By Yinka Ajayi
Shakespeare’s classic quote, “If music be the food of love, play on …” is the essence of the Music School at the Federal Nigeria Society for the Blind, FNSB. Founded in 1955, FNSB is the only blind boarding educational and vocational NGO in Nigeria, and, as its name portrays, attracts visually impaired people from all parts of the country. With the aim to restore lost hope to those who, for one reason or the other, lose their sight in adolescence or adulthood. Losing one’s sight after being sighted is a harrowing experience, often conjuring feelings of depression, loneliness, fear and suicide.
The FNSB aims to restore lost hope, build confidence and enable the blind to contribute meaningfully to society. According to Mr John Yekini, the prodigious Music Consultant at FNSB who had taught award winning songstress Cobhams Asuquo how to play the keyboard, music helps to make these tasks easier. Music, he says, evokes deep feelings, memories and strong emotions through a language that everyone enjoys whether sighted or not. Without fail, Mr Yekini’s students look forward to their music classes and fully participate while happily swaying to the music they create. He adds that music helps to empower the blind and forget their sorrows. Just like the well-known story of Anne Sullivan who devoted her life to helping Helen Keller be the best author she could be, Mr Yekini is totally devoted to helping the students at FNSB be the very best music prodigies they can be. Blind himself, he is able to connect with the students in a more special way. He shares his experience in this interview.
I attended Pacelli School for the Blind after I lost my sight at the age of three in the sixties due to measles. I am now in my sixties. I took interest in music at a very young age. I started learning the trumpet, then I went on to learn the accordion, and then the piano and other instruments. Also, I went to Scotland to study music. Presently, I am the Music Consultant of the Vocational Training Centre for the Blind at the Federal Nigeria Society for the Blind. I am married with four children.
How did you cope with life after losing your sight?
The initial journey was rough, but God has been good. We didn’t have all these state-of-the-art equipment that we use now. It was not very easy. But thanks to some Irish sisters who came from Dublin to run the Pacelli School for the Blind, I attended the school. The school caters for those who are born blind or lose their sight at a young age.
How did you get into music?
The Irish Sisters brought all sorts of instruments to the school. I loved the sound of saxophone and trumpet and then I decided I wanted to go into music. But then, I was chased away because they said I was too small. So I arranged with the then music teacher, Mr. Falana, that I would come privately so that he could teach me how to play the instruments. We started with the trumpet, then followed with the drums, accordion, keyboard, etc. And that is how my music career started. I went to Scotland to study music and perfected my skills there.
How did you get into teaching music?
I returned to Nigeria and went back to Pacelli to teach for 21 years as music teacher. Then I moved on to the Ministry of Education, Isolo to teach for 14 years. Now I am the Music Consultant at the Vocational Training Centre of the Federal Nigeria Society for the Blind (FNSB), Oshodi.
Can you share your experience with blind students at FNSB?
Music has helped students here to move on. Initially, when students arrive at FNSB, they come in shattered, thinking the world is over after losing their sight. Some cry day in and day out as they find it hard to accept. But when music comes into one’s life, it changes things: You forget about your problems. When I am down and out and I play, I forget all my problems. Sometimes, I feel like I am not on the planet when I get lost in music. Music is so wonderful and has done a lot for the students here. They forget their limitations. Music helps them to express and accept themselves. Infact, all the students here love music and either learn an instrument or participate by singing. And I don’t have to run after them. They all do their homework because they know that is my food – to do your assignment! (he chuckles!)
Also, music helps to translate them into ecstasy and unimaginable joy. As Shakespeare beautifully coined it, “If music be the food of love, play on…” The students just never get tired of learning and making music.
What is your goal for the students?
My goal is to see them being independent, making money from music. In music, if you know your onions, you can make a lot of money. Music today is the in-thing! If you are very good, you will make it. So I want them to be successful in life and not to depend on anyone.
Can you tell of some of your students doing you proud?
Let me think of one you may know. I remember I had a student called CobhamsAsuquo. I am sure you have heard of him. I taught him how to play the keyboard and he has done me proud. There are many others who have forged successful careers in music. I can’t even remember all of them. There are too many to count! Many of them have their own bands and they are making money, so I am happy. Many play music in their churches too.
What are challenges of teaching a blind person music?
In the sighted world, you read music and then play music. But in the blind world, you read Braille and play. That takes some talent. You have to be very intelligent to do that. Blind people can read text through an embossed paper called Braille which enables them to read using their sense of touch. The alphabets in Braille are different from normal alphabets. Students have to first of all understand Braille, then understand Braille music before they can play. When you are teaching a blind person, you have to take into account where that person is coming from and find out his problems. When you are able to do that, then you understand your student fully.
What interesting things are you doing with the students now?
At the moment, we have a long term goal which we are working on achieving and an immediate goal of rendering a very special four-minute jam at our annual White Cane Day celebration from 7am to 10am. The students are excited about this year’s White Cane Day as it will feature a fitness walk from National Stadium, Lagos to Costain roundabout and back, a free eye screening to enable people check before its too late (believe me, the students are concerned about reducing the rate of blindness), and for the first time ever, a bike parade in addition to live music from Ranti and a dance-a-thon with our in-house choreographer. In the long term, we are trying to put together an orchestra that will perform nationally. Some people will be on the trombone, saxophone, trumpet, keyboard, drums and so on.
Not everyone will be on the instruments as some will lend their voices. Some cannot play, but can sing. Some cannot sing, but can play. So we put them where they will be useful. With the sighted people, many solely depend on their eyes when playing instruments, because they feel that their eyes cannot fail them – Little do they know. Our music journey will not be complete without mentioning Standard Chartered Bank which provided instruments and paid salaries of our music staff for a period, and Lagos State Government which provided funds to renovate the vocational training workshop which houses a modern digital and analogue studio with live recording facilities that can accommodate a large choir and bands. Many of our students produce good music. Their cds are on sale at our site in Oshodi and also through the website www.nigsocblind.org
Being visually impaired, what is your perception of music as a career and what is your vision for the Music School at FNSB?
In the past, people perceived music as a career meant for dullards or drop outs. But I am sure you will agree now that perception has been corrected. If you go to Unilag now to study music, you will sweat it out. Music is for the intelligent people. Music is for those who have foresight – for those who can think. Music helps you to think, it helps you to forget your sorrows. I am looking forward to us having a full blown band that will perform all around the world, making money, cool cash and winning a Grammy Award.
You always dress so well. How do you pick what to wear?
I have a home. My wife is there and my children are there. Routinely, they make sure that I look good – because I am good! (he chuckles!)