Must we put a pause on our social lives just because of the state of Nigerian economy? Mike Aremu doesn’t think so as Yinka Olatunbosun reports on a brief encounter with him in Lagos where he revealed, amongst other things, that his 2016 Sax Appeal concert, this June, will feature four-time Grammy Award winner, India Arie

Mike Aremu on stage performing

India Arie

“It’s supposed to be annually,’’ Mike Aremu, the master saxophonist of the “Oluwakuise’’ fame began as he settled into a chair inside the VIP Lounge at the Prince of Anthony hotel, some minutes before the birthday gig of one of his friends, Ayoola Shadare. He was referring to the concert, Sax Appeal which he instituted in 2009 and is arguably one of the biggest jazz concerts in Nigeria. With the support of his friends, he kept the show at tops as he features powerful international jazz artistes. Though Lagos, and indeed the world awaits this promising fifth edition with some apprehension owing to the economic situation, his optimism about the show and the huge response from his fans upon hearing that India Arie would come home to Africa has been nothing but infectious.

First, India Arie is a timeless and effortless vocalist, song-writer and guitarist. Her acoustic soul fever gripped the US where she was born and raised for the depth of socio-economic vibes that filter from her performances, be it live or recorded. She has sung about love, ghetto, world politics, personal relationships and race. Her popular tracks include “Video’’, “Chocolate High’’, “Brown Skin’’, “I am not my Hair’’, “Pearls’’ which is a remake of Sade Adu’s Pearl that has been infused with African contextual lyrics. Her African roots had been traced to Sierra Leone, according to reports on the web.

Actually, Aremu was thinking of bringing someone else for the concert. Although he didn’t say the exact name(s), he discovered with time that more Nigerian music fans had been ecstatic at the mention of Idia Arie. Arie’s popularity soared in Nigeria in 2002 when she set a not-so-enviable- record at the Grammys with seven nominations. “Most Nominations in One Night Without Winning” was all she got that year losing the prestigious awards to the beautiful singer-songwriter, Alicia Keys. OAPs celebrated her with airplays and fans were divided because Alicia Keys was equally good. The following year, Arie won two Grammy awards in the Best Album and Best Urban/Alternative performance categories.
Back to Aremu, the man whose promise can be taken to the bank, this edition is fired up, not for the availability of funds but the sheer spirit of good music that’s undying.

“This is the fifth edition,’’ he continued. “We have missed three years. We didn’t have enough funding to sustain an annual show. As soon as we finish a year’s edition, we are already gunning for another. It’s quite an expensive event to organize. The first and second editions of Sax Appeal were held at the MUSON Centre, Onikan. The third one was held at Eko Hotel and the fourth one was held at Transcorp Hilton, Abuja. But this year, Eko Hotel has done so well for us. They are giving us discount fantastically. And we are looking at Airlines that would support us for transporting our international artists to Nigeria. There are 13 of them. And we want them on Business Class/First Class. We are not even looking for free tickets. We would just appreciate 70% discount. That way we are paying something that would take care of taxes,’’ he said.

Aremu sounded like a man who likes to pay his dues. In this industry, it is very evident. With a series of appearances at venues in Nigeria such as Pintos, The Green Lion, Club Towers, K’s Place and Mega Plaza’s Dome as well as session work for Onyeka Onwenu, Ras Kimono and King Wasiu Ayinde Marshal, Aremu’s got the artistry of an international brand. He is one of the few artists in Nigeria who can boast of performing with Kenny G, Hugh Masakela, Najee, Kirk Franklin, Marvin Winans, Ron Kenoly, Mary Maryand Adlan Cruz. He also made an appearance at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
Recently, he featured at the Lagos International Jazz Festival held at Freedom Park and his rousing performance stirred the memories of his early venture into music when he earned the title “Nigeria’s Kenny G.’’ Of course, that is edifying but the real fulfillment comes from being himself.

“As a creative person, I will like to create my own kind of music. I want to explore my own gift and the uniqueness that I have in my own composition. It is about my beliefs and faith as well. I want to be able to express those. I can’t achieve that by playing somebody else’s song. If you listen to my songs in the current album, there are mostly my own compositions. They mean a lot to me because they are about the things I have gone through in life, my personal experiences and I am more convinced about those songs,’’ he revealed.

Concerning this concert, Aremu is not flying solo. He is working with a team of dependable friends and associates who share his confidence in the success of the show that is borne out of previous successes.

“I have always worked with other people. I get people to invest in Sax Appeal. I have the responsibility to live up to my promises and my commitments. When you notice that people are slacking, I get on the task. Most of the time, it comes down to three people namely myself, Femi Dahunsi, we call him FADO, Shaddie and our graphic artist. We have some nice people who are also helping us. Some concerts enjoy sponsorship but I have never really had a major sponsor since I started this Sax Appeal. Most corporate organisations are ready to buy tables at the event but when you talk about real sponsorship, it is not really there. After this edition, we start pitching for the next one. We send proposals to corporate organisations. There are several excuses for not getting them to sponsor. There is a lot more that can be done if only there is a major sponsor,’’ he said.

His last studio album titled, “Coat of Many Colours” was released in 2013. It has 16 tracks but is yet to enjoy much airplay in Nigeria because the artist has been preoccupied with touring and promoting his album in the UK where the album was produced. But Aremu is not a man to bask in the euphoria of previous success; instead he has admitted that he’s got some work to do like Vanessa Williams.

“I don’t think I have promoted it enough. There are 16 songs on the album. I did a video for one of the songs recently and people have been calling to say they like my new song. That tells me I need to do more to promote the album. Now, there is just so much music on air that it is difficult to get airplays. A lot of people had to pay their way to get their songs played. It is really painful.

“Some of us are very fortunate to do a lot of gigs, live performances. See, my first album was released in 1999 and I have done just five albums since then. I had Kennis Music taking care of everything. But that changed. But the live performances had helped. It is only embarrassing when people are asking where they can get your albums and you can’t just tell them. People are downloading my music free of charge but as a musician I want to reach out to my fans. It is not all about the money. I am not releasing an album only for it to end up on my shelf,’’ he maintained.

Aremu and Arie’s music can hurriedly be classified as gospel because of the inspirational and soulful lyrical content. But Aremu argued that gospel is not exactly what they both do and there is only one way to find out. Come June 26, all roads will lead to Eko Convention Centre where Aremu and other artists on his bill will ignite the stage and reshape our nightlife, once again.

“I have done a lot of research about her and her music. There are phases in any artist’s career sometimes based on what they are going through. I have noticed some kind of consistency in her songs and I don’t see much difference in what she does and mine. At the end of the day, what we are celebrating is jazz. People can profess to be something and in reality be something else. There are gospel artists whose lives are not ‘gospel’ at all. The only thing gospel about them is their music. I will not judge people based on that. I am not a gospel artist. My jazz music is influenced by gospel, by positivity and making people happy. I am inspirational. I am going to have Timi Dakolo, Praise and a lot more artists at the show,’’ he promised.

Aremu surged into music as a young member of a white garment church. Born in Kaduna, he grew up in Minna Niger State and showed some dexterity at several instruments like the keyboard, drums, guitar, talking drum, trumpet, and the saxophone which eventually became his major instrument. In 1999, he was signed on to Kennis Music where he released his first album “Dance” and later, “No shaking’’. He gives credit to the Kennis Music management for promoting contemporary/pop music in Nigeria and beyond and bears no grudge for pop music artists in Nigeria who seem to have it all: luxury homes, enormous fan base, brand endorsements and need we add, baby-mamas?

“I am excited about popular music in Nigeria. A few years back, we were hooked on foreign music. You go anywhere and it is Nigerian music on replay. It is a major improvement that has changed the face of entertainment in Nigeria. But most of the brands are into numbers. The more fan base the artist has, the more they think he can push their own brand,’’ he argued.

Aremu, though based in UK, is not unconcerned about Nigeria’s economic situation. But like many in the entertainment business, ‘the show must go on’ remains the mantra.
“Are we going to pause our lives because the economy is bad? We say the economy is bad yet everyday people are buying cars, building houses,’’ he observed. Hence, he is not one to be consumed by a low spirit, though the ones he consumes remain at 0% or so.

He keeps selling his album where he’d get his works valued. Unmoved by the free downloads of his works, he is more concerned about the lives he has touched with his music and the relationships he has helped others to strengthen.

“Our CDs are worthless. I recorded my last album in UK. I have gone to concerts and sold thousands of copies of my albums but that is better than selling it here. For an artist to make the same sales I made, an artist would have had to sell millions of copies in Nigeria. That market pays me more. That makes sense. It took time to produce those songs,’’ he said.
On future collaborations, he insisted on working with the best in the game. His last album features the incredible rapper, MI and Chidimma. Will his next album feature, let’s say, Olamide? His reaction was quite humorous.

“That bad boy? I don’t know; Baddo. Anyway, music is flexible. If what he sings is good, I will work with him,’’ he said.