Drama And Drama On Set Of Nigeria Music Awards – 1

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Last week, I had written here that in 1989, as a young President of PMAN, I had decided to start a deep conversation with the Nigerian nation. That conversation was a determination to change the image of disrespect with which Nigerian entertainment and entertainers were held in much of the country. While some of us sold some vinyl records, music cassettes, CDs, and live shows, our image as serious professionals was absent. The country was awash with foreign music and that was much of what you heard on our broadcast stations. Let’s be honest, at the time, if you were engaged in entertainment, you were considered the dreg of the society.

I did not understand why my decision to play or produce music would be seen to mean that I lacked the intellect to beat anyone hands down in mathematics, physics, chemistry, law, engineering, management or medicine. In fact, I believed that it was a lot more challenging and required special skills to reach anywhere near success in entertainment. My conclusion was that we had not sold ourselves well.

That was why I launched an idea of a very ambitious and futuristic event called the Nigerian Music Awards (NMA). Please, at no time did we call the NMA ‘PMAN Awards’ and the nomenclature was intentional. That conversation was going to be up close and personal with the key people who made and executed policies in Nigeria and the conversation would be held with sights and sounds.

I was determined that everything about the Nigerian Music Awards; its concept, promotion and execution was going to be world class and that we would make a big statement that entertainment in Nigeria had arrived at a new level.

I was sure that we could not launch a vibrant industry if we did not have a vibrant media to spread its message. Practically every newspaper in Nigeria had well developed sports and financial pages and sports and financial reporters but few had any dedicated serious entertainment pages or reporters.

I provided encouragement to the growth of what became known as entertainment journalism in Nigeria. PMAN Headquarters regularly played host to a vibrant new group called AWON (Art Writers Organisation of Nigeria) propelled by the intellectually savvy Ben Tomoloju, then Arts Editor of the Guardian. Tomoloju worked side by side with his protégée, the unassailable Jahman Anikulapo who eventually retired as Editor of the ‘Guardian On Sunday’ and who has remained an invaluable Art progenitor. Also driving AWON were the likes of Femi Akintunde Johnson (FAJ), Kunle Bakare (KB), Edmund Enaibe, Alvan Ewuzie, the late Kolosa Kargbo, the indefatigable Wale Olomu and several others. There is no question that AWON gave backbone to the meteoric spread of the spirit of the NMA.

Every detail of the preparation for the NMA was made interesting news: the stars, the fashion; the gossip and the glitz. For instance, the Punch newspaper published an entertainment centerspread twice a week with many scintillating titbits on the NMA. Other newspapers followed and the hype was infectious and everybody in Nigeria wanted to be at the NMA.

We produced different creative and sassy commercials for the NMA and had the commercials run ubiquitously on different radio and television stations. Our print media activity was second to none and the energy and organisation was driven by the incredible support staff at PMAN led by the never-say-die Okuomoise Emmanuel Okuomoise backed by the likes of the young Edi Lawani, a fantastic writer himself, who turned out to become a major entertainment guru in Nigeria. There was the beautiful Iyabo Lawani (no relations), who for several years became the face of Maggi Kitchen across the nation. There was also the incredibly hard working Moji Sowunmi and others.

No, we did not have a lot of money. Sometimes, we had none. What we had was tremendous camaraderie, zeal and unquenchable self-belief. What drove us was not the love of money but the love of country. There were many who worked on the NMA and made a difference for little or nothing. The level of suspicion, doubts and the self-centered grab everything mentality that has gripped Nigeria was absent. We were able to assemble Nigeria’s best, tried and tested professionals to work on the NMA. While I led the Organising Committee made up of my colleagues in the PMAN Leadership, substantial support came from the members of AWON.

Before the NMA, most shows in Nigeria were done on bare stages which were just platforms with musical instruments on them. The stage for the first NMA at the National Theatre was constructed by one Steve Obigbesan from NTA. It was beautiful but not radical. For the rest of the editions of the NMA, the very creative Pat Nebo who just arrived from Italy interpreted my ideas of an alluring set that was picturesque, challenging, dazzling and each with a story to tell. We would spend nights drawing and designing, adding this and taking out that until we captured the essence of what we thought would wow Nigerians. Then it was time for Nebo to bring his team, go shopping for timber, paints, nails and every imaginable construction accessory to bring to life our dreams. Sometimes, construction would take weeks and I would seek amendments upon amendments. Pat Nebo understood my desire for the unusual and sometimes, the ridiculous. Not once did Pat and I have a dispute. When we worked at the National Theatre, we spent many nights and days at the Theatre and snatched a little bit of sleep here and there on the bare floor. If it was normal or usual, we did not do it at the NMA.

I have been repeatedly asked why we never sold any tickets to the NMA. Our essence was not to make money. There were many who would have bought any number of tickets at whatever price and flooded our venues with the wrong audience and we would have missed our objective, the important conversation for which we set up the NMA. We carefully picked our audience and made it clear that if we did not deliver the NMA ‘Treasure Box’ to any person, no matter who that person was or how much he owned, he was respectfully not welcome to the NMA.

When I announced that we would fly about 1000 star Nigerians to Abuja on several of the specially branded “Soul Flights”, and that we would provide them with special live entertainment on board, accommodate and feed each and every one of them plus a partner, for several days, at the posh Hilton Hotel in Abuja and deliver unforgettable shows in the presence of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, bring each of them safely back to Lagos without anyone paying one Naira, many concluded that I had gone mad! That crazy idea was part of the legend of the NMA.

The truth is that anyone who received an NMA “Treasure Box” would open it and find a finely crafted 3 dimensional invitation card to the big event; two special boarding passes that allowed you to check in with a partner at the designated special red carpet counter at the Lagos airport which entitled you to cozy waiting time at the Airport Executive Lounge, treated with a choice of the finest quality cognac, fine spirits, wines, cocktails and delicious finger licking foods in the company of specially trained and dressed NMA hostesses. When your flight was announced, you were ushered on the red carpet to the specially branded and decorated “Soul Flights” with trending live entertainers and paparazzi on board for a happy cruise of a lifetime.

In Abuja, you did not have to bother about picking up your checked in Luggage. In fact, you were not required to enter the departure lounge. You simply walked down the red carpet to a waiting air-conditioned bus, welcomed once again by some beautifully dressed and well-trained hostesses that escorted you to the luxurious Hilton. Open your “Treasure Box”, and you would have found a card with your room number and with the presentation of the card, your usher would escort you to your beautiful room, Voila! You would find in your room your baggage checked in Lagos waiting for you, a signed welcome letter from me and details of all the various treats, locations, meals and times that await you in an unforgettable weekend with your partner at zero cost in Abuja.

Practically no one missed a flight to Abuja. No one missed a flight back to Lagos. No one missed a room. No one missed a meal. No one missed a piece of baggage. No one missed any of the several themed shows. No one missed the big award event and the razzle dazzle show in the presence of the President of the Federal Republic, his wife and Nigeria’s most famous Glitterati. No one paid a penny and there was no foreigner in the organisation or entertainment, no computer, no internet and no cell phones. It was a master class in organisation presentation by young Nigerians in entertainment who had before then been considered dregs of the society. It was an unforgettable conversation. I announced at the venue that I could die then and it would not matter to me. I knew that things will never be the same again.

Today, as Nigerian entertainment spreads, I pay tribute to all those who due to sheer love of country and little personal reward made the NMA fly. You gave birth to the many other events and ideas that without question have drawn inspiration from the NMA. I once again pay tribute to Pat Nebo who passed on last week. This iconic production designer with me tore up the stage of the Congress Hall of the Hilton in Abuja, built a new stage and set for the NMA, tore up the new stage and set after the show and rebuilt the old stage. The said it could not be done but we did it. Journey well Pat Nebo.

There are still many intriguing stories to tell about the NMA, the stars on stage, the glitterati and behind the scenes. These are important stories about the development of Nigeria, and they will be told. I once again thank Cally Ikpe for urging me to start this story telling.

See you next week.

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