• ‘Nigeria full of talent but lacks structures to harness them’
When Maria Cecilia Toledo-Schmidt left Nigeria a little over a year ago, Abuja felt the impact of her absence. This is because in the few years she spent in the federal capital city as wife of then German Ambassador to Nigeria, she served as the founder and director of the news-making Abuja Metropolitan Music Society, with its two choirs – AMEMUSO for adults and AMEMUSITO for children. She had also set up the Maria Cecilia Foundation, which is poised to build the first Art centre in Abuja to be known as AMEMUSO Performing Arts Centre& Music School for Children. Towards achieving this, Toledo — who now lives in Peru, where her husband currently serves as an envoy — is back in her beloved city of Abuja, where she will stage her annual concert this Saturday, December 1, from 7.00pm at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel. She has brought to town two-time Grammy Award winner and Peru’s former Minister of Culture, Mrs. Susana Baca, an opera singer, partly to help raise funds for the art centre and to honour Africa’s great music tradition and legacy to the world. She spoke to ANOTE AJELUOROU in Abuja during an encounter last week:
SHE came as a housewife to an Ambassador; but she could not restrain her talent as a singer from coming to the surface. Then she fell in love with the country, especially when she saw the abundance of musical talents in almost every corner. What to do? She rolled up her sleeves and set to work, to transform an apparently sterile, cultureless city into an oasis of classical music that draws from Africa’s traditional musical legacy.
This is the story of Maria Cecilia Toledo-Schmidt, an opera singer of Chilean origin:
“I came to your country and started to teach the people to sing. There were no opera singers in Abuja. One thing led to another and we created the society and Opera Abuja was taking place and the choir was founded. It became a big dream for many people. Every year we have a different theme for the Opera Abuja. This is the sixth version of the Opera Abuja and we’re very proud of it. Every year we did something different; some years, we put up musical; other years, we put up opera.
“Always, we’re honouring the African culture. If it wasn’t a musical, it was opera, and we adapted it to the African culture. If it was opera, we tell an African story. Even the ‘Sound of Music’ was represented in an African style; we changed the name; we did something cool with it. Everybody felt good that something like this was happening here in Abuja, in Nigeria. We presented the African music as very beautiful, sort of occidental.
“Well, I wouldn’t say occidental, really; but also completely native because your music is extremely beautiful, and this could be seen all over the world. Music is music; it’s either good or bad. But your music is very good! That’s why in the Opera Abuja you don’t know where the classics end and the African music starts; there is marvelous crossover”, she said.
The personable artiste continued, “The concert we’re putting up this year is the highlight of all these years we’ve been having Opera Abuja; we’ve never done something like this before. When I went to Peru I was very sad even if it’s a very beautiful country and I’m with my husband that I love very much; the bad thing was that I was so sad that I was leaving Nigeria. I so much believe in your country even if I’m not black or dark. I feel completely at home here; so, I was very sad. It’s a year that my husband got posted to Peru, but I keep coming to Nigeria, to Abuja.
“Since last year, I’ve been coming alone now to work towards Opera Abuja. This year’s Opera Abuja show comes up on December 1. And I’m working crazy to see things out — teaching, arranging, doing paper work and all that. I’m working 24 hours a day to see things through. So, this year is even bigger because of what we will do. But somebody told me that the Minister of Culture in Peru at that time is black, an Afro-Peruvian and she is a singer, and I told them ‘no way’.
“When we got to know each other, she told me she was a two-time Grammy Award winner! Mrs. Susana Baca is a very nice lady; and when we got to know each other better, I told her what I was trying to do in Nigeria, then she got crazy because she has been fighting for the rights of black people in South America, and this was our common ground; and then we started working together.
“These are like five or six generations of Africans taken away as slaves and they don’t know where they come from. And, for them, for her, the first thing is to come to honour your country.
“It’s a giant thing because for somebody like her to come is a big honour, a great honour. She is coming with her musicians, her manager, and her husband; she is also coming with a world-class tenor singer as well, but he’s not African, but a Peruvian, who is living in Germany.
“With her coming, we will be honouring African legacy in music around the world. So, from the opera you’ll see the salsa, to all the Afro-Latinate music; and not many people know that all these music come from Africa.
“In the next Opera Abuja on December 1, you will see how the African music blends with every kind of music and its influence has been so important to the rest of the world. From salsa, to merenge to cumbia, everything has to do with African music. But not many people know this. But don’t think you’re coming to see only salsa or South American music; you will see something that is completely blended in a beautiful, elegant way; you’ll sometimes feel the need to cry, and sometimes the need to dance; just come and see.
“It’s a historical moment for African music and very emotional moment especially for me and for Susanne. Susanne Barker is a big lady in terms of art, gentleness, elegance and modesty.
“My motivation for all this? Take the other day, for instance, when I went to teach them (members of AMEMUSO)… any time I see them singing and when I see their faces and I see the talent that they have and the commitment and the efforts they’re making to make it work, and their belief – and encouragement from their friends, their families – especially their talent, which, sorry to say, is being wasted, it breaks my heart. In other parts of the world, those children ought to have a school to develop their talent.
“Even if you’re concentrating your attention on money — and money is not a bad thing in life —but you could make more money around the world with the talent in these children in theatres. The problem in Nigeria is that you don’t have a proper structure to make things work; this is what I’ve been fighting, particularly to build a proper Theatre here in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
“Already, I’ve got the land and I’m getting a proper design for it so we can have the right acoustics; you need to make it to international standards. So, there will be a school for the children to learn and for them to be able to go abroad to develop.
“My driving force is to see that this talent is developed and not wasted. To build a bank in your country, you need six months but to build a Theatre, it has taken me seven years. We have to get together; the private enterprises should be part of this dream.
“I have never seen a more talented country than your own; never in my entire life! Not in South America, not in Europe; just in Nigeria. But nobody, well, not nobody, sorry to say; but not too many people are taking it serious or have interest in developing this huge talent. It’s very bad. These children believe in one oyinbo that is leaving her family to come and stay in your country for one month to do things. When you see their belief, their faith, it breaks my heart. One Nigerian lady friend of mine who came to see them singing was crying like a baby at what she saw.
“I’ve spent seven years trying to build this Theatre because I really love your country.
“Although we’ve had some support from Federal Road Safety Commission, Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja and even the Presidency, what we need is big corporation coming to help build the Theatre. Like Nollywood, through the theatre, we’ll create employment, give the children a place to study; you will have something beautiful and a great entertainment place in Abuja, and also make money for the country. But for some reason, a golf club or a bank seems all too attractive for those who have the money to invest. We have to convince the people that this is not charity; it will bring a lot of money to the country, and Abuja will begin to attract people culturally and they will come here to do business and to recreate.
“This is what I’m trying to say, I love Abuja; and I also love Lagos. But I love Abuja more; it’s a wonderful city. I call the children’s choir ABUJITA, meaning sweet Abuja, like a lady that is beautifully dressed and waiting for the first lover to take her to a dance, you know. I really love Abuja. Let’s hope that all this effort of bringing Susanne here with her generosity pays off; she is coming pro bono – free. I don’t sleep, you know; I just hope that somebody comes out to help. Without the Hilton Hotel we would not have been able to do anything from the beginning of the project. I have them to thank for the success we’ve recorded so far; I’m proud of them. I’m proud of a lot of friendship here.”