Former President of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN), Tee Mac Omatshola Iseli, was born to a former Swiss Ambassador to Nigeria who married an Itsekiri princess. But he suffered a cruel fate when his father was assassinated in Lagos. His mother was, however, smart enough to send him and his two sisters their father’s wealthy family in Switzerland. But Tee Mac, as he is popular known, was not one to forget Nigeria. He returned to the country and today, he is a success story in business and entertainment, which includes his ownership of a thriving night club in Surulere, Lagos. He spoke with PAUL UKPABIO on his social and business lives, his tenure as PMAN president, why he is yet to remarry and his regrets about Nigeria.
How would you describe yourself as a musician and former PMAN president?
I am first a concert Flutist, then a philharmonic composer, then a performer with a tight live band, then a business man and a unionist. As you can see, the PMAN thing was actually the last on my list. Was it your personal decision to become a musician or it was due to some external influences? After my Swiss father Theo Manfred Iseli was assassinated in Lagos in 1951, my mother, Susana Grey Fregene Omateye, an Itsekiri princess, sent me and my two sisters to Switzerland where my wealthy Swiss family took us in. I had the best education money can buy. I had to study business to have a solid background. But I was also allowed to study music.
I had wanted to be a flutist since I was a small boy. I think in a previous life, I already played the flute, and as a small boy, I remembered (laughs).
Many years after your presidency at PMAN, would you say that PMAN is now more united?
Whenever you have two Nigerians together, you have two opinions, two political parties or two musician unions. I had the misfortune of inheriting a very negative splinter group from Charly Boy’s time, and it was only after their leader had ended up in Ikoyi Prison that we got a bit of peace from that negative group. But then, three other factions came up. Now, there is peace. We had a great election in Abuja in January 2017, endorsed and supervised by the Ministry of Labour. The Trade Union Secretary and the Labour Congress were in attendance. PMAN needs to raise money to re-organise and then it will be the shiny union again. Note that PMAN is the largest black musicians union in the world!
What were the challenges that came with being the PMAN president?
Too many negative people there; ready to destroy. Most have not yet realised that unity is a great deal of power. I was able to get the Immigration to work with me to implement the laws that foreign artistes need a visa with temporary work permit and had to pay tax at source. This created many enemies for me, especially with churches who were importing gospel artistes and preachers without temporary work permit visas for their yearly big revival festivals at the Tafawa Balewa Square. I hope they are implementing it now, because the new PMAN will continue to arrest them with the Immigration services.
What inspires you as a musician and entertainer?
I am a creator. I love to create good music. I do commercial music, but my level is high and not always understood in Nigeria. Here, ‘skelewoo’ “and ‘Baby-i-o’ are reigning. For me, music must have good lyrics, logic cords or harmonies, and a good lead melody line; solid and not too noisy percussion. In the late 80s and early 90s, favourite American bands were coming to Nigeria for shows that sometimes lasted days. Why is that no longer rampant? I think it is good they are not coming again.
They were mostly the international commercial bands imported to Nigeria. Suddenly, young people were no longer going to the shows of Nigeria’s best artistes. It had to be Lakeside or Shalamar or whatever they did bring to Nigeria. But honestly, Nigerians could not gain anything from those shows. Then came the Thisday shows where actually good bands came to Nigeria on a regular basis and the young crowed could listen to good modern music and compare. Now, because Nigeria is broke and foreign currency is hard to come by, those shows have stopped. The more the economy is down, the more the entertainment Industry is down. Music is a reflection of the health of any economy. When the country is broke, the entertainment industry too will be broke.
What are your views about young musicians who are seeking wealth in music?
Is it because the problem of piracy is no more there? No, piracy is still there, but it is less. Now, the main problem is illegal downloading. Young people blue-tooth songs to one another, which is against the law. Some of the young musicians make money through ringtone. Some have ‘Yahoo boy’ brothers who pay for their videos and support them with their illegal money. I can tell you with authority that the income from legal record sales is very minimal at the moment in Nigeria and there are few shows. Most are just stories for the tabloids and Instagram on how rich they are and how much money they are making!
You seem to have married music with business, which is something that most other musicians have not been able to do. How did that come about?
I made good money in music and filmmusic and invested it. I invested millions of dollars into businesses like a quarry, solid minerals company with 15 major mining sites. But what a waste of time! There were no infrastructure. There were shifting government policies. OBJ (Obasanjo) cancelled everybody’s licence for two years. He did not care that we had supply contracts and most of our machinery rusted during this period. What other businesses are you into outside music? I registered Tee Mac Petroleum Ltd in 1985 and became a local partner first to Falcon Refining Company Corpus Christy, then to HEMLA Gas and Oil Norway and James Bay Energy Canada.
I am also the Chairman of Allied Minerals Ltd, Cass Cotan Mining and Processing Co. Ltd and Tee Mac Productions; a promotion company. What was growing up like for you? I was blessed to grow up in Switzerland. Great schools; great and honest society with a high moral code; wonderful years playing the flute in a youth orchestra; having a wonderful home on a hill looking down the lake of Zurich; Chauffeur driven to school; four great years in St. Gallen, the prime University for Economics; then briefly worked in my uncle’s company. He had factories producing car spare parts. I had my first band in 1969 in Lausanne where I was studying flute and voice, and performed all around Switzerland before returning to Nigeria in 1970.
How did your early life influence the person that you are today?
It made me to appreciate that hard work pays. It made me to realise that there is no short cut to making it in music, because educated people cannot be fooled with trash music. I learned at a young age that one is here on this earth to make the best out of the time given. There is nothing worse than growing old and looking back at a wasted life time. Dad or mum, who influenced you most? My father was assassinated when I was three years old, but I still remember him well. My mother was not with me, because she married again and had three more daughters in Nigeria. Many people influenced me. First, my uncle, J.J. Derendinger, the owner of the spare part factory. He was very educated, gentle and a hundred millionaire who did not show off. I would work in his company during the holidays to learn and appreciate how gentle he was directing his empire! He never shouted. No show offs, just a few expensive cars, a wonderful house with Swimming pool and a Stainway piano which was worth more than 100,000 dollars in those days. My aunty was a great lady too. A bit too strict for my liking, but she loved us. My first flute teacher, Mrs. Isler, my school teachers and, of course, Mr. Jean Pierre Rampal, the greatest flute player in history who I was studying with for my master’s degree.
If you were not a musician, what else do you think you would have been?
A gold smith, because I love beautiful things, or a health adviser. Apart from music, you also seem to have interest in culture and we see that in some of your clothes. What does culture mean to you and how do you relate to it in Nigeria? One has to be careful with culture. It is great to remember one’s culture, but it can also be a handicap, delaying development. There must be a careful evaluation of what is good to maintain and what is sheer waste and sentimental addiction. I love African culture, but it must develop and there must be evolution in it. I have designed all my native clothes since 1971. Not that I am a great designer, but I wear what I want and like. I am not Gucci or Nike guy and all that latest stuff. To me, it is brain washing part of the commercial industry to make money from you.
You were also involved with the cultural expedition to Badagry with Michael Jackson’s brother, Marlon. What was it meant to achieve?
Marlon Jackson, Tito, Jermain and myself had a company called Motherland Projects, and we were planning a tourist centre in Badagry. We had a bit of a setback when one of the partners took 7 million US dollars from the 1.2 billion US dollar investment, claiming it is his compensation for his architectural designs. I had to inform the investors and they cancelled their support. We have raised additional money at the moment.
What is working with Marlon like? Marlon Jackson has been a great friend. So also his brothers.
We are at the moment working on 10 shows from Dubai and Abu Dhabi to Singapore, Macau and Beijing, and the opening of the Hainan Island resorts and tax free zone. We have signed the contracts and the shows will start in October 2018. My band, Tee Mac’s Gold Convention, will be part of all the shows. I had met the Jacksons first time in 1974 when my manager, Jimi Bishop, owner of Philly Sounds, signed the Jacksons for concerts.
You are a popular personality. Have you thought of going into politics?
I do not want to participate in politics in Nigeria. It is for jobless, hungry people who want to enrich themselves. Most of them have no shame and no good name to keep. I am totally disappointed with our political scene and could cry about the opportunities Nigeria has lost over the last 50 years. We could be a world power, more advanced than Singapore, Dubai or Malaysia. Instead, our politicians have become billionaires.
They have looted the treasury and stacked the money in foreign bank accounts. Why would I join this kind of people?
What career memories do you have that has refused to go away?
I have great memories of touring the world; seeing all the countries outside Nigeria; playing for hundred thousands of people and making them happy and dancing. I get the biggest kick out of life when after a successful concert I look down at the crowed and see them shouting for more. There was a concert in China when after three encore songs, I was in my limousine going to the hotel and my manager, Jimmy Chan, called me half an hour later that they were still clapping in the concert hall! There were times in the 70s when I could not go out into the public without bodyguards shielding me. Supermarkets had to be closed for me and my band, Silver Convention, to shop for one hour, because the place would be in a chaos.
I love the memories of concerts for kings, presidents, prisoners, schoolchildren and just anybody, seeing the love in their eyes because they have understood that we tried our best to make them happy. To be a musician is hard work, but there is great benefit and pay offs for it.
It was once rumoured that you were the richest musician around. Was that true?
Musicians should not be judged by the material things they have been able to accumulate. I think taking my general record sales and royalty income over the last 50 years into consideration, I may be the wealthier musician in Nigeria. But that is actually irrelevant. I am more proud that all of my old records have been released again because 30 or 40 years later, people started to actually listen to my songs and music again. And even though we did not have the recording technology of today, we were well rehearsed and the arrangements were water tight.
Just last week, a European company was doing a disco re-mix for the summer season of my old song, ‘Talk to me, I am Listening.’ The remix is fresh with added percussion making it a bit hallucinating. But that’s what young people love when they are stoned out of their minds in a discotheque. Nigerian musicians should not concentrate on the material side of show business; it comes when one is good. It comes when one has sung and produced dozens of songs and one of them becomes an international hit. The regular money comes from international radio play and the copy rights of compositions; not so much from live performances, which are actually more promotional.
Some say you are not married. If true, are you expecting to get married someday?
I have been married a couple of times, and my first wife and mother of my son, Victor, is late. The other two are doing well. I have not seen the right one to remarry, and it is not my priority at the moment.
How about children?
I have three wonderful sons and one daughter I have hardly seen. I do not put my family life into the news because it is personal to me.
We know you have special love for dogs. Did it come about from childhood, and which breed do you keep?
I had my first dog at the age of 14. It was a bull terrier. But in the last 30 years, I have had over 100 Alsatian dogs. They are loyal, lovable and they have become my best friends. I have only five at the moment. Any regrets in life? Yes, I often regret having come back to Nigeria in the 1970s. I have left many times, but I guess being born in Nigeria has a karma effect on me that I always have to come back. I think my career would have been even more internationally successful after Silver Convention if I did not come back for Festac 77 to settle and open the Surulere Night Club. I have spent many years trying to do my best to uplift the entertainment Industry from being a part funder of the Classical Music Society (Muson) the Performing Music Association (PMAN), The Jazz Club Nigeria, the Entertainment Foundation of Nigeria and so on. A lot of work, time and money spent and not much received in return. But I leave that subject to history. I can only hope that history will judge me gently for my time and involvement in Nigeria!
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