Ara, who specialises in the talking drum, has won many awards. She discusses her life and failed marriage with Ademola Olonilua
You always wear very long braids. What’s the story behind it?
As a child, I loved Indian movies. I fell in love with Indian women. When the time came for Ara to get an identity, a signature, apart from my talking drum, I opted for this long hair. Instead of the weave-on, I decided to braid my hair this long. When women see it, they say they would never sit down to do this type of hair. It wasn’t easy when I first started, but now I see it as a part of me. I don’t carry it all through the year because I need to make my hair to relax so it doesn’t break. It is part of me. I think I am about the only entertainer who has braids this long. Even overseas, when any Nigerian sees my long braids from behind, they call me and I turn to see the person. It has become an identity.
Of all instruments to learn, you chose the talking drum. Why?
As a child, I grew up in a house full of men. In my primary school days, I was the head drummer. It started before my primary school though. I was into culture and I was the head of the cultural group. I had been playing some other drums; but the talking drum, I would say it chose me. I say that because when I was about to start, there was no woman playing it. I tried to find out but I met dead ends. I decided to start playing it, to see the reaction of people. When I picked up the drum, nobody wanted to teach me, so I bought some compact discs and I started rehearsing songs. I started with songs from King Sunny Ade, Kollington, Yusuf Olatunji, etc, until I mastered it. From my mother’s side, I’m a descendant of the Alaafin of Oyo and Oyo is the home of the Yoruba culture. I guess my ancestors chose me, so to speak. I guess I was born to do this.
What were the other challenges you faced?
They tried to scare me with tradition. They told me things like I might never have a child. I was told to stop because I didn’t know if it was a taboo or not. I prayed about it and I didn’t know where I got the courage from. That is why I say I feel the talking drum chose me. I’ve no regret I play the talking drum because it has made me the first female talking drummer of international repute. Perhaps, there may have been some woman somewhere that tried to play it, but was discouraged and never saw the limelight. But I, Ara, is the first woman to do it and get recognised locally and internationally. After Ara, one or two female talking drummers emerged.
You recently won the African Music Icon Award. How did you feel?
I wasn’t expecting it. It made me really happy. In the category of music that I play, we have Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, Lagbaja, we’re hardly appreciated back home in Nigeria. We’re appreciated mostly outside the shores of Nigeria. We play real music. To be appreciated with such an award, African Music Icon Award, it means a lot to me and it has encouraged me further. I’m not giving up on what I do. Someday, we will be more appreciated by Nigerians.
Your kind of music is dominated by men. How were you able to sell yourself in a male-dominated industry?
I’ve always had the favour of God on my side. In 2006, I won the Nigerian Entertainment Awards in the UK. I also won the PMAN Artiste of the Year Award, beating Lagbaja, Yinka Davies or Muma Gee, I’m not too sure. I won the Amen Award in 2005 or 2006, I can’t remember. I would say it’s all God and curiosity. I would say curiosity make people listen to me. When I started out, my first video ever, my first song that was released was Afrobeat in 1999. I was Lola Ola and it was titled, Which one you dey? A lot of people were wondering that a woman was singing Afrobeat, I wasn’t even playing the talking drum. Eventually, I steered away from Afrobeat, although if you listen to my sound, it is influenced by Afrobeat. I guess curiosity makes people listen to me and employ my services and at the end of the day, they agree that Ara is phenomenal, she is unusual.
Recently, you separated from your husband. What happened?
I would state categorically that I would not speak about my broken marriage for now. I will definitely speak about it eventually so that the younger ones can learn and know what wise steps to take. I believe coming from me a celebrity, a star, they look up to me. If I speak about it, it’s not to spite my ex-husband or taint his image. I’ve my own faults in the sense that I didn’t seek God before going into marriage. I thought there were things marriage could change, but I’ve come to learn that marriage doesn’t change anything. If your spouse isn’t what you want them to be, don’t expect that after marriage things will change. These are the lessons, among others, that I learnt and want to teach. I don’t mind going to a TV programme to talk about it, but right now, I can’t talk because he is running for political office and what I say could be an impediment and I don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t want his opponent to use that against him. I won’t speak about it for now. I wish it never happened. I’ve made up my mind that I wanted to be a wife, a mother. I looked forward to it for years and I suddenly find myself in the singles market again. It wasn’t what I planned.
How is motherhood for you?
It has been beautiful. I named my son 10 years before I had him. I told God I wanted a son 10 years before I had him. Motherhood is good; it’s one experience every woman should go through either with your biological child or an adopted child. Naturally, women are mothers, we have this maternal instinct. I strongly believe that we all should experience it. As a mother, I’m enjoying every bit of it.
How are you coping, working on your album and raising a child?
I thank God for my supportive family. They are very supportive. Thank God for the Internet and the telephone. The little while I’m away from him, I’m always on the phone. I speak to him to let him know I care and love him and that he is not abandoned. He is three years old and he is very intelligent. We have a deal that works for us. When I’m going out, he asks me to buy chocolate and I call him to remind him that I will buy it for him. He will tell anybody that threatens him in the house that he won’t share his chocolate when I’m back. I had him in the States, so when I want to travel for a long time, I take him with me