as i grew older and i gained more understanding of the intricacies of living as a sightless person in a world designed for sighted people, i was faced with the looming possibility of failure in my life. But what i actually considered to be much worse was that people were ready to excuse my failure because of my disability; which brings me to my first lesson, do not excuse failure for any reason, on any account. - Cobhams Asuquo (The Gift of Blindness, TEDx Euston 2012) Meeting Cobhams Asuquo, one is incredibly awed and energized not only by his presence but his displayed intelligence and zest for life. Many have confessed that he leaves them with the feeling that they have to do more. Born blind, this sound genius refused to let the world define him as disabled and was determined to step out of his history and create a better one. Cobahms probably has a million secrets to his success, but one that stands out is his childlike ability to trust and believe. Several awards and lots of international recognitions later, this just seems to be the beginning for him. In this interview with KONYE CHELSEA NWABOGOR, Cobahms talks about his everyday life, his relationship with music, and his debut album “For You”.
how did you become so connected to the world without being able to see?
By being smart and sensitive and judging all of that is relative. This is what I know that I am - quite aware of my space and goings-on around me and goings-on in the world. Sight has not been a limitation because fortunately I am blessed with the ability to read. If you can read and you are interested enough in goings-on around you, you can be just as connected to the world as anyone else. A big part of what helped to shape my sense of awareness, judgment and attitude is just my love for reading and engaging in meaningful conversation. I like to think that I am a big picture person but then again the level of that is also relative. All these things Influence how my personality builds.
What got you into music, and at what point did you decide to start pursuing it seriously?
It is difficult to say what particular incidence or situation drew me to start making music. From as early as when I began to have cognizance of consciousness, I had begun to make music. I would puff my cheeks and play the 12 bar blues, I would lock myself up in the bathroom and whistle just because I enjoyed the reverberating effect. So I have always made music. I am not sure I can put my finger on when it all started but it might be the fact that I enjoy my environment and a lot of my interaction with my environment is auditory and based on what I feel, hear smell and not so much what I see. music is an art form that’s very heavy on hearing and sound and that might have naturally and organically translated into me making music. This is me trying to analyze the situation but what I know is that I have always made music.
you’re awesome with the piano and guitar, how did you develop your skills?
I have had to pay the price to develop my skills. I went to a primary school for blind and partially-sighted children, Pacelli School for the blind. There were times I would steal my way into the music room by any means possible, legal and illegal, just to play on the piano or to play the guitar. I remember one particular situation where I made my way into the music room through a broken window, just to play the piano. Every opportunity I got to sit in front of a piano, I played and practiced. And mentally, I am always sitting and making music in my mind and trying to work out the dynamics of sound. It’s something I am constantly doing in my head or when I am sitting in front of an instrument. The desire to be great at what I do helped me build proficiency on the piano and other instruments.
have you faced any barriers as a musician/producer due to your visual impairment?
I have had my fair share of challenges as a producer because of my being blind. I had to prove to musicians that as a young blind producer, I can create great music. So its two things rolled into one situation, you are 15 years old and trying to produce people who have gathered their session money from God knows where. On top of that, you are blind. It can seem like a recipe for a failed session if you don’t have faith. I had to prove I could do it and that meant working 10 times harder than anyone else in my position and of course, have people who were willing to take a chance with you. Every time I mention that, I remember someone like Big Bamo and the maintain group who took a chance with me and after that I became confident enough to produce my first single ‘Catch Cold’. It became popular and the flood gates opened from there So its two things rolled into one situation, you are 15 years old and trying to produce people who have gathered their session money from God knows where. On top of that, you are blind. It can seem like a recipe for a failed session if you don’t have faith. on. more people were willing to take a chance knowing I was ready to go the extra mile and put in more effort just to make my sound different.
how do you define yourself as a musician?
First of all, for me, as a musician, defining yourself is not something you sit down and do consciously. It’s ongoing and progressive. It happens as you make your music, as you grow, travel, experience the world and come into a different level of consciousness and discover your life’s purpose. But what jumps at me when I think of defining myself as a musician is - I think of myself as a consummate musician who enjoys making real, organic, live music; one who understands and appreciates music as an art form and would rather express music as such. I understand the commercial value of music and the need for music to appeal to people but I also understand the need to always grow my music with excellence in mind. I would define myself as someone who is constantly seeking to develop his craft, hone his skill and just create great music at all times. Create music that’s soulful, believable that people can connect with and has the potential to generate the power that comes from real music because real music is a powerful experience. This is what defines me as a musician.
Does being visually impaired, by any chance, make you hear music differently or deeper?
I don’t hear music differently because of my visual impairment. I know a lot of people who can see and whose interpretation of music is definitely very complex and very sophisticated. I appreciate the works of people like Hanzima and Steve Glass who are music composers who score for movies and the common denominator is just paying attention and building that skill to a place where you can express what you hear on a more complex level. Anyone can train to be adept and particular about their sound if that is their desire. Though the lack of sight definitely reduces distraction for me, a sighted person can also hear and express music in very complex forms.
over the years, your music has always somewhat held a message. Was it always your intention to use music as a vehicle for reaching the world, or were you just writing songs you liked?
It’s always been a mix of the two. It’s important for me to create music that I enjoy but it’s also important for me to find meaning in whatever I do. No matter my profession, whatever I do would need to have a message, something that is deeper and far reaching than just the practicality of doing the job and this obviously comes through in my music. Then as you grow older, you realize that as a musician, you actually are a voice and an influencer. When you understand the import of that position, you become more intentional in terms of how you use it to influence people. So even when you are not saying anything, you are saying a lot and I realize the power of that in music. music is a form of literature and literature in itself is about life. my music expresses life as I see it, as I believe it should be. I don’t believe there’s any music without a message, what matters is if it is a message that you agree with. Even if the message is just to dance and shake your body, then that’s the message, that’s what it wants to do and ultimately makes you do.
Why did it take you so long to release your debut album?
I was working on other people’s projects. One of the hardest things to do is to work on your project while working on other people’s projects because you do not have the luxury of managing your time the way you would like to. I had embarked on a number of projects before my own album, signed on artistes, tried to manage them, recorded other artistes commercially, and just generally done work in the music space. I had to shut down and pay attention to moving my project to the next level. Timing is also another important factor. I had to wait for the right time to put it out. It was a painstakingly long process to record because the album is organic and live. I had to go to different places to find the right people I felt would complement the project and would bring the kind of value and specific sound that I was looking for. It was a process finding the right musicians and the right hands to help interpret the project.
What has the reception from your fans been like?
People have received my album quite well and that’s very encouraging for me. I describe it as a specialty album in a sense because it expresses my relationship with God which is a very important relationship in my life. This is usually a subject of argument in the increasingly liberal world of today but it’s interesting to see that it is well received by Christians and non-Christians alike which have been very encouraging and humbling for me.
Which of your works has meant the most to you, either for its personal significance or the impact on your career?
That question is akin to answering which of my children is my favourite child. I will not have a favourite child and that’s how I feel about my projects. Every project I have worked on has its significance and is unique by itself, they all mean something different to me. They all capture a different time in my life. I was at Asa’s concert the other day and I was listening to the older songs like Eye Adaba and I thought, this is what I did with my youth, a young guy at 23 or 24 or thereabout, ambitious, trying to change the soundscape, trying to do something different. I’m listening to Timi dakolo and I think yes! I am still ambitious and I am doing something different. I’m listening to Banky W and I can see where my heart is, you know just trying to drive a new sound. I’m listening to Somi and I’m like oh wow, I can see me growing. So, from project to project, I see the significance and the time of life that it represents for me and I don’t take any time of life for granted or feel like anyone is better than the other. They all come together and tell an amazing story.
What is your view on the nigerian music scene today?
I’m very happy with how the Nigerian music scene is growing. I’m very happy that in more ways than one, music in Nigeria is becoming a unifying factor. For a country as diverse as ours, music has become a national language. It’s fostered unity amongst musicians which in turn, is increasing cultural tolerance. And although that’s something that music does not get a lot of credit for, it’s something that it definitely does in our Nigeria of today. music is easily one of our biggest exports right now even though it also does not get the credit that it deserves. As Nigerians, we identify Nollywood and identify even more recently, our music as part of our culture and heritage and that is something to be proud of. It is taking kids off the street, putting food on people’s table and has become a tool for engaging the masses even on a corporate level. There’s so much happening that one can give credit to the Nigerian music scene but it has its own challenges in terms of structure, how we manage intellectual property and remember the people who contributed to building it to where it is, in terms of the laws that have been enacted being enforced to protect the rights of music creators, promoters and what have you. In terms of becoming a business, I believe there’s a lot that’s being done and can still be done. I am very happy that it’s growing in leaps and bounds and we cannot take that for granted. I just hope that we will deal with the foundational issues early enough just so that we wouldn’t have gone too far and have to experience compulsory regression as a result.
Do you think the days of your kind of music that touches our soul and creates memories are gone?
I don’t think they’ll ever be gone. If anything, I feel that that’s the most relevant kind of music because we are human beings and as long as we are alive, we are ever interacting and our interactions have all these different components and parts, intrigues, joys and pains and everything else of living. I feel like music as with many other art forms, expresses these interests and intrigues and all that we go through. The kind of music that I create continues to remain relevant as long as people are happy or sad, as long as people need to be motivated or express themselves. I feel like all we do is in a manner that is melodically sound, sonically intelligent, lyrically sensible and witty. We take people’s experiences and put it together, that’s the music that we create. I don’t think Bob marley will stop having fans or Fela or anyone who has created real music for that matter.
how would you define the power of music and what is the message you aim to impart through yours?
music is powerful. It is such an influencer. You think of music the same way you think of religion, drugs, football or anything that is able to influence how a person thinks or his views or his understanding. music is in that space. It’s a very spiritual exercise. It can make you sad or happy or tense, it can leave you feeling horrified and that’s why music is such an integral part of putting a movie together because it helps you to experience the movie and completes all these sensibilities. That makes music a very powerful artistic expression and because I recognize that from a creative as well as an academic and scientific point of view, I intend to use that to drive the message and the things I believe in. I believe very strongly in love, tolerance, consideration from one human being to the other, freedom, peace and peace of mind. I believe that its right to have a good time and there are a lot of things to consider just with the dynamics of music and how it works. I use music to drive these thoughts and messages that are my beliefs. I am doing that slowly but surely, one day at a time, using my understanding of music to create my values and what I believe. That’s what I am about.
Who is your favourite indigenous nigerian artiste? and why do you like his/her sound?
I don’t know that I have a favourite Nigerian indigenous artiste. I listen to a wide variety of Nigerian music. I like them all from the old to the very new. It is as wide and as varying as from Olamide to Sinach to Barrister to Inyang Henshaw to Rex Lawson, just name it, I enjoy Nigerian music generally.
What is the best sound in the world to you?
I have never thought of that so I would really have to think about it. I enjoy a lot of sounds and interestingly, a lot of them are not musical. I like the sound of crashing waves. I think that’s really beautiful but I won’t say that’s the best sound. I like the sound of my own brain, it sounds like a high frequency, a high pitch sound when you block both your ears with your fingers, and when you are in a very quiet place. Those are very interesting sounds. Some people call it the sound of silence but I don’t think it’s ever really silent. I feel like it’s the sound the brain makes as it processes. I enjoy a lot of weird sounds.
can you walk into a room and feel a vibe?
I walk into a room and I feel a vibe all the time, that’s how I live. When you trust and live that way, you become adept it and it becomes like a lifestyle for you. my conversations are always two ways, there’s what you tell me and what your body and essence tells me as well. That’s how I absorb and process the information that I get when I have conversations. So yes, I walk into a room and I feel a vibe all the time.
What are the three songs you’re most proud to have introduced to the world?
I won’t necessarily say they are my favourite songs. One of them would be mr. jailer by Asa, the other would be Great Nation by Timi dakolo. I am not sure but I think the third would probably be Ordinary People by me.
What’s a typical day in the life of cobhams asuquo?
It starts with me waking up and wondering if my son crawled into my bed in the middle of the night, trying to get him up and ready for school. I like to just meditate and pray and commune with my creator. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but the other three things I do after the aforementioned and of course after I have had a conversation with my wife, I check my mail, I check Instagram and I check Linda Ikeji. I do those three things almost like clockwork. Then I make a ton of phone calls. I work from my bed a lot, making phone calls mostly. Sometimes I pace my room, go downstairs, pace the living area, making more phone calls. I spend a lot of time in the studio making music, vibing with my team, making more phone calls, having conversations, and just being in a creative space. Also these days especially, I plan, have conversations about the tour, trying to catch a flight. Recently, a lot of my days start in a hotel and it just goes on and on. Sometime during the day, I take out time to eat. I might end up in the studio till late; my days run into each other quite often because I’m always working on stuff. I make out time to spend time with my family. That’s important to me so I do that sometime in the evening. my wife and I can sometimes sit in front of the TV, catch a good movie and laugh and have a good conversation. my days are mostly easy, I think.
if you could regain your sight, what is the first thing you’d love to see?
That’s a good question. You would imagine I do that all the time but I haven’t really thought about it or what that would be. maybe my wife’s face because I think it would make her happy but I’m not sure. I would have to think about that.
the kind of music that i create continues to remain relevant as long as people are happy or sad, as long as people need to be motivated or express themselves. i feel like all we do is in a manner that is melodically sound, sonically intelligent, lyrically sensible and witty.