Waka queen, Salawa Abeni, speaks about the challenges she faced during her ill health.
Salawa Abeni (born May 5, 1961) is a popular Nigerian singer. An Ijebu Yoruba from Ijebu Waterside, in Ogun State, she began her professional career in waka music when she released her debut album, Late General Murtala Ramat Mohammed, in 1976, on Leader Records. It became the first recording by a female artist to sell over a million copies in Nigeria.
Abeni continued recording for Leader until 1986, when she ended a relationship with the record label’s owner, Lateef Adepoju. She married Kollington Ayinla and joined his record label instead, staying with him until 1994.
She was crowned “Queen of Waka Music” by the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi in 1992. Waka is an Islamic-influenced, traditional Yoruba music style, popularized by Batile Alake; it is a much older genre than jùjú and fuji.
Was it because of your health issues that you titled your latest album ‘Recovery’?
Oh yes. It was basically because of it. Thank God I am very okay now.
We learnt you had stroke. How true is that?
I don’t know where people got the stroke story from. My father didn’t die of stroke. My mother is still alive even at 96 years. People are just peddling rumours.
But what was the problem with you, what were you diagnosed with?
My blood pressure was very high. I think it started when I lost my son 13 years ago. He wasn’t my only son. But then, no matter what, if you have 10 fingers and you lose one, you will feel the pain.
Were you not aware that your blood pressure was rising?
No. I wasn’t aware. It was five years ago that I found out. But this particular sickness that got me down, I wouldn’t know where it came from because I performed that Friday. I went to meet colleagues at Fantasy Land [Lagos]. We wanted to do a collaboration for [United States’ President Barack]Obama’s inauguration. I was dressing up for the show. I was about to tie my gele (headgear). The person that ties my headgear was doing it. I wanted to tell her that the scarf was too tight for me. I raised my hand and suddenly, I found out that I couldn’t make use of my right hand again.
Did it get better?
No. So I had go to my mother’s place. She called a local masseur to massage the hand for me. They used candle to rub on the hand. Thereafter, I still went back for the show.
Oh, you did? Even with the hand like that?
Oh yes. In order to exercise the hand, I told my driver to sit beside me so that I could drive. I drove from Ijebu Ode to Lagos. Eventually, I went to the hospital. My doctor checked my BP and said it was a little bit high. He told me I needed to rest. The late Dr. Ayinde Barrister, my dad (that was what I used to call him), came to my house. But that was after I had called him. I saw him and I started crying.
Why did you start crying when you saw him?
It was simply because I couldn’t stand to welcome him. He spent so many hours with me. He told me I shouldn’t worry that I would be fine. I knew I wasn’t feeling fine. From my neck down to my legs were dead. My brain was functioning very well. I didn’t sound sick on the phone.
Why didn’t you travel abroad?
I did. But before then, my aunt took me to a hospital in Lagos. They couldn’t find out what was wrong with me. I did so many tests. But I wasn’t getting better. That was when I had to go to London with my daughter.
Did you get any better in London?
Not really. I left London for Paris.
Were you able to pay for your hospital bills on your own, or did you get help from the public?
I had a lot of money in my account. But I spent all my money. I got the phone numbers of some high personalities in the country. They were able to render their assistance. The Lagos State government helped me as well. Some people started dodging my calls. Some people said I was lying concerning my ill health. Some would give you excuses. Some would say they gave me money the other day so I shouldn’t expect another. I know when I get my career back, I would be okay.
Are you fully recovered now?
I am okay. But I really want my career to bounce back. That will make me happy.
But don’t you think you should leave your career and rest for a while?
I am okay. Even my doctor in Paris still told me that I needed to rest. The last time I saw him, he asked me, ‘Salawa, you are still singing?’ I told him that my country is not like his country. If you don’t work, you won’t feed. Who will I call again? Some people will give me once, then will give me the second time reluctantly and then, the third time, they would tell you in black and white that they are not giving you again.
Kollington Ayinla is the father of your kids. Did you reach out to him when you were ill?
He heard. Our son told him. He called me immediately and asked me why I was sick.
Did he eventually come to see you?
Four months later, during Ramadan, I was in my aunty’s house, he called. He said he just saw it in the papers. I asked him why he couldn’t even call his son to ask how I was. Two months after, he came. He also called a couple of times.
You always say you trained your kids all the while you were separated from him. Was it your choice to train them or he didn’t bother helping out?
That is the way God wanted it. It is difficult to train one child let alone four of them. Then, I could wear one particular attire to perform at 10 or more events. I never owed their school fees.
Would you say you have lived a happy life?
Life is about ups and downs. At times, people will be happy and at times, they will be sad. I only thank God for my life. I am happy with my kids and fans. I am happy that I was sick and I came out of it. If you had seen me then, I am sure you would also thank God for my life. I love singing. That is my talent. Nobody taught me to sing. This is all I know how to do.
You started singing in 1974…
Yes. I released my first album in 1977. I titled it In Memoriam. It was in memory of our head of state, Murtala Muhammed, who was killed. I didn’t grow up with my mother. I grew up with my guardian. My mother was seriously sick for 15 years. My dad didn’t want me to sing. He noticed that I was different from all his other children. Later on, he gave his consent.
Was it because of music that made you not to go higher than primary education or was it financial constraints?
During my own time, my dad didn’t believe in women going to school. It was my guardian and my headmaster that made sure I schooled up to Primary Six. They wanted me to at least get to that level so that I could be able to write my name in future. But what I cannot do, my children can do now. I cherish education. At times, I feel bad that my father didn’t allow me to further my education but then again, I also remind myself that you might read all the ‘Cambridge’ and you would still be nothing.
Were you able to get your master tapes from the family of the late Lati Adepoju, the music promoter you had a son for?
No. Lati died in January 2000 while my son died in October 2000. Demola (Lati’s second son) told me that his daddy said that anytime I asked for my master tapes, he should give them to me because they are my property. Before Lanre died, they brought five tapes.
Were they just five?
No. they brought five out of 15. I travelled to Canada and I saw Demola. I asked him about my master tapes. He told me that I should open an account.
He said their father left a flat for Lanre. He said he would be paying in the rent of Lanre’s flat into the account. I told him I didn’t need it and it was my master tapes that I needed most. He said I would need the money. He told me I could give the money to the motherless.
Did you eventually open the account?
When I wanted to open the account, he said the tenants weren’t paying the rents. The more I remember Lanre’s death, the more I feel so pained.
How did he die?
He died in a motor accident. He wasn’t the one driving. I had a driver who had been driving me for seven years. They went to Ilorin. The accident happened on their way back from Ilorin.
How was Lanre’s relationship with his step siblings?
The remaining children are Kollington’s. I didn’t give any room for division. They loved one another. There was never a problem. The other three saw Lanre as their brother.
Was it your fault that you broke up with Kollington?
If I open up the chapter of my relationship with him, I am not sure it would take less than three pages.
Why didn’t you remarry after you broke up with Kollington?
I tried, but it didn’t work out. I wanted to. I love children. I had the intention of having more children.
Did you encourage them to have cordial relationship with their fathers?
I never turned the children against their fathers. Anytime they had to go to Kollington’s house, four of them would go there. When they had to go to Lanre’s father’s house, all of them would go as well.
How easy was it while you were married?
I came from a polygamous family, and God took me to a polygamous family. Where would I start from? Is it the day we ate or the days we didn’t eat? I would use my iro and buba to make the clothes for them and tell them not to let their step siblings know that the clothes weren’t new. But in all, I thank God.