After several years of playing alongside music legends like Femi Kuti, Orits Williki and Onyeka Onwenu, US-based gospel musician and saxophonist, Abiodun Oluwamayowa Awokoya, simply known as Abbey Che Che, speaks with ADENIYI ADEWOYIN about how he switched from secular to gospel music, his recent tour to motherland Nigeria, and other interesting issues. Excerpts:
How did you discover your passion for gospel music?
I ventured into music in 1997. I started my music career at the Prayer Link Evangelical Ministry, Ojuelegba, Lagos State. I fell in love with saxophone and trumpet, but at some point, I felt more comfortable with the sax. In order to explore my talent in the industry, I worked with many artistes including Femi Kuti, D’banj, Onyeka Onwenu, Orits Williki, Righteous Man, Dede Mabiaku, Jese King (Buga), among others. I have also shared stages with some international artistes such as Michael Bolton, Rihanna, Don Moen, Ron Kenoly, Jonathan Nelson, among others.
Importantly, everything I have achieved in life was through saxophone. It was through sax I travelled to the United States, went to school, got married, got citizenship and achieved great things in life. The Bible says: “The gift of man will make him kings and not mere men…” Ever since I took up sax professionally, it has been putting food on my table beyond my imagination and connected me with great people I cannot ordinarily come across in my life.
What have you been doing lately with your career?
Through the help of God, I have been going round the world to preach the gospel with my talent. I have a band, The Gifted. I have concluded plans to embark on European tour in September. We are touring France, Belgium, Spain, Netherlands, England, Ireland and Italy. The tour is called the ‘Mother Land Tour’. The Nigeria version is special, because this is my country and I have to do it in a bigger way in order to establish myself in the industry as well as to increase my fan base. I have been to many places in the country such as Ibadan, Abeokuta, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Enugu and my base, Lagos. I performed in five churches last Sunday in Lagos and that was hectic, but I enjoyed it.
You started as a secular artiste but you are now a gospel musician. Why the switch?
Yes, I agreed that I started as secular artiste, but I found Jesus along the way and I stuck to gospel. To be realistic, God has been so faithful to me and I am proud to be a gospel artiste and always delighted to preach the gospel through music to the world. I still do some old tunes and Jazz occasionally, especially on request. I am a saxophonist and I have to give people what they want as an instrumentalist. However, I project myself as a gospel musician. When I was doing secular music, I was not an artiste. I was just backing secular musicians. So, at the point, I decided to become an artiste, I chose the path of gospel. I believe it is my strength through the spirit of God. I had an intervention with God. I remember I met a cleric, Pastor David Ijeh, when I got to the United States. He is my spiritual father now, because he mentored me and was a great influence on my career. God has used me in many ways I cannot imagine, especially during ministrations.
There is a notion that the lives of some gospel ministers do not show what they sing. How will you react to this?
We are all humans and nobody is perfect. We are all working towards perfection. The scripture also states that our righteousness is like filthy rag before God. I will not judge anybody. You might see me doing something not good because I am human, but do you know if the Holy Spirit has convicted me and I have gone to my closet to seek for forgiveness? I don’t want to be part of the people that act too holy. I am a Christian and I think I work with Christ and I believe in the power of the anointing. This is the major thing that is required of a gospel artiste. This is how one can make impact; skills and talent are not enough.
Had there been a time you felt like switching to secular music?
No. I have been able to discipline myself as a gospel minister. I have had a feel of both and I feel gospel is better for me. I played in the Afrika Shrine for years. I have played with many secular artistes. I am not saying the artistes are bad; they are really going great, but gospel is my calling. I have been at the peak of the secular, so, coming back to gospel was nothing to me. My main focus now is to impact lives positively, inspire and bless people with my music. I cry and pray to God to give me the grace to achieve all these. I want Abbey (myself) to go down and Jesus to be exalted. I want people to only see God and not me.
What is your mission in Nigeria presently?
As I said earlier, I am on a music tour. Aside that, I have become a sought-after gospel artiste in the United States, I also needed that face in my country home. I have had a couple of challenging experiences in Nigeria, maybe because I am not based here, but I am ready to flaunt my talent in the mainstream industry. I am ready to project myself in the Nigeria gospel music industry. I also think I am coming at the right time, especially with revolution of the gospel saxophonists in the industry. I have a relationship with lots of the saxophonists in the industry, even before I left the country. They include the likes of Olu Jazz, Yemi Sax, Jerry Sax, Beejay Sax. I also salute the wonder kids that are coming up, including Demilade, Joshua Sax, Funmi Sax, among others. It is my joy that they are all doing great and winning souls with their talents. I look for better collaboration with many of them within and outside the country.
How did you come about the stage name Abbey CheChe?
It emanated from a musical instrument called maracas which Yorubas call shekere. You will agree with me that it sounds more like ‘cheche’. So, back then when I used to play with Dede Mabiaku, the musical instrument would be the first thing to be played before other things as far as Afrobeat is concerned. I fell in love with it and I used to watch the guy handling it, because he played it with all excitement. My colleagues who noticed my love for the sound of the instrument later named me Abbey Cheche. Afterward, God revealed the mystery and importance of the instrument to me in my dream. He told me that the musical instrument represents sound of joy. This is why I have tagged my annual concert: “Sounds of Joy”.
What should your fans expect from you soon?
Great things are about to unfold from me. I will release an album soon. Also, I want to change the face of using saxophone and I want them to watch out for it.
How many albums have you produced?
I have two albums entitled: ‘Sounds of Joy’ and and ‘No one Like Jesus’. Each has about seven tracks and that is 14 songs. Aside this, I also have a couple of singles. Of present, I am working on my third album.
How will you react to arguments on whether it is right for gospel artistes to charge churches for their services?
It is proper for gospel artistes to charge churches. We have a family and other responsibilities to take care of. Also, it is not a one man thing. How do you want us to take care of our band members? Many pastors see music as a talent, a one-off thing, not as a profession, but it is not so. It takes a lot to do a track, not to talk of an album. The same time I am putting into becoming a professional is the same time other people such as doctors, lawyers are putting to become experts in their chosen fields.
So, why should you pay such persons more than me? Why do you think such career is more relevant than mine? God has given various careers to various people. Mine is music and I am grateful to God. So, why wouldn’t the church be charged? If you check the Bible, we musicians are Levites and we should remain on the altar for us to be paid. We gospel musicians are much closer and have direct access to God than pastors because we are the ones actually holding what God eats and it is praises and worship. This is the primary objective of our creation. I have one-on-one relationship with God, but a lot of musicians do not realise that. Instead, they are still subservient to pastors. We are greater because we are consecrated and have direct anointing from the Holy Spirit.