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I love being a freelance journalist, which I became in 1965, because I like to be independent and adventurous

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12 June 2022
23 minutes read
I love being a freelance journalist, which I became in 1965, because I like to be independent and adventurous

I owe a lot to my childhood. 

I would say that I am extremely lucky to have had the parents that I had. 

My father, Emmanuel E. Fiofori, who was a child of "lowly fisherfolk" from Okrika, Rivers State, was the favourite of his mother who pushed for his education. That was how he got into The Bonny School on Bonny Island founded by the British. Its dictum was: a sound mind in a sound body. Among the things he picked up there was playing tennis. He grew up as a teacher at the Government College Owerri, and from here, he was posted to Owo as the headmaster of Government Primary School, Owo. Later, he was posted to Edo College, Benin City where he taught English.

My mum, Gladys, was like a kind of queen, because her father, Chief Stephen Orubo, was a descendant of chiefs. He eventually rose to be a chief clerk in the Resident's Office in Lagos. He stayed at Strachan Street, which, in those days, was not too far from that Office. She attended Queen's College, Lagos, in the thirties, the second ever girl from the entire old East to so do. It was because of my dad's potentials, based on his education, that he was allowed to marry a princess. Later on, she used to complain that my dad turned her into a housewife when her mates were professionals.

They had met in Owerri. 

My name is Tam Fiofori. My paternal grandmother, who was a gifted seer/herbalist who specialised in treating women's diseases, had named me Tamuno Ibinabo meaning "God is my brother."

My dad was well-rounded: he was into photography; music - he played guitar and sports. He was the sports master at Edo College, Benin City and that made him develop a strong relationship with Oba Akenzua, one of whose children was a full back in the school's football team. Also in Benin, my dad became the captain of the European Tennis Club as well as the African Tennis Club, and he was one of those who started the Ogbe Hard Court, in the city. He was the coach of the Benin Football Team and they were so good that they were Western Region's champions and as a young boy, I used to go to the field to watch the team play, and I was proud that my dad was the coach. While in Owo, my dad was also friends with the Olowo of Owo Oba Olateru Olagbegi, an avid tennis player, based on tennis.

So, I grew up in a house full of books and music, and developed a fertile, inquisitive mind with a sense of wanting to know what was happening around the world.

 As a primary school pupil in Government School, Benin, opposite the old Oba Market, in the late forties, I won second prize, a fountain pen, in a writing competition.

Though a civil servant, my dad was into social and political activities, which made him have some top guys as friends. One of such persons was Zik (Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe); so, his newspaper, West African Pilot, was like a given in our house.

From Benin, my dad transferred to the Education Department as an inspector of schools, and he was posted to Ubiaja. So, I had my Standard Six in a Catholic School at Ubiaja. That was where I took the entrance examination to King's College, Lagos. I was in King's from 1952 to December 1959 when I had my Higher School Certificate (HSC) examination. By January 1960, before our HSC results came out, I was teaching Lower Six, botany and Form Four, biology. Two of the students I taught in Form Four were J K Randle and Ola Balogun. I had won a prize in botany in higher school. The subjects I sat for in HSC were botany, zoology, chemistry, physics and English Language.

Before going to why I took those science subjects, my class - where my contemporaries included Folorunsho Olaleye (Folly) and Niyi Oyediran - had been involved in the production of a school bulletin which we pasted on the notice board and my own job as a calligrapher was to write out the content. 

I was also in the Cadet Corps and we were being groomed to become the first set of Nigerian officers to take over from the British. My dad would not have that; he said No to going to the Army or the Police. One of my mates who went on to the Police, Jenkins Coker, now late, retired as a deputy inspector general. 

With my HSC results out, I went to Westminster Medical School, England, to read medicine. A tragic accident in which someone who was so dear to me was involved just before I travelled out of Nigeria disoriented me so much so that I flunked my second MB, where you start doing preliminary work, anatomy, physiology… at King's College. Westminster did not have its own pre-clinical school. The A-Level was supposed to be the first MB. I was in King's for two and half years. I remember that I froze in my viva on anatomy and I could not explain the mandibular jaw and the lecturer was not quite helpful. Anyway….

It was whilst in England that I developed a voracious appetite for reading, and read a book a day. I got involved in a Book Club and had access to books by you name it. This was when the Grove Press was publishing literature from top writers in Europe and America. 

My first foray into freelance journalism was in 1965 when Ornette Coleman, the father of new (free) jazz, had his first tour of London in August of that year. Before then I had hooked up with some English boys who had roots with underground publishers in America. There was a magazine called Change being run by a group in Detroit, Michigan, spearheaded by John Sinclair. I cannot remember the particular English guy - he was my friend and we were both jazz lovers - who was writing for Change in England and had hooked me up with the (editors in the US).  I wrote the review of Ornette Coleman's first concert at Fairfield Hall, in Croydon, London. I also hosted some members of his band in my digs.

The review was accepted and it became my first ever work to be published in any medium, that is apart from my calligraphic work at King's.

I cannot remember if I was paid for the piece but Change "appointed" me its contributing editor on the basis of the review. Do not forget that I had also left my supposed career path.

Because of my passion for jazz and writing for Change, I felt that it was time to relocate to the United States. So, I went to Detroit where Change was based. My association with Change lasted for about two years. I was in Detroit for about six months, then moved to New York.

I also began freelancing for the main jazz bible, Downbeat, started in 1932 and read around the world.

I was not interested in being an employee because I needed my freedom. I wanted to be able to do everything that came to me. I felt that if I was that good why would I be employed by them. 

Let me quickly make this point. There are two views about freelance journalism: one is that you are not good enough to be employed as a full-time journalist, and the other view, which I subscribe to, is that you think that you are too good to be stuck to one employer, because your ideas will be boxed, and you'd rather be independent and adventurous.

I was giving Downbeat stuff that (set them apart).

Later on, while still freelancing with Downbeat, they eventually made me in 1970 their New Music and Electronic Music editor. Still as a freelancer. I got well paid and timely too for my published works. I remember being paid two hundred and fifty dollars for a piece I did in Downbeat. It was so much that I walked into an electronics shop and bought the very first Norelco model of tape recorder for one hundred and fifty dollars. 

As part of my inquisitiveness, I had wanted to do a story on the Moog synthesiser. From Downbeat's office in New York, I was able to get Robert Moog, the inventor and a professor of physics at Cornell University, on the phone. I said 'My name is Tam Fiofori. I would like to come and interview you.' He gave directions. I got on a light rail from Newark, New Jersey to Trumansburg, Upstate New York. And then, a drama unfolded. Everyone was picked except myself and there was this white guy who was pacing up and down. He eventually came up to me and said, 'Are you Mr Fiore?'  'No,' I said, 'I am Mr Fiofori.' I could see his face drop, like 'oh, they sent me a black man.' He had assumed when I talked to him that I was Mr Fiore. So, he was expecting an Italian. He said 'Ok' and tool me to his house where a sumptuous dish of pasta had been prepared by his wife. Then, he said, 'Darling, this is Mr Fiofori.' So, we went through a forced dinner, so to say.

He checked me into a hotel with the idea that first thing in the morning he would come and pick me up. 

He came to pick me up as arranged and took me to a studio where he was fabricating the synthesiser. There on the table was a portable prototype.

The first question I asked him was: 'How does your synthesiser deal with sound decay?' He was excited. Mind you, I was an avid jazz collector. I had as many as one thousand LPs when I got to the US. So, I was quite up-to-date. I became like a guru in terms of music. My two loves were blues and jazz. I must say I immersed myself in them; I bought a lot of records and did a lot of research.

Moog said: 'You seem to be the first person who seems to understand that I have invented a musical instrument.' He added that: 'Most people think that what I invented is for sound effect. I have been interviewed by TIME magazine…and you are the first person that has approached me to ask about sound.' He said the only people that had the Moog synthesiser were the Beatles and a university in India.  He said that he had not met a musician who had the sound scope to approach his invention as a musical instrument.I told him I had the guy who would solve his problem. He asked who that was and I told him: Sun Ra. I must confess here that there was a bit of wayo; not only was I Sun Ra's manager, I was also living in a commune with Sun Ra in New York.

He had never heard of Sun Ra, who was underground and believed that there was a conspiracy of silence about him, because White America, especially the music press, could not phantom that a black musician who had not been trained by their own music conservative had come up with an idea of futurist music.

I had heard Sun Ra's music in England and when I got to America, I went in search of him. I had hooked up with a black writer, who was a fan of Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Interestingly enough, I was also an admirer of Jones and I had read his play like Dutchman and the Slave. My friend was the one who told me that Jones was staging a new play in Brooklyn and Sun Ra would provide the music, live. After the play I went into a conversation with Leroi Jones and, of course, Sun Ra. I became Sun Ra's manager in 1966.

My second coming to England was in 1970 when I took Sun Ra to Europe. I stayed behind and came home (to Nigeria) briefly for the 1973 All-Africa Games.

At some point, you know, my parents had thoughts that I had got lost.

One of the students my father taught in Edo College was a Cameroonian called Paul Engo. As sportsmaster, my dad had trained him in triple jump. Engo represented Nigeria in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. My mum was also his godmother at his baptism. At some point while I was in the US, Engo was the Cameroonian ambassador to the United Nations. He was contacted by my parents to help search for me. I was not really communicating with them. So, there I was in Sun Ra's commune in New York. The year was 1967. The Nigerian civil war had started. Someone brought in an invitation from Ambassador Paul Engo for me to meet him at the Delegates Lounge. I knew of him. Because everywhere my dad went then I was almost always with him. I knew his favourite sports men.  

Naive as I was then, I did not know the Delegates Lounge. Then, I had an Afro hair, and a beard. Luckily, a friend had given me a nice, expensive Cashmere winter coat. So, I arrived at the UN and they looked at me like who is this hippie? I was taken to the Delegates Lounge and there was Ambassador Paul Engo sitting with Alani Akinrinade who, I think, had come to address the UN on the war. Engo looked at me and asked, 'Sunny, is this you?' At Edo College, I was nicknamed Sunny. I said 'Yes.' He said, 'Ah, you look a bit different.' He did not show any shock, just surprise. He told Akinrinade: 'This is my mentor's son.' He asked how I was doing and said that he did not even need to ask because, from his research, he had found that I was quite a distinguished writer. By the way, I did the very first nationally published and long interview with  B. B. King - "How Blue Can You Get? Rapping with the king." That was in 1970. I had my poems published in Evergreen Review. It was a prestigious literary magazine in America which published the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Gilbert Sorrentino. I was in demand and I could confidently call a B B King and say, 'My name is Tam Fiofori….' Listen to this, many years after my interview with King, someone did a B B King bibliography which includes my interview and said 'Tam Fiofori must be a pseudonym. I felt that guy did not do his homework because if he had, he would have known the fact. By my writings, I proved that the Black man was not just intelligent but was confident.'

Finally, Ambassador Paul Engo told me that my parents had been worried about me.

I came back finally in 1975.

I had to.

I come from a small family. Apart from my half-brother, Prof Ferdinand Fiofori, who my father had before he married my mum, we are only two: my sister, Gloria, the broadcaster, and myself. And, my mum, whom, amazingly, I got on well with, pressed me to come home. Eventually, I was broken. 

So, I re-established contact with my parents after the encounter with Engo. In fact, his daughter is in Nigeria. I met her at Newton Jibunoh's place and we are still good friends.

When I returned, my dad had now become the Registrar of Examinations for the West African Examination Council (WAEC) in the old Midwest Region, and based in Benin City. He asked if I would work in Nigerian Television in Lagos or the Film Corporation. I wanted neither and told him that I was going to start my own film company. In the US, I had taken a course in filmmaking at the San Fransisco Art Institute whilst I also worked as a filmmaker. 

You see, whilst my dad was at Edo College, his neighbour was one Mr Ogbeifo who was related to the Enahoros; which is how he got to know Chief Anthony Enahoro, who had been Federal Commissioner for Information. Unknown to me, he had called Chief Enahoro and told him I was back in Nigeria and he would like him to meet me. I was in Lagos where my mum had rented a place for me. Suddenly my dad appeared and the next day we went to meet Enahoro in his office, I think at the Defence Building. 

After I had a two-hour conversation with Enahoro, he turned to my dad and said: 'Your son, with his ideas will not fit into the Film Corporation or Nigerian Television.' My dad had always been proud of me. He always encouraged me. I give him credit for that.

Enahoro added that there was someone in Port Harcourt setting up an Arts Council - Dr E J Alagoa - and that he was sure I would be able to fit in there. He gave me a note to Dr Alagoa who was then a senior lecturer at the Institute of African Affairs University of Ibadan. He had had some filmmaking experience with an European guy called Frank Speed who was like their cinematographer.

I later met Alagoa, exchanged ideas with him and he said I was the guy they needed. I do not know what kind of arrangement Alagoa had with the Institute but he had just set up the Rivers State Council of Arts and Culture. Kelechi Amadi was then the director general of the Rivers State Ministry of Information. We had a meeting with an English guy who was their consultant. After the meeting I said to the English fellow that if he was that good he would not be there. I said that I suspected that he was that sort of person who would make a film on the Kalabari people and add some Ogoni music. The guy went all red on his face. Amadi was furious and asked Alagoa why he brought 'this young man to come and insult our consultant?' Alagoa said he did not think that I was insulting the guy and that we were both professionals. Anyhow, I became a consultant to the Council, starting 1976 and that lasted for a long while. I set up the Film Unit for them. It was a lucrative consultancy. I had my own team which included my American partner, late Frank Okonta, and a Ghanaian who later married Festus Okotie- Eboh's daughter.

I still have a good working relationship with Prof Alagoa.

I had always believed in visual documentation and I think that what changed my mind and the idea of a global village was the phrase coined by the Canadian theorist, Marshall McLuhan - medium is the message - in his book, "Media and the Society" which I read. I was also sensitive about the portrayal of black people on television in England and America. It was the feeling that we are the ones who could correct our image that pushed me to San Fransisco Art Institute school where I had a two-year hands-on training.

I got into the Nigerian media space through my sister, Gloria. She too was proud of my attainments in the US. When I came back, she was in the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Lagos, doing Women's and Children's Programmes. She introduced me to Bisi King-Paul, who was in charge of External Radio. They had this slot where they featured Nigerian artistes, and I was writing for them weekly and got paid artiste's fees. My practice was to let the fees accumulate before collection. That was my first media gig in Nigeria. I remember an incident when Ben Enwonwu was brought into the studio for an interview. On two occasions, Enwonwu rejected the guys they brought to interview him. Then, Bisi, oh I can't remember her maiden name, came to me and said 'maybe you can rescue us, we have Ben Enwonwu here for the third time, maybe you can go up and interview him for us ' You will be amazed, I got on well with him, for several reasons - one, whilst my dad was English master in Edo College, Ben Enwonwu was the Art master, so when I related that to him, he was excited; two, in England, I got into art and got to know about a few sculptors such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, so when I started talking with Ben Enwonwu, I started dropping these names and he felt relaxed. We had a wonderful interview. And it kind of exposed me to the industry where I continued to freelance.

But in Nigeria, being a freelancer (is difficult). The late Tony Momoh once said to me once at Daily Times - and I do not have a good memory of that place - 'Freelancing does not pay in Nigeria.' Yet,  I had some honourable publishers and editors whom I respect till today, because they appreciated my contributions and when it came time for payment, they facilitated it. Uncle Sam (Sam Amuka) did and at The Guardian, Amma Ogan did. So did Sunny Ojeagbase.

My friend, Adewala Maja-Pearce, always told me, 'when you write for a newspaper and they do not pay you three weeks after due date, stop.' He wondered how I got owed like two million Naira by a newspaper which is now defunct. In this case, I think I was a bit sentimental. I felt some kind of loyalty to the co-owner who had been responsive while being editor elsewhere. I also have this habit, bad if you may call it so, of wanting my money to accumulate. That one just got beyond control.

But the good experiences I have had as a freelancer outweigh any negative or bad one. I got the opportunity to showcase some of the unusual things, like when I went to Ghana in 1978 to cover the African Cup of Nations  and I was able to interview the Head of State Ignatius Acheampong and did rare profiles on Abedi Pele, his last few matches in Ghana before he went abroad and became famous.

Freelancing based on my attitude enabled me to do things that I found satisfying, gratifying and monumental.

The platforms I got made up for not making too much money.

I have managed to use income from my other skills such as photography to self-fund my freelancing to a large extent. And, this also, helped the freedom I sought in getting my works out there.

It is the same route I will go through, even in Nigeria...but, as Furo Dikibo, used to tell me, I will be more professional about it. In other words, I will enter into contracts before going on assignments.

Having said that, it has been exciting and rewarding as I have met lots of good people and I have rich experiences.

I think I should say this to round off: journalists or editors must learn to respect content, written and visual (photographs).

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Taiwo Obe, FNGE
Commonwealth Professional Fellow
Founder/Director, The Journalism Clinic
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