By Tony Ogaga
Ageless beauty and jazz musician, Ayinke Martins, has come a long way. In a career spanning over four decades, the singer has traversed from being a TV presenter on NTA to performing for the Queen of England and thrilling jazz lovers at music festivals across Nigeria and beyond.
In this chat with TS Weekend, Martins opens up on her career, relationship with Duro Ikujenyo, former pianist of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and the reason she wept bitterly when pop music legend, Michael Jackson passed away in 2008.
How did you discover jazz?
When I was younger, I was blessed with parents who were very musical. They loved music and my great grandfather played the grand piano; if you go to Ikoyi Cemetery, his epitaph says ‘Samuel Alexander Jibowu, the musician’. And everyone in my family loved music. My father dedicated a room to music. My mother said that when I was very little, if I heard music, I would go still; but when she least expected it, I would start singing the songs. At age seven, dad bought all of us guitars including my three brothers. My dream was to play the bass guitar and I started learning. I had two brothers who are virtuoso players. They played Jimmy Hendricks’ kind of stuff and listened to a lot of rock music. My brother lost his guitar and he borrowed mine, and that was the end of my guitar dream, which I regret till today.
In secondary school, I was in the choir. Later on, I became an avid listener of radio. My friends used to call me ‘Her Royal Majesty’s Voice (HMV)’ because you name the song and the artiste, I would tell you the year it was recorded, which studio it was recorded and how many people had done covers of it and all that. And then, it evolved during the school holidays when we performed at clubs and we called ourselves ‘The Martins Cats’. My brothers would play guitars in the house and we would entertain my dad. He was interested in what we were doing which was very strange because my father was a very strict person, but he gave us the freedom to discover ourselves.
Eventually, my younger brother and his friends formed a band and I became the lead singer. And those friends were Skid Ikemefuna and Martin Emenechi, the lead guitarist while Skid was the bass guitarist. We called ourselves ‘Warhead Constriction’. It was a kind of rock (group) in the ‘70s. Sometimes we recorded at EMI with Odion Iruoje. He gave me some advice that I did not understand at the time but which I understood later.
What was it like working with Odion Iruoje?
We did not get to see much of him. In those days, he was a very happening guy and was always well dressed. We were like the child prodigies of the time, and we used to go all the way to Ogba in Ikeja, Lagos to record at Polygram. At that time, Keji Okunowo and Desmond Majekodunmi were in charge and we all used to go there and record. From there, we started doing gigs and the bassist of the band was the late Toma Mason.
The first public gig we did was in 1974 or ‘75 at Yaba College of Technology, and that was my first experience on a big stage, and we did well that night. Then we started opening shows during our holidays for Tee Mac at Surulere Night Club. He had a brilliant band and we used to open for him. It was so exciting but eventually everybody started going their own ways, and I went to England to study.
Did that affect your music negatively?
Rather, it expanded my music because in the UK I had a great music teacher called Kay Arthur, who gave us the joy of music and taught us how to cite read. We used to do a lot of classical works from Brahms, Handel, Bach and all that, and we had this very big gig with five other schools at Prince of Whales Theater. From there, I was singing in school choir and when I finished I went to the university to study Business Administration before coming back home.
Why didn’t you study music considering your early exposure to sound?
In those days nobody thought of taking music as a degree, because our parents wanted us to have a professional degree. The question was, ‘what if music doesn’t work?’ So, I decided the wisest thing I could study was business. With that, I could work in any establishment. However, I did study music later but not in the university environment. I ended up working with Nigeria Airways where I was Marketing Manager for 12 good years. I started out as a management trainee,
Why did it take you so long to release an album?
My concentration was more on performance and not recording. However, I had been writing songs for a long time, so it got to a point where I felt I needed to have a body of work. I can’t just be singing and there is no record. What do I Ieave for posterity? I took a loan to do my first album because I had no help from anybody. I took a loan, because I have this intimidating aura and people think that I have everything I need. When I wanted to record, I left regular jobs and did something I don’t normally do. I had to dump my nine-to-five job so I would have enough time to record. We had 18 songs in the album including poetry which was produced by me but co-produced by Nicky Brown, one of the biggest producers of gospel music, and Sean Robert. I wrote all the songs in the album.
What was the response like?
The response was good. When you record your first album, you make all the mistakes that you won’t make in the rest. For my second album entitled, ‘Ayinke Now’ we had nine songs and a remix. I called it ‘Ayinke Now’ because my musical perspective had evolved. And I decided to infuse Yoruba extensively. The second album was a success. I am still selling it.
You’ve been working with Duro Ikujenyo for a while. What is your relationship with him?
Duro and I met a couple of years ago. When I knew Duro he probably did not know me. We met when Jazzhole asked both of us to record an album entitled, ‘Edegidi Project’. In 2009, we hooked up again and listened to what we had and we decided to work together beyond the ‘Edegidi Project’.
Has he in anyway influenced your sound?
I wouldn’t say he has influenced my sound but he is all round brilliant. He is probably the most underestimated musician we have around, because people just see him as Duro Ikujenyo who played for Fela. They don’t realise how deep a musician and an intellectual he is. Duro is a music teacher. Duro can sit and discuss with you on any subject matter under the sun. He knows his position in the world as a black man spiritually and otherwise. He has a vast experience. So, from his vast experiences and viewpoints he has impacted me. Musically, we are like kindred spirits because he has the Afrobeat thing going, Because of his close association with Fela, he tends to promote Fela all the time. I am also a Fela girl because I lived just down the road from Fela. In the evenings, I used to go and watch Fela rehearse.
Any plans for an album soon?
I am working on an album right now. I have my songs ready and all that is left is just the financing.
What is the secret of your ageless look?
It’s the love of God. He who has Jesus has everything. Also, I have a father who was very much into health. Dad used to do yoga and was into healthy eating. He loved a lot of African herbs and would mix them up like an alchemist (laughter). He ate healthy food and it rubbed off on me. I love fruits and veggies. I take a lot of fish. I am an occasional drinker; I do red wine and walking is my best exercise.
How would you compare music in the ‘70s to music today?
In the ‘70s, we had very good musicians. We had Fela, King Sunny Ade among many others who were really serious about their music. We also had Victor Uwaifo. The first time I heard ‘Guitar Boy’ I was blown away. We had a lot of foreign influences. We had Harry Belafonte, Mirian Makeba and The Jackson Five. I loved Michael Jackson so much I cried for three months when he died because it was like a part of my youth was gone with him. You know, when you grow up with somebody’s music and you are both born at about the same time, and that person is a musician like you. You hear his songs, sing his songs and have his posters all around you, and all of a sudden he is gone! It was like my whole life went with him. Even though, I never met him personally, I have had him my whole life. When he died, I wept everyday.
Have you made money from music?
I have made money performing in various spaces, but on the whole, music has not made me a millionaire. The truth is that I have always been into music for the love of it. Today, a lot of people are into music because that is where the money is. Money was the farthest thing from my mind when I started music, but along the line, I was like ‘wait a minute; I have put everything in life into this music. I can’t do all this and not make money’. I have paid my dues musically and I think I will make money in the future.