Award-winning musician and leader of the popular Shuga band, Akin Tofowomo, gave the business of live band prominence at a time when it was regarded as ‘uncool.’
Popularly known as Akin Shuga, his highly sought after live band is known to perform at high-profile events in Nigeria and abroad. The crossover artiste, who is also the founder of the Shuga Limb Foundation Empowerment, has turned his physical challenge into fortune through his music career. Today, his name is synonymous with live music in Nigeria.
In this interview, he tells PREMIUM TIMES more about the business of live band in Nigeria and how he plans to give back to the society
PT: Congratulations on your two-decade milestone, what’s the secret behind your staying power?
Akin: There is no big secret behind my long staying power. I think mine has to do with destiny, time and source. I am destined to be where I am or do what I am doing because of how God has orchestrated it. The time came and then the source. God provided all the right people as tools along my path; of course we know God is not going to come down to make it happen for me. So, that’s been the basic secret. I rose through the ashes.
PT: You have been able to dignify the business of live bands in Nigeria. How did you achieve this?
Akin: Being a force to reckon with has been a function of always wanting to be better. I ask myself a lot of questions all the time; like what’s more? What’s next? What else? Of course, not like all the questions have been answered, but I kept asking questions and I was looking for knowledge on how to make it better.
With proper guidance and the right knowledge, everything that you need to know is there. I asked a lot of questions, I questioned. I wasn’t satisfied with ‘oh! You are doing ok’ ‘it’s cool’ ‘that was really brilliant’, no! That wasn’t it for me.
PT: What were some of the challenges you faced in the earliest stages of the formation of Shuga Band?
Akin: There were lots of challenges, because some people didn’t understand it. They didn’t see it as a business.
Taking it a notch higher, you would have a few people who would drop by and be like ‘what’s wrong with them? eeh why? On top this thing?’ You know, that kind of attitude.
We had issues with equipment at the early stage too. When I started out initially, I wasn’t singing Yoruba; my orientation didn’t come from doing Yoruba or highlife songs. We used to hire some people to come and sing the Yoruba part, because we were losing clientele from not providing that part of what we had. Then you have this attitude of ‘it’s because of our music that they are calling you’ and stuffs like that.
I sat down, went to the drawing board to score great Yoruba influences of legends like King Sunny Ade, Chief Ebenezer Obey and so on, and here we are today, a total package!
PT: What was it like getting paid to perform at gigs back in the day?
Akin: When I started my band, there were bands. Maybe there wasn’t too much prominence, but there was live music, there was something about live music then.
Getting paid to perform for me never crossed my mind at first, because I didn’t know that I was going to make something big from it. I saw it as something I could just do on the side; I never knew it could pay, so I didn’t see it as a business.
PT: No doubt, you now have several competitors
Akin: The truth is, I have contemporaries, and I have people who have been in the business before me. And I have also met people in this business. I don’t believe in this Numero Uno position. I believe I just have clarity of purpose; I have a lane, and am on my lane. You know, it’s like you comparing a tractor, an airplane, a motorcycle and a speedboat going to the same destination. The truth is, they are all going to get there, but it now depends on the time. A speed boat is not going to get there at the same time as the air plane would, neither would a tractor, but somehow they are all going to get there because, they would pass through a path. So, I am on my lane and I am clear about what I want to do. I don’t know about this Numero Uno thing, I don’t see it like that, I believe I give reverence to people I have met in the business.
I brought some fresh ideas into the business with the knowledge that I had which I have shared with so many other people.
PT: What does it really take to set up a successful band here in Nigeria?
Akin: It takes a whole lot, because you have to think of who you want to sell your music to, what kind of music do you want to play? What’s the plan? Anyone who fails to plan is planning to fail. I
PT: Critics say some Nigerian musicians can hardly play live without the backup of DJ. What are your thoughts on this?
Akin: Well, I think it’s very unfair to judge them, they are recording artists, they have actually gone into the studio to record those music, all they need is just to play it back. Yes, its good they can perform before a live audience and they can use it, but you can’t fault them.
PT: Has the live music culture come to stay here in Nigeria?
Akin: Live music culture has always been there, look at the time of Bobby Benson, even during the pre and post war with the highlife renaissance. So live music has always been there, it’s just that there will always be changes in the trends and the kind of music that comes. Now you have new age music, you have technology playing a key role; all that is still going to infiltrate into the music business as well, into live music or live band, because what was at play in those days is not at play now. There would always be live music, there will be trends, but there will just be a difference in how it is listened to and how it cuts across.
PT: As an artiste with special needs, did you find acceptance from members of the public at first?
Akin: People didn’t look at the challenges, the thing is, if you are challenged and the product is not good, they are two different things. So it wasn’t about the challenge, people are not looking at the leg and listening to the vocals. It’s after listening to the vocals or the song and they will be like… “ooh! and he is physically challenged”. That’s like…”he is taking time to get this done and not just lying there in pity party”. I don’t think people took me on the basis of physical challenge, I had to rise from the dust, I fought my way through and I earned my place.
PT: Would you say you are fulfilled as a music artiste?
Akin: I am not yet totally fulfilled; I have so much in me to give to the world.
PT: Were you stigmatised at any point despite the fact that you are a known music artiste?
Akin: I don’t think so, stigmatisation on the basis of physical challenge? I don’t think so.
PT: With your level of experience in the industry, what do you think is missing among Nigerian artistes?
Akin: I think a lot of people are not concerned about getting the knowledge and knowing how it works; all they just want is to blow. I mean, it’s like a business, you are going into it, but it’s your talent. God has helped you now, you are holding it, but you have to learn how to now really properly sell it. That’s the key thing and the key word there. You would also be able to understand the things that you need along the way in climbing the ladder.
PT: What spurred you into music?
Akin: My love for music, to create joy, to make people happy, to create memories, I just love it. It’s a feeling I can’t explain.
PT: Would you say you have achieved your goal with your foundation in empowering people living with disability?
Akin: I have not. I have barely scratched the surface, it’s a lifetime thing and I think a lot still needs to be done, hopefully with funding. Basically, it is more about funding and also getting the people to understand that they can be anything they want to be. Imagine giving someone a camera and when my team were monitoring he had exchanged it for a ‘Keke Marwa!’ When he can use the camera to make so much and make a new life. I haven’t achieved what I set out to achieve with the foundation.
PT: At what point in your life did you encounter Polio?
Akin: I had polio around 4 or 5 years. The story was that I woke up and lost the use of two legs, I had fever, you know, all kinds of things, but later, I am able to understand that the vaccine has a short life span in terms of storage, so probably it wasn’t well stored. You know, you hear the story of…”oh it was somebody that did you like this, like that (laughs). It’s a funny story, but it’s just how God wanted it to be. That was the code that was given to me, my own code, what God coded for me is what played out, yes!
PT: Your father wanted you to be a lawyer; you chose music. Did you get his blessings before he passed on?
Akin: Unfortunately, no, and I loved my father so much, it’s nostalgic. My father was a disciplinarian, but there was always something he saw and it was a deep connection. It was a deeper connection because I know that several years after, there is still this connection and when I remember him its nostalgic for me. Not because I wanted to prove a point to him, but because he probably didn’t see the coding; God’s coding is different from ours.
The role our parents have to play in our lives, a lot of parents don’t understand it. You need the grace of God to be able to flow in the direction and just let it be. You brought those children to this world, guide them and God takes care of them.
PT: You have taken your solo music career quite seriously of late. Are you telling us something?
Akin: No! I am just singing, recording music. I love to sing. I am telling you nothing (laughs); it then depends on what you make of it. Are you saying I should stop recording or I should not sing? Please ooh! I want to sing (laughs)
PT: What’s the next phase for Shuga Band as you begin the next decade?
Akin: It’s a fresh phase, it’s a new phase and hopefully, you’ll get to see, there is a lot in the offering. All things being equal we will unveil our plans as we go along by the grace of God.