Orits Wiliki marks 30 years in Music
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Reggae star, Orits Wiliki, who recently celebrated 30 years in music in Lagos, speaks with CHUX OHAI about his career, marriage and sundry issues

For Orits Wiliki, playing music in the last 30 years has been a beautiful and fulfilling experience. For this reason, the reggae star deemed it fit to roll out the drums and celebrate his success on the stage last August.

Wiliki gathered his co-travellers on the music train, such as Ras Kimono, Majek Fashek, King Wadada and Victor Eshiet of the Mandators, and held a concert in Lagos. It was one of the biggest gatherings of Nigeria’s depleting clan of roots rock reggae stars in a long time.

Looking back at those pulsating years, the man that many music fans call ‘Koleman Revolutionary’ thinks they are worth celebrating. “The last 30 years were really exciting. They were the best part of my life, though we have had some hiccups here and there. There is no way it can be all smooth going, you know. But, by and large, I am happy that I am alive. I give God the glory,” he says, in an interview with our correspondent on Wednesday.

Aware that many music fans in Nigeria still do not know much about his origin, the celebrated musician insists that his roots are firmly in Ethiopia.

He says, “I am actually from Ethiopia. That is where my grandfather comes from. I don’t know why people can’t believe me. I am a full-fledged Nigerian, no doubt. I was born and raised here, but my ancestral roots remain in Ethiopia. I come from Adowa, a province in the Northern part of Ethiopia. My family naturalised as Nigerians in Warri. My father is Itsekiri, while my mother is partly Edo and Ondo. That is why I tell people that I have a complex origin. My real name is Rassam Wiliki. It was my grandfather’s name, too.”

The dreadlocked musician claims that music just happened to him, though the talent already existed in his family and his father, a talented musician and missionary who devoted most of his time and gift to the service of the Baptist Church, greatly influenced the path he chose for himself 30 years ago.

“At the age of eight, I was already an active member of the church choir. Before my father died at the age of 49, he had reached out to many people through evangelism. I wanted to do the same thing. So I made up my mind that I was going to reach out to people through music. I decided I would become a gospel musician. That is why everything I have done is inspired by the Holy Bible,” he says.

He chose reggae as the medium for spreading the Christian gospel because, in his own words, it was the best way that he could express himself. Even then, he preferred a modest career initially, shorn of the glitz and glamour of show business.

For awhile, Wiliki was contented with staying behind the scene, working as a studio producer alongside the legendary Lemmy Jackson and making other people stars, as he calls it. “There is hardly any of the older reggae musicians, from the Mandators, Ras Kimono to Majek Fashek, whose early works do not bear my imprint. I have produced all of them. Musically, I am older than all of them. That is why they call me ‘Pupa’,” he boasts.

But, like the proverbial goldfish, there was no hiding place for him. In no time, an incident occurred and finally exposed his real talent to the then managing director of Polygram Records. The encounter resulted in his first contract with the music company and the arrival of his first music album.

With a total of 10 albums to his credit and several hit songs to boot, Wiliki is, no doubt, one of the most successful musicians that Nigeria has ever known. Interestingly, his success also extends to the home front where he, unlike some other artistes, enjoys a blissful married life.

Unveiling the secret of his 20-year marriage to popular actress and singer, Becky, he says, “I married my kid sister – my mother’s last born. We are as close siblings can be. That is why we have stayed together for this long.”

However, the last few years have had their toll on his music, so much that he is no longer stuck to the traditional form of reggae. For obvious reasons, he has found it necessary to inject a bit of Afro hip hop and other idioms that are springing up into his music. “If you listen to my new work, ‘Pupa Reloaded’, you will find that it is not really the traditional stuff that we used to do. The album is a fair mix of reggae and some of today’s music styles. But it contains more spiritual messages than I have done before and the tempo is upbeat,” he says.

Like most other stars, the musician has a few regrets. One of them is the absence of structures that are vital to the growth and development of the music industry.

He says, “We still do not have the right structures that can sustain the music industry in Nigeria. The focus is still on shows; the business is not there. Don’t be deceived by what you are seeing. Most of the things you see are just part of the general hype. Nothing is really happening here.

“Although musicians live by what they do, the environment is not conducive. We have a problem on our hands. The issue of copyright collection and piracy, for example, is part of this problem. Is it not a shame that you buy a blank CD for N150 and go on to Alaba International Market to buy a copy of Orits Wiliki’s music for a paltry N30 – the same music that you purchase online with about $30 dollars? How will this encourage people from outside the country to invest in the industry?

“We still don’t have an effective distribution network in the country till this moment. How then can we sell records? Is it not a shame that by now we do not have records of the quantity of CDs that are sold in the country? If these problems are fixed, you will be amazed at the number of companies and investors that will be trooping in to do business with us.”

Orits believes that such structures, including a copyright system that is working well enough to check or reduce the incidence of piracy, are supposed to evolve within the music industry. But there should be an enabling environment to make this happen.

In spite of these challenges, he is pleased that there have been some positive changes in the industry. “Today, people are paid about N4m to perform at shows. It is the result of my struggle. I fought for it when I was Vice President of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria. Also there is a general awareness of what your copyrights are. People do not just take your work and use it without due permission,” he says.

Yet Orits says that if matters remain the way they are, he will be forced to talk even his own children out of starting a career in music.

Meanwhile, the artiste has concluded plans to stage the second phase of the 30 years-on-the-stage celebrations in Warri on Sunday, December 28.