Celebrated percussionist, Sikiru Adepoju, who worked with Ebenezer Obey and the Inter-Reformers band in the 80s, is the only Nigerian to win a Grammy Award.
He was part of Mickey Hart’s group, Planet Drum, whose title album won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album in 1991, the first year there was a Grammy in that category.
The talking drum master was also part of Mickey Hart’s group Global Drum Project, whose title album won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album at 2009 Grammy Awards.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, the artiste who recently released his ỌPẸ (Gratitude) album, speaks about his fulfilling career and the future of Nigerian percussionists.
PT: Congrats on the release of your second album. Please tell us more about the album.
Sikiru: The purpose of the album is to do my job and bring people together, and you know culture keeps me on track to do what I love to do. Because in that album, there are a lot of people there from the Caribbean to Indian, to Latino; if you listened to ‘Dide Africa’ (Wake Up Africa), I know some Nigerians would be wondering why he said ‘Dide Africa’. We have the rock and roll, you know I’m a simple singer. We just tried to roll everything together to have a little bit of the good stuff that we think it’s going to appeal to our audience because we are not targeting just one audience. We want everybody that listens to that album to be able to relate to the album at least one track. There are lots of multiple choices.
It is a really good name for the album it captures my journey and all I have gone through as a human being. Because of everything I went through for this album to come into fruition, there is no other befitting name than “Ope”. Femi Ojetunde and I also produced the album.
PT: How long have you been working on the album?
Sikiru: I’ve been working on this album for 22 years. So this album contains songs that I have been working on since the ’90s.
PT: Did you sing in this album along with percussioning?
Sikiru: Yeah, I did a lot of back up singing.
PT: Have you ever considered being a singer?
Sikiru: Yes, but I’ve not really gotten interested in being a lead singer. The only genre where percussionists are really used in Nigeria are Juju, Fuji or highlife music.No, that’s why there are not many jobs for percussionists in Nigeria. So my aim is to introduce these instruments to Western and country music.
PT: Apart from you and a few other people, percussionists and the people behind the musicians are not recognised. Why is this so?
Sikiru: The only way percussionists can get credit is when they are well represented in the media. Band owners and musicians need to appreciate their band members more by giving them the much-needed credit on their body of music. For instance, I was a part of Mickey Hart’s group, Planet Drum, whose title album won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album in 1991 and it earned me a Grammy too. That was because I was also recognised as having contributed to the album as a percussionist.
PT: Over the years, a number of Nigerian drummers have eloped while touring the world with notable musicians. What could be responsible for that?
Sikiru: Yes, and it is because they are not treated well by the leader of the band and because they are looking for a better life and opportunities. They know there is no future for them if they stay, that is why people are running away. And again, the problem again is the money they promise them to pay before they leave home is not what they pay. That is why they are running away. So anybody running away, I don’t blame them, it’s the way we treat ourselves just like animals. I can’t blame anybody for looking for a better life.
PT: Does this also apply to you? How did you end up in the U.S?
Sikiru: I didn’t elope. It was Orlando Julius who brought me to America. Because he lives in America, he wanted his band members to live in the same location as him so he brought about 18 of us.
PT: Do you have any plans to mentor young people that they can have good lives as percussionists?
Sikiru: I want to let them know that they can indeed live good lives but they need to have something else supporting that percussion, and then leave the rest to the creator. My suggestion for them is to have something supporting what they are doing now so they can be happy even though they are making a little money on the side, apart from music.
Even as I’m talking to you right now, I am working. I have a job. I run a security company. So, I create respect for myself. When I was playing for Ebenezer Obey, we got paid on Monday after we play on weekends. I now found out that for me to go where I am to collect the money, is a waste and I need more money. So I decided to get a job to supplement that money. How much was in that envelope then? Maybe N100, N120 and that was in the 90s. So, that’s my message for my people; create respect for yourself. You can be doing your job from Monday to Friday and say you have a show on Saturday. By the time you get to the show and it begins to rain it means the show will be cancelled and there goes all the money you had high hopes on.
So, I am not going to sit here and deceive you that I don’t have other sources of living because I live in America. I won’t do other things. The truth is that during a show, the focus is on the lead musician and not his band members. If they want to give the band money, they give the leader and he is not going to give them a dime.
That is my advice to people back home. They need to have some form of backup job or business to support their percussionist job in order to create respect for themselves and live better lives.
PT: How do you plan to change the narrative of how band leaders relate to band members?
Sikiru: So it’s a movement, a movement to empower the musicians, band members to stand up for their rights. It doesn’t make sense for a musician to play and record with their band leaders and at the end of their play, they don’t have anything to show. It doesn’t make sense at all. This is the narrative that should be changed to empower musicians to stand up for their rights.
PT: How long have you been signed to MansMark Records?
Sikiru: We don’t have any contract because we are family. The white people who brought Fela, Sunny Ade, Obey and co to tour Europe and America are now retired. This is why MansMark Records has picked up the baton and is ensuring that our legendary musicians succeed. So they bring our people over here, promote them, take them around and they go back home smiling.
PT: Can you relieve that moment when you won the Grammy in 1991 and 2009? Did you see it coming?
Sikiru: I didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t playing with Mickey Hart’s band to make money, or to make a name. I worked with him to approve of myself as a student in the school of learning. Mickey is a drummer like I am who played the drum set for ‘Grateful Dead’. Can you believe individual members in ‘Grateful Dead’ back then had groups of their own? That was what gave me the interest to work more and learn from him. I was quite intrigued because back then, if you worked with Sunny Ade and another singer invited you to play a talking drum on his project, if you do that and Sunny Ade finds out, you are done. You’ll be fired on the spot.
Mickey created the Global Drum Project and included all our names on the album credit and then it bagged a Grammy. I still can’t believe it. So I got the Grammy? If it was my people, only Mickey would take the credit but he (Mickey) didn’t do that. That is what I’ve learned here, to bring to my people. I learned that from Mickey and I’m practising it over here. I want to bring as many stars, talented percussionists, guitarists, as much as possible over here and promote them.
That’s what I learned from Mickey. He brought everybody together as a whole. Mickey only sang once or twice and it was even in spoken words, like a poem but he ensured that everyone who contributed to the album got the much-deserved recognition they deserved.
PT: Are you still in touch with Mickey?
Sikiru: Oh yes, he’s still active, we have a new album coming out soon. It has been delayed because of Coronavirus. He is supposed to be on a tour right now. I still go on tours too.
PT: Having won the Grammy twice, do you see more Nigerian artistes winning a Grammy too?
Sikiru: Anything can happen, there is still a chance. If you come out with a good project and it is your time, a Grammy win is possible. And if you have a giant album released to compete with.
PT: What sort of music do you think they should be doing to increase their chances?
Sikiru: I have no answer to that question. Just do the best and let God take care of the rest. Like what is happening to me now too, I never expected it. I did my part, and I let the creator take care of the rest.
PT: When was the last time you were in the country?
Sikiru: The last time I came to Nigeria was 2007.
PT: Do you miss Nigeria?
Sikiru: Nigeria has changed. I’ve missed Nigeria but it has completely changed. It’s very hard to get anything. Now, in Nigeria to enjoy is very hard because there is no more function. I’m really sorry for Nigerian artistes now, I don’t know how they can make anything happen. It’s very hard and so bad. Before I left a couple of years back, we would go play from one club to another in a night.
PT: Are any of your children taking after you in music?
Sikiru: None of my children are taking after me in Music but maybe my grandchildren one day. Never say never, I really didn’t know I will make any name by playing drums too. I have the gift but if anybody told me I will make it through drums, I will tell the person to shut up.
PT: At what point did you realise it was a big deal?
Sikiru: I come from a musical family from Eruwa in western Nigeria. Our father chief Ayanleke Adepoju, taught my brothers Saminu, Lasisi, and I how to play the talking drum very early. But we were not respected. They just treat you like an animal. So my aim of coming to the U.S with Orlando Julius was not to be a star. You know the creator already has plans for you and nothing can you do about it. You can’t change it. What’s going on in my life right now. I had no idea that I was going to get where I am today.
So I am not disappointed that none of my kids are taking after me. All the children playing drums now are my children. I’m their father because I’m happy to see them progress. When I see them, I am like wow! My dream has finally come to pass. It’s very interesting and that’s what gives me the energy to continue doing what I’m doing. And God will help MansMark Records to come home and pick these children to see what we can do.
PT: You have been a percussionist all your life, how long do you see yourself being this active?
Sikiru: As long as the creator keeps me alive. I’m going to continue doing it but not me playing the drums myself, I’m going to give my brothers out there support.
Photo credit- Prince Ayo Manuel Ajisebutu