his cause to change the perception of classical music presently. Thus far, there is a steep dearth of widespread appreciation for the genre in Nigeria. Olunuga hopes to flip this script by building a homegrown, world-class orchestra that infuses modern, avant-garde elements into its music. “There’s a lack of education in how broad classical music can be. One can have post-modern, post-minimalist orchestration. Also with the use of technology one can manipulate, merge sounds, using sonic, instrumentation technology with classical Western instruments.”
Lagos Philharmonic is the said homegrown, soon-to-be-world-beating orchestra. The orchestra, Olunuga’s brainchild and lifeblood, is a work in progress and has taken some time in coming but Olunuga is confident when it does take full flight, it would be a resounding success. Several indicators may yet prove he is right. He plans that the orchestra, alongside putting on classical music performances and shows, would double as a film scoring body. Film scoring is an aspect to film taken with levity in the Nigerian movie industry, currently, but this is slowly changing. When the film industry matures, Olunuga plans to have the Lagos Philharmonic, front and centre, providing original film score services. In the meantime, he is providing creative consulting services and something of an education to filmmakers, as to the use, or rather, need for orchestration in movies to drive home more efficiently the desired message or to give the narrative some punch. Olunuga’s adeptness at the latter is not in question. His classical music pieces have an uncanny emotive strength and tell a story all on their own, so much so, one can envision the said story with robust characters from merely listening. Imagine then the outcome when he marries this ability to film. “I’ve been inspired by the work of Ryuichi Sakamoto who fills his music with emotional energy and creates a narrative. I believe this makes orchestration better instead of just focusing on the mathematics,” he pointed out.
The orchestra is also making an argument for classical music being the choice of sonic entertainment at particular functions and events. So far, the orchestra has performed at the 18th Annual This Day Awards and the launching of the Etisalat Prize for Fiction. The awards ceremony had Former President of the United States of America, Bill Clinton in attendance and he passed a vote of confidence on the orchestra’s performance.
The most tell-tale signs of the orchestra’s oncoming success are Olunuga’s raw, unbridled ambition, his seemingly unimpeachable vow to deliver nothing but quality performances and readiness to push the envelope. “Fantastic, breath-taking performances aren’t at a premium. I want to change this. The Lagos Philharmonic will put on shows that will be indelible in memory. Art (music) is supposed to educate people, break boundaries, not to do what sells or what works. That’s why artistes like Frank Ocean and Adele stand out because they’re doing something that is refreshingly unique.” Olunuga has also set about mining fiercely Nigeria’s vast, bottomless reservoir of prodigious music talent and has set a high standard for them. The orchestra currently trains daily to perform challenging, modern compositions and film scores by modern composers. Other factors required to put on the quality of shows Olunuga desires are also in the equation: pyrotechnics, light, sound monitors. Having all the pieces of the puzzle working in seamless harmony is of grave importance to Olunuga.
Olunuga’s recipe for success notwithstanding, the orchestra faces a number of challenges, foremost of which is the aforementioned: the perception of classical music in Nigeria. So far the genre is only reckoned with by a relatively small number of cultured, perhaps well-travelled Nigerians and resident nationals of other countries. Another challenge is the financial consequence of daily training, practicing with a 100-strong orchestra. Olunuga is slightly unfazed and sees these challenges as surmountable in due time.
Olunuga’s drive and refusal to compromise for anything less than excellent in these times where swimming against the tide is mocked, is admirable. It may take some time for there to be widespread acceptance, followership and appreciation of his chosen mode of expression and the Lagos Philharmonic but it will happen inevitably and soon too. The capacity to discern and ascertain tastes, quality, first-rate sound, is on the rise for today’s music enthusiast of any age. There goes a saying that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Time will stand Olunuga in good stead, I think.