Tee Mac Omatshola Iseli: On His Flute, Family and Future

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Teee Mac performing on sta

His sweet, manly lips rest on the object – momentarily – with his warm, soft hands holding its midriff. He holds it off his lips slightly like a shy lover. Then, he grabs it – firmly but gently –, first to his bosom. He brings it up slowly, sexily – face to face – to caress it again. He takes a long breath and lounges, not full-mouth, with those sweet, manly lips lingering on its holes – flirting with them with his stately fingers – as they produce varied moans. The ecstasy fills the air with a mellifluous note, producing various cadences – it is an orchestral harmony of symphony. Enraptured, the ecstatic audience in unison roared in a standing ovation. For Tee Mac Omatshola Iseli, life is music, writes Funke Olaode

There is that invisible silhouette of sound engraved in his home. Tee Mac Omatshola Iseli’s countenance reminds you of music – the type that caresses the soul and enchants the heart. An enchanting persona with a trademark beard that divides his ebullient chin and a moustache that straddles his upper lip, Tee Mac glows in every sense of the word. His bespectacled visage reminds you of an intellectual morphed into a musical genius. Unpretentious, mesmerizing and ingenious, with his flute he dazzles like billion stars in a galaxy.

Legendary as a flutist and extraordinary as an entertainer, Tee Mac is a superstar often described in understatement. In performance and on stage and in person, he cuts the figure of an illustrious giant with the embodiment of childlike innocence though with his imperfections. In Nigeria, on the continent, across Asia, Arabia, Europe and the Americas, there is often one footprint of a flutist – Tee Mac’s. At 70, following a life of musical revolution, Tee Mac is an eclectic mode of evolution – indefatigable and always conquering new grounds – as he is set to storm China for a concert later this year.

Tee Mac’s road to stardom, though from a wealthy family of Swiss and Itsekiri roots, was not paved with gold. He was only three years old when he lost his father.

“My father was a Swiss ambassador to Nigeria when he was murdered in Lagos in 1951. I was barely three years. I loved my father. He would take me on his back and swim with me out into the sea. I was not afraid because I knew he would bring me back safely to the shores. When he was murdered I remember the people crying at the funeral – and my mother taking me and my two sisters to the airport, saying to me: ‘You’re in charge now!’ I left for my second home in Switzerland and did not return until I was 22 after I had finished my education in music and economics,” he recalls that bloodstained moment in his life.

His ‘romance’ with the flute began when he was seven. Yet, it took one moment of his life to forge ahead and never look back. He recalls with nostalgia: “I have always had passion for music. I remember the day my uncle, Mr. J.J. Derendinger, took me and my sisters to a classical concert. I sat there spellbound. It was like sitting in heaven and listening to heavenly music. Closing my eyes I could see in my inner self a ballet of angels dancing to this heavenly music. That’s where I decided to study the flute and learnt how to compose for a philharmonic orchestra.”

That decision would later require many years of hard work, studying, playing difficult and boring etudes, repeating scales and technical flute works – countless times. Matching inspiration with perspiration, every year he was getting better. “I started to look forward to those improvements,” he narrates with pride. “My music is primarily classical. But I knew to be successful financially I had to play also commercial music in the 1970s composing some of the world’s most famous disco hits – they made me wealthy.”

It’s all too easy to conclude that his genre of music is restricted. It must have cost Tee Mac an arm and a leg to survive to date without joining the bandwagon to play ‘loud’ music that often inspires adoring fans to gyrate without inhibitions. He feels otherwise.

“I have to correct that impression; there is no such thing like genre of music which is restricted. It’s either good or bad music. In the 1970s and 1980s I wrote and performed commercial music which even in Nigeria was loved. My night club in Surulere was packed full every time I performed. In the late 80s and 90s I decided to go back more to what I love, classical music and I stopped performing. I preferred to sit in my studio and compose symphonies and film music. I did not need to make more money,” he explains courteously.

“I did not need the adulations of big crowds anymore. I did not need more publicity. I wanted to create good music for prosperity. I invested in solid minerals. I am also the Nigerian director and shareholder of HEMLA Gas and Oil; brought James Bay Energy from Canada to Nigeria. So I do not need to break even. I can rehearse and play with my fabulous 13-piece band – Tee Mac Gold Convention whenever I want and where ever want.”

In his musical exploits, Tee Mac has traversed the globe performing for world leaders, emperors and empresses making fame and fortune.

“I was blessed that from President Yakubu Gowon to Goodluck Jonathan everyone loved my music and flute – except between 1983 and 1985. They hired me for state banquets or other important events. I have also performed internationally for kings – King of Thailand, Queen of Holland – and presidents. I don’t want to show off in naming all,” he simply says with that childlike innocence that appeals to everyone who knows him.

Tee Mac has had many breakthroughs. He, however, noted that when the “first of my songs reached the number one position in the US and 11 other countries – Fly Robin Fly, I have 50 per cent of the rights – my life changed financially.”

Every concert is important to him. He wants to walk off the stage knowing that he and eclectic band have done their absolute best.

He adds: “Again, I have stayed committed to my dreams and my prayers to God to make me famous. I released my first album in 1970. But I remember as a small boy I used to put into my nightly prayers: ‘Dear God, please give me the strength and intelligence to become the best flute player on this earth!’”

Tee Mac feels that he has been that for many years – and the ratings show that he is one of the best flute players.

“But my commercial – financial – success,” he discloses, “surprised me when I wrote some of the songs, which went into the hit parade and sold out in millions.”

Throwing light on how travels and interaction with other cultures across the globe have added values to his trade and personality, he says listening to Chinese, Indian and Latin American music gives him great ideas, mostly for his classical compositions.

What does it take to achieve all that he has achieved?

“Well, to be a professional musician one has to be totally dedicated. Your life will change. Your family will suffer because you are travelling constantly and one has to maintain good health to survive the stress of the profession,” Tee Mac answers matter-of-factly. It’s not easy to face a crowd of ten thousand or more every night on tour and always be good. They do not want to know if you are fine; if you are sick, etc. I have learned to maintain a good died, sleep enough and exercise daily, to meditate, pray and maintain a good social relationship with my family, friends, neighbours and friends on the social media.”

According to the flutist extraordinaire, what makes a nation like Nigeria different is its arts and culture. “The history of development cannot be better showcased than through music. Nigeria has one of the most diverse cultures in the world,” he explains as his eyes light up with pride. He says further: “An unbelievable treasure is hidden in the folklore of every tribe, the native instruments, the dressing, the sculptures, paintings and folksongs. Our grandchildren should still be able to enjoy it.”

For the first time in the interview, he moans with angst as his brow furrows slightly. His passion for Nigerian traditions and cultures boils over as he laments: “This is even the first time we have no Minister of Culture! The arts and culture sector drives tourism; can whitewash negative publicity and is an important foreign exchange earner.”

Not done, Tee Mac says: “(Former) President Goodluck Jonathan knew and insisted that the arts and entertainment industry should be supported. He asked me to put a structure in place and with my own resources I registered the Entertainment Foundation – no money has come in from any sources since –, the Entertainment Data Base Nig. Ltd and the Entertainment Cooperative Multi-purpose Society of Nigeria and the Entertainment Products Distribution Network of Nigeria. Money approved shortly before the last election was not given and nothing has come in from this (current) government.”

Undaunted, Tee Mac is pushing the envelope to promote the history and culture of the Nigerian people. He has been working with the Motherland Group – as co-founder – initiated by Michael Jackson’s brother, Marlon, which is getting support for the Lagos State government to build a historical museum in Badagry.

“I am a joint founder and the managing director of the Motherland Group. We changed the name for legal reasons to ‘EKABO Resources Ltd’. The project is on; but the terrible state of the road to Badagry is making it impossible at the moment to do anything there. My path with the Jacksons’ crossed in 1974. I am a friend and partner and we had the same management company,” says Tee Mac.

And if he could turn back the hands of clock, were there things he would have loved to do differently?

Unapologetically, the flutist confesses: “If I could change things I would have spent less time of my life in Nigeria. I often feel like I wasted my time here in believing I could change things. There was very little I could actually change because it is hard to change people. The masses still listen and love trash music. Governments do not listen to advice of those who know better and try to advise them. Negativity and Jealousy rule the life of most people and when you try to live an exemplary and honest life they think you are a fool.”

In a couple of weeks, Tee Mac will storm China to stage a fund-raising concert. Even at 70, he keeps on keeping on; pushing his talents beyond borders. “I am excited about it. I was asked by my friend, Marlon Jackson, to assist in raising funds for their 50th anniversary TV special show and got the CEO Club Worldwide involved,” he enthuses. “China signed a great agreement with us and by the end of October/November we will go to the Hainan Island to launch the duty-free/tax-free zone with concerts, then Beijing and Macau.”

That will not be his first performance in China. He had performed many shows in China. Just that this time it will be at a higher level with other international artists joining him. Been there, done that – for him there is no slowing down after almost five decades of caressing the flute.

“I have had many times during my life glimpses back to those days,” the 70-year-old notes. “I had great successes and great disappointments. From a young age I decided to take life day by day; waking up in the morning, thanking God for being alive and trying to make the best of everyday.”

Tee Mac is mortal. The harmony of his symphony is eternal – unlike the superficial texture of what he describes as ‘trash’ music tearing apart the collective tympanum of a nation.