Ara became famous because of her dexterity on the talking drum, but she vanished from the entertainment scene at a time many expected her career to move to the next level. Her sudden disappearance from the entertainment scene was not without a controversy, as she was engaged in a spat with her former manager and chief executive of Atunda Entertainment, Wanle Akinboboye. In this interview with ‘NONYE IWUAGWU and LANRE FEHINTOLA, Ara explains why she went off the scene and the issues she had with Akinboboye.
Why did you go underground?
I wouldn’t say I went underground. I travelled to France for a programme in honour of Professor Wole Soyinka. I was invited alongside other notable Nigerians. Because one of the issues slated for discussion was the talking drum, I was invited to perform. It was at that assignment that I got to know that I was pregnant.
Oh yes. I didn’t know in Nigeria that I was pregnant. From there, I travelled to Iceland where the father of my baby was at the time. When I was close to delivery, I travelled to the United States where I had my baby.
That means you didn’t want anybody in Nigeria to know that you were pregnant?
Not exactly. At a point, I wanted to come back home, but as fate would have it, I went to the United States to have my baby. I was in Nigeria last December, and at that time, I was already four months gone. I went to Paris to represent Nigeria at a UNESCO programme and from there, I came down to Nigeria.
But you weren’t married before you got pregnant.
Why then did you get pregnant when you were not married?
I had the baby for a man I met in 1995. He is my first love. We met when we were young. He had just came back from Germany and we met through a mutual friend. It was the first day we met that he told me I was going to be his wife. Unfortunately, he left and we lost contact for six or seven years. By the time he came back into the country, I was neck deep in music and we didn’t really have much time for each other, because he was always travelling. He left and came back in 2004. He also came in 2006 to wish me well when I was in the hospital for surgery, but we were not really talking much. In 2007, he came and from the airport, he called me saying we needed to talk. When he came, he asked me if I was ready to take him seriously. Of course, it was a romantic story. I told him to give me some times to think over it. I have been known to his family for a long time as his wife. Even during the years I didn’t see him or hear from him, anytime I saw any of his family members, they called me ‘our wife’. We consulted our families and they said if you guys were coming together again, then, the hand of God must be in this relationship, since we had stayed apart for 13 years. We decided to come back and it was like we had always been together. We are very good friends. He is like my brother.
Let’s talk about your career. How did your career start?
My music started a very long time ago. I remember the Indian movies. I remember Bob Marley and Rita Marley. All these people inspired me as a child. I remember Stevie Wonder and I got to learn that he was blind and yet was that successful. That got me inspired the more.
Again, my father and brothers were music lovers. My mother told me that from that moment I knew my left from the right, everything in the house served as a drum. I was always disturbing everyone’s eardrum in the house. Anytime I heard music, I was on my feet. She told me I was strong on my feet as far back as when I was eight months old. I was everywhere and didn’t grow any tooth until I was two years old. I was like a bush girl. My mother told me that she used to hide me in her back because my hair was heavy and I was small. I looked so scary to the point that people wondered if I was a human being.
So, how did music start?
I wrote my first song before I was 10 years and my father got a keyboardist to work with me on my composition. I started with UBA, because that was where my dad worked for 30 years. And at his company’s end-of-year party, I would entertain the guests by singing and dancing. I never copied anyone’s song when I was a child. I took ill in 1987 and the doctor said he didn’t know what was wrong with me. He told my parents to take me home.
How did you regain your health?
They would always buy what I wanted then, but in spite of that, I did not get better. My father asked me if I remembered saying I wanted to be like Michael Jackson. He told me that if I died, I would not be like Michael Jackson again.
So, when my father reminded me that I wanted to be a star and if I didn’t die he would do everything he could to see that I became a star, believe me, I got well within a week. Then, we were in Ondo State and there was always a programme on Ondo State Broadcating Corporation called Talent Hunt. My father called the presenter of the programme, saying that his daughter was in town and that he should render an assistance to me. They arranged a church band, I rehearsed with them and the following week, I was on air.
That was how it started. People kept wondering who this girl on television was.
From there, I moved on. I was everywhere on radio and television. So, it started from there.
You are Sherifat Olamuyiwa. How come you are called Ara?
My name is Sherifat Araola Olanibalola Olamuyiwa Saliu.
How come you left Sheri Olamuiwa for Ara?
Sheri Olamuyiwa became Tracy. Tracy was a copyright with a different brand. Tracy became Lola Ola, the afro beat singer with Femi Latunde. Lola Ola became Yemoja at a point. Yemoja became Ara. Ara is my name. It is the name given to me by my grandfather who died in 1982 at the age of 120. I was told that he chose the name for me, but I was born here in Lagos.
How come you wear this hairstyle? Is it a kind of identity?
I think it is everything you say it is. I have always loved long hair. I told you I loved Indian movies and music when I was young and I always wished that I had long hair. When the time came to create an identity for Ara, one of the things I came up with was the hair. I had seen it in my sleep and I had always wanted it as a child. But if I had wanted to do it the way of the Indians, it wouldn’t be African.
As I was thinking about the identity to create for myself, I decided to do long braids. I have not seen anyone doing this and there is nothing wrong in being the first. So, I went to Benin Republic to get it done. In fact, the day the guys finished it, all the little ones in the vicinity started beating tins after me, singing mammy water. It was both embarrassing and funny. They continued singing and following me behind. They followed me till I boarded a vehicle back to Lagos. I felt fulfilled to find what I had been looking for. It is my identity.
Why has it taken you so long to release an album?
Do you know that I have not released any album?
I think it has to do with how my works were handled in the past. I blame it on my former managers. But now that I am back, I am already working in the studio.
Which recording company are you working with now?
I have my own recording company–Ara Entertainment Production. I am working with Detail Solicitors. They are my managers now. I got back here not less than two months ago and we have achieved a lot. We thank God for that.
A lot of people would say that your former company, Atunda Entertainment made you what you are today…
Atunda didn’t make me. It was just like working with any other person. Whatever you become in life, you were predestined to become. God will now raise up people to work with or for you at a particular point in time. The situation in Nigeria with managers and artistes is a different ball game compared with obtains on the international scene. The way we carry on about certain things, we operate on the surface; we don’t go deep. When it comes to Atunda Entertainment, I would be saying a lot without saying something. I would rather not touch the topic.
A lot of people believe that you left the company because you felt you had become famous and didn’t need it again…
Like I said, I wouldn’t want to touch that topic. That was what everybody thought. What I will just say is that may God not put you in the hands of your enemies.
It was rumoured that you dated the CEO of the company…
I wouldn’t comment on that. If I were a male artiste, would they have said that? Well, they may say so because we now have cases of homosexuals and all that in the country. The role of a manager in the life of an artiste is such that you have to be very careful. At times, some end up going out with each other while some don’t. But very rarely will you see them going out together. Like I said, I would be saying a lot without saying anything.
You have performed in many countries…
I have visited the UK, France, US, Ghana; I think, basically, Europe and America.
Now that you have left Atunda, do you think you would be invited for such international performances?
My baby is just four months old. I just got back, and as a mother who is breastfeeding her baby, I had a show within a week that I came back. It is too early to say. Just wait and see. My manager has been contacted. We are going to be in Miami in November. There is a festival there. We are billed for Paris in December and I don’t know if I would be able to make that because of my wedding plans.
So, as somebody who had been away for a year, I got back into the country and within two weeks, I got a show. Like I said, nobody makes anybody; God makes all. It now depends on how you use the opportunity that God has brought your way and how you recognise the people you work with. Nobody will want to put his money in a ground that is not fertile.
If you hadn’t worked with Atunda, do you think you would have gone higher than this?
Definitely. See who I am today? I was given a review when I was seven years old. My mother can testify to this. No matter where I might have been, I would have become what God destined me to be. I could have grown a lot bigger than this. I am the kind of person that looks at the positive side of things. I have moved on. I thank God that it happened at that time, and I thank Him for preserving my life.
You are well known, but people don’t really get to see you at events…
Stars don’t come out in the day; they come out at night. Stars are not common people and they are not the people you see all the time. They are selective about where they go. It is not every time you appear at events; you choose where you go. And if you cannot go when necessary, make sure you have someone to represent you there and make sure you apologise so that people will not get offended.
What do you hope to achieve in the nearest future?
Quite a lot. Our music industry is evolving gradually but we are not there yet. It is going to be better than this. My comrades, as I will like to call them, are really doing well. The videos and the lyrical contents are coming up. It is getting better. There is so much vision that I have for Ara. There is no stage where I perform that I have not got a standing ovation, all over the world. So, I believe this is an act that can go really far, not just the Grammy but beyond it. And that is my vision. It is already there, but I am redefining it.
Are you on talking terms with your former boss?
No. I have not seen him and I have not had time since I came back into the country. We are not on talking terms, not because we are enemies. There is no reason for that. Our paths have not crossed, so there is no need for me to go out of my way to look for him. He should even be the one to say congratulations, because I just had a baby. So, since he has not done that, I assume he has taken me as his enemy. I won’t go out of my way to look for him.
You will not look for him?
For what? In fact, I thank God. You know what Joseph’s brothers did to him in the Bible; how they pushed him into his place of glory. Why should I hate someone who has pushed me to my place of glory? He is just an instrument in the hands of God. That is the way he knows how to do it. And God is my witness, I have nothing against him. I have moved on. I don’t know anything about him, but I know he is doing his own thing. There is no hard feeling
Are you thinking of furthering your education?
I am going to do that, because part of what I was made to do was to leave school to do a programme with them. My next plan is to stabilise everything, because everybody is asking Ara about her video. They keep saying they know that I can drum, but they need something to take home, which is the video and CD. That is what I am concentrating on now. When it gets to the level I want, I will take a break. What many artistes don’t know is that they need to take a break once in a while. So, my education is part of the second plan.
Don’t you regret the fact that your education has suffered till now?
Whatever I have done has been ordained by God. I didn’t get a degree before I became this famous. No certificate can get me to where I am today. That is the truth.
You married a Muslim.
I am a Muslim. My dad is an Alhaji. My mother is an Alhaja. In fact, my father is the Baba Adini of Ondo Central Mosque, but he is a liberal person. But I grew up as a Christian. I would say that I love my husband more than any other man because I knew him before I became Ara. He didn’t know Ara. He still knows me as the girl he met more than 13 years ago.