In Nigeria’s classical music domain, Fatima Uriame Anyekema is regarded as one of the leading contralto voices in high demand. From following her mother to choir practices to becoming an MTNF-MUSON scholarship beneficiary which was the beginning of her getting a formal education in music in 2007, Fatima has performed celebrated operas and oratories like Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Mass in B minor and Christmas Oratorio to name a few. In this interview with SAMUEL ABULUDE, the young lady talks about growing up and love for music as well as the rare opportunity of studying a Masters in Sacred Music at the Ivy-League University of Notre Dame, US.
How do you find love for music?
My journey into music began when I started going to the choir with my late mum, Catherine as a child. I usually attended practices with her at the St Monica’s Choir back in Benin, Edo State. Interestingly, about four of my siblings were also in the choir at that time but then out of all of us, I was the only one who chose to do music professionally. If you look at some other families like the Sowandes’ and so on, you will see that some of them played the piano, some, other instruments and they studied music unlike ours. We were just choristers singing in the choir. At some point in my life, I decided to take the decision to study music.
How many are you in the family?
There are seven of us in the family, six girls and one boy.
Tell us about growing up in Benin?
Benin was just a transition point for me and large chunks of my life had been like that. My dad is a retired police man, so his job was the main reason for our movement. I was born in Jos, Plateau State. From there we moved to Benin, Edo State where I spent a part of my childhood. I attended Eweka primary school in Benin City. At some point, my dad was forcefully retired and having to raise seven children, and to ease the pressure on him I had to go stay with my uncle. That’s how I found my way to Delta State where I continued my secondary school education spending about six years. I attended Ishagu College, Ogwashi-uku between 1992 and 1997. From there, I proceeded to Ondo State Polytechnic, Owo where I studied Accounting for about four years, no thanks to the many strike actions and other issues in school. After graduation, I moved down to Lagos, where I officially found my love for music, at least the academic part of it so to speak.
When did you realise your love for singing?
I cannot really remember what my singing life was before age seven but from there on, I remember going to church society meetings with my mum and she made me and my friends to start leading songs during their events. From that point on, around 1988 to 1989, I discovered that I could sing and I kept singing in church mostly. That period for me was very interesting because everywhere singing was taking place, I was part of it. At some point, I became a choir mistress at that very young age and had to teach songs to my peer. I had a mentor then who took interest in my voice, he would teach me songs to go ahead and teach the choir. As little as I was, I was able to conduct and teach the choir new songs. That period was very eventful and interesting. When I got into secondary school, I didn’t sing at all for some strange reasons. I didn’t join the choir but then I was a member of the scripture union, so when we went to other secondary schools in Asaba or Ibuzor, I would sing with my school scripture union group. It was the farthest I went with music in secondary school. When I returned from Delta State to Edo State, I went back to singing with the choir and I learnt responsorial psalms. As a catholic, we had to sing responsorial psalms and people always commented favourably.
When I moved to Ondo State, singing for me stopped again and I didn’t join the school choir, I just faced my studies squarely. But I still knew I had it in me even though I didn’t do anything about it. Eventually, I moved to Lagos in 2004 for my Industrial Training and I needed something exciting and different. Then during my job search, I found out about MUSON and it ignited my passion and interest. In fact, I never looked back and did not even go back to complete my HND.
Aside singing, do you play any music instrument?
I play the piano, I teach the piano too although I am not quite proficient. During the Diploma course at MUSON, I took grade 2 piano lessons and all the vocal major students were made to take piano course. When I went back to Unilag to study for my BA in Music, I had to improve on it but now I teach piano to beginners. I did other minor musical instruments like violin, basic level clarinet but I ran away from them but the piano came in handy.
As an MTNF scholar, what was that experience for you like?
The sponsorship support covered my tuition, buying music books and pocket allowance. I was grateful for these things because they really came in handy and made sure that I didn’t suffer. Also, the opportunities that the MTN Foundation provided for me were huge because we had the chance to perform on stages and platforms that would never have been available if I didn’t have a scholarship. MTN Foundation has been at the centre of all things good in driving the renaissance in Nigeria’s art and music space. Every year, we have valentine concerts and recitals that provide exposure to burgeoning talents and make them shine. I remain forever grateful for the association with the brand.
How did you come about your recent scholarship for Master of Sacred Music Program in vocal performance at the University of Notre Dame?
First of all, Notre Dame came with a lot of exciting packages. Up until now, I cannot boldly say I can pay my way through a University in the US or UK or anywhere in the world for that matter. One of my priests who had studied abroad told me that there is a school in America that is tuition free and that they study Sacred Music but then it is a Catholic school. I said what do I want to do with sacred music, I am not planning to become a reverend sister or a religious personage. He then convinced me that they had masters in different areas but I didn’t want to have anything to do with sacred music so I totally forgot about it. Things however took a different turn by the time I was graduating from the University of Lagos. Interestingly, my research work was focused on studying the music of the church in Nigeria. By the time, I finished, the priest asked me what my plans was and I said nothing yet and he asked if I had tried the school he told me about? I was still not sure if I wanted to do it but along the line, I got an email. It was a strange happening because over the years, I have applied for some competitions abroad and sometimes, they keep sending emails as updates. I got an email from one of those organisations, which I applied for the competition advertising Notre Dame University, the same school the priest told me about and I wondered why I was being followed about. By the time I read through their propositions, I realised that asides the scholarship, they had a lot to offer in terms of the faculty, staff, sourced materials, master classes. I am so grateful that the foundation provided by the MTNF scholarship has propelled me towards this new adventure and I am excited at what the future holds.
Do you have any expectations?
I hope that I will subsequently apply for a PhD after the program. That will be like the ultimate goal.
What is your favourite genre of music?
Like I told you earlier, growing up, I didn’t know I was a classical singer. My dad was a collector, he collected different kinds of music, reggae, soul, fuji etc. The only thing I didn’t come across in his collection was jazz but he collected so much music that anytime I go back home, it hits me that this must be where I was influenced. As a child, I spent a lot of time listening to music and sometimes I go back and look through his collections. So, I won’t say I have a favourite but because I sing classical music, I may want to say it is my best but I enjoy all kinds of music. None stands out.
What has been the most embarrassing moment for you ever?
It was in 2010. I was beginning to come out in the real world of classical singing. My boyfriend at that time was invited for one of my concerts and I didn’t know he would come. But he came to surprise me. I usually have my contact lenses on when I am performing on stage so I don’t get to see faces. But it so happened that at the performance, I had my medicated contact lenses on and as soon as I set my eyes on him, I became flustered and was uncomfortable and I was missing my line. Ever since then, I stopped wearing my contact lenses whenever I want to perform, I’d rather not see anyone until I am done so even if I am messing up, I will handle it on my own and handle it well.
How do you make money from music?
This is a question that people are always concerned about. My dad also had this challenge. When he knew that I was into music full time, he was really worried and asked how I was coping and so on until in 2013 when I invited him to watch my performance, that was when he gave his full blessings. There are a lot of things that you can do with music. You can teach, perform, attend workshops; you can write music and so on. A lot can be done with music. The moment I am teaching or performing or training, I get fulfillment.