Akapo Emmanuel: At Tenstrings, We Localised Music Training, Incorporated

Akapo Emmanuel: At Tenstrings, We Localised Music Training, Incorporated

Akapo Emmanuel, the founder and director of Tenstrings Music Institute, one of the music institutions in Nigeria, understands music and the basics of sounds. A multi-instrumentalist, Emmanuel is passionate and dedicated to imparting knowledge. And this has seen him actualise his dream and nurture it to fruition as the music industry evolves globally. On the occasion of the school’s 17th anniversary, he disclosed some laudable initiatives and novel projects embarked on by the institute.  Ferdinand Ekechukwu brings the excerpts

An Audacious Beginning

So, this is a special occasion. I don’t celebrate. But this particular year seems to be extraordinary for us as an institute and so we decided to embark on some very serious projects. 17 years ago I was only a music teacher in a primary, secondary school; a couple of schools here and there, and I think my biggest job was with Wale Adenuga Productions (PEFTI) as a music instructor in the institute. But there was a major challenge in everywhere I taught music in Nigeria, and that was we were teaching a curriculum students were not asking for.

The focus of music education was strictly classical music. So, students will come into class we teach them Beethoven, Mozart, Handel and the rest. And these students after class you can see the frustration. And there’s a sharp disconnect with what they were learning in the class and what they truly want to be which I think is a major issue with the Nigerian university system. So, I went back every time to my boss (that’s Wale Adenuga) to let him know that the students were really complaining that the classical music we were doing was not what they want to do. And he said ‘no, no, Akapo, globally student learn classical music when you are in a music school and when you finish you go and do what you want to do.’ So, it was like out of my rebellious spirit that I kept asking that what will happen if a music school set up and decide to let the curriculum be around the desire, the dreams of the students. You come in and we are teaching you the basic principles of music then your repertoire, your songs that you perform be the kind of songs you want.

Why can’t your project, your exercises, and your performances and productions be something that you will eventually go to do? There wasn’t anybody doing it; the only successful music school in Nigeria 17yrs ago was Muson Centre and I think they are still quite successful. And so they were like the role model for other music school.

Peter King in Badagry started before and they also did a lot of classical music and some jazz. He was a jazz enthusiast.  So, but the young Afrobeats, hip hop 17yrs ago was the time we were graduating from the 2face Idibias and the remedies into this new phase that we are into. You know a lot of music people wanted to discover themselves and create something new.

That was when Nigeria was pregnant for this new afrobeats generation that we are now. And so there was no school attending to that and to be very sincere, my idea, and the real motivation for starting the school was like ‘let’s start and see what will happen.’ So, it wasn’t like a business, I didn’t perceive it as any business or source of income.

It was like ‘what if we have a music school where we do this, that’s afrobeats, will the heavens fall? Will I fail? Failure didn’t mean so much to me because I didn’t resign my job at PEFTI. My N30,000 salary job at PEFTI was still ongoing. I was music director at Soul Winners Cathedral, Festac, I was earning N17, 500 and I had about three private lessons –  N10,000 here, N7,500 there. So, I was like “I could actually start, the worst that would happen is that we would fail.” But the truth is that I didn’t have a dime to my name. But I was quite ready to start.  So, I moved down to a studio in Festac to speak with the owner. It was the largest recording studio in Festac and one of the largest in Lagos at the time. He invested his money. I told him I want to start a music school there. That whatever we make we split the money. He took the risk. We signed an agreement. At that time 17yrs ago I was playing like six musical instruments – trumpet, piano, guitar, clarinet, euphonium, and other instrument. But I had no instrument to start! A week later the man brought 750,000 cash. We went to Alaba International with the list I gave him of everything we needed. And he bought brand new and equipped the room and that was how we started February 2007. Unfortunately, in the entire year we enrolled just two children, and one adult. One day the studio owner called me during work and shot the studio down for pure water business. I went back home shamefully in 2008, not because I failed, I was happy that I tried, but because the two kids their father paid me for more than a year. He believed so much in me and the dream and really supported. I didn’t know how to tell him the music school was over. So, I was avoiding his call for a while until one day I picked up and I told him the story.

He said I should have told to him. That he has a property in Festac and for the sake of his children, offered to give two rooms in the property to start there. I went and inspected the place. And like the first man, he said I can start when I’m ready. Again, there’s actually no instrument, no equipment. He gave me a cheque of =N=500,000 that day. I went to Alaba bought those instrument and we started.  Mr. Andy Aihigbe who is the father of the first two kids but now a director at Tenstrings.

Tenstrings’ Growth, Assets, and Expansion

That year we did about a 100 students, the next year we did like 500. By 2010 we opened Surulere, 2012 we opened Ikeja. And by 2013 we opened the Ajah campus. And then we kept spreading – Ikorodu, Port Harcourt, Abuja, and Agege finally. And as we speak, we are not just Nigeria’s largest music school; we are Nigeria’s largest music company by asset; by what we have tied down in all our location.

The London campus is kicking off by middle of this year. We have calls from Kenya, and a couple of other places to use our franchise but it’s something I’m not rushing into. Overall we have trained over 25,000 students from 20 countries. You see the lesson I took out is that when you dare to do something a bit differently there’s always a future.

So today, I can beat my chest to say Tenstrings enroll more international students than any Nigerian university in music. Nigerian immigration calls us that ‘people keep asking for visa letter from Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, and Uganda to come to Tenstrings what are you people doing?’

I said it’s just a music school. As we speak we are doing Visa for a student from Panama, we are doing for a student from Jamaica, we doing for a student from Germany. And I think our biggest problem is Nigeria Immigration because people don’t know Nigeria visa is one of the hardest visas to get in the world. Students are always lamenting.

At the moment we have counted 20 countries we have successfully enrolled from and as we speak, we have students from 12 countries at the moment in the country; majorly from other African countries we have a lot of West Africans and East Africans. But currently, we have a student from the US, we a have student from Canada, and we have an Indian student. They are all at the Ajah campus studying as we speak.

Impact of Nigerian Music Industry on Tenstrings

I would not just say this is because Tenstrings is superb or we are extremely good. I think also the growth Nigerian music industry is experiencing is extending. People are like ‘if the industry is doing this fine, then why don’t you go there and find out the secret of this success? So, they are partly studying but they are also partly to see what they can take from the industry.

We have raised some remarkable musicians. DJ Spinall attended this school and graduated successfully. Eva Alordia the rapper attended and graduated from here. We have had a number of musicians graduate from here. Even Bez Idakola, the late Sound Sultan did courses with us. Even Harrysong… One of the top five gospel artists, JudiKay was in this campus.

My biggest pride today over the years is that the average young person now believes that you can learn reggae in music school. You can go to a music school and your course work would be Fela, it would be Bob Marley, it would be Sunny Okosun. You can learn with the music of your choice. It was a burden going to a music school because Mozart was going to be forced down your throat.

So we had lots of music school student graduates who didn’t have anything to show. They go into the industry and there’s a sharp disconnect between everything they have learnt and the reality of the industry. But at Tenstrings Music Institute by the time you graduate from here and you go into the industry, it’s a smooth transition. So, I think that’s our biggest success story.

Initiatives and Novel Projects Embarked on by Tenstrings

But for us mow we are looking at the business side of it. So, for the first time this year, we are going to launch our online school. So, the issue of visas that we are having will be minimised by the time we launch our online school. And since we know that afrobeats is the biggest selling point, we would launch the first two courses – would be Afrobeats Performance Diploma and Afrobeats Production Diploma.

So, if you want to be a performer or a producer in the afrobeats category at least you can have that 12 weeks course that you can enroll for instantly. Some of the lecturers will also be people from outside of Nigeria who have some level of reputation in that field. But majorly will be working with our in-house instructors as well as notable industry brands in the field of afrobeats, especially the legendary ones. The pioneers and the newbies will all be on the course.

Also the second project we are in talks with Lagos State government to invest in the music school to be in every major local government of the state with the state sponsorship. I’m an indigene of Lagos and I’m pushing extremely hard to get young people who are talented. Also this year for the first time we are shooting our first musical for Netflix.

We have a partner who produces for Netflix and they are interested in sponsoring a musical film. We have auditioned all the talents they are now screening the script. It’s a story of a young talented Nigerian musician how he, against all odds, rose to fame and stardom. So, we are using that opportunity to just show the steps, the growth in the afrobeats industry in Nigeria what it is like with plenty of music in between and of course as we tell the story.

Additionally, we would also be having a couple of events. Our Joy of Music Africa in June, Freedom First on October 1. We are also opening our Lekki Phase 1 centre back this year. This year we would open two new centres but not in the traditional way; three actually with London. We are partnering with those who have music spaces that are underutilising it.

So, if you have a studio, a music company, a record label, we pay you a fee. We have identified a partner in Lekki Phase 1. We used to be there until Covid when we shut down that campus. We have also identified a partner in Ibadan, Yinka Ayefele who is eager to share the space with Tenstrings. And then in London, an ex-student of Tenstrings has volunteered. He’s been there for a number of years now.

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