Tee-Mac, born of a Swiss father and Nigerian mother, is one of the five highest paid flutists in the world. He is also a businessman. Tee-Mac maintains homes in New York, Bangkok, London and Lagos.
How did it all begin, this idea of your going into classical music?
When I was six years old I had a favorite melody and it was called “A Little Night Music” by Mozart, and it goes like this: “Ta,Ta-Ta,Ta-Ta-Ta-Ta-Ta,Ta”. I fell in love with that music. And I started to read about Mozart’s life. Mozart was already a great performer at the age of five. Now I was six and I always wanted to play the flute. I asked my uncle who took care of me in Switzerland if I can have a flute. So at Christmas I got my first flute as a present. I love my flute so much I wouldn’t even sleep without it. The flute will be in the case under my pillow. But at that time to learn how to play the flute there was no other way than to go through the classical training. It’s not like today where you can go to Trinity College or the Barcley School of Jazz in America. You have to go to the classical education because that’s the basic for music education. And I have since loved it and it’s my favorite music – classical music.
Do you still have that flute now?
Unfortunately not. In 1971, on a trip from Lagos [Nigeria] to a concert in the University of Ife [Nigeria], my suitcase fell off the transport van and my clothes and the flute got lost. I had to come [turn?] back. Then the Director of Army music [in the Nigerian Army], Mr. Olu Obobokun, gave me a flute as a present because I was without a flute. When I returned in 1972 from Nigeria to England, I bought myself another good flute.
If someone were to return that flute now, how much could you offer for it?
I don’t know. It’d be priceless to me. I have about six flutes at the moment, so I don’t actually miss that flute. I have much better flutes now.
Based on your own life, how do you suggest parents determine, discover, and assist in developing the talents of their children?
I believe that music should be part of every child’s education because it creates awareness, an appreciation and an understanding which will be lacking if the child did not grow up with music. Even if the child later on turns to jazz or pop music, the classical education is the main thing.
What were your most important interests when you were six to nine years old?
My grandfather on the Swiss side was a composer and Cellist by profession.
Who were your earliest heroes, models and mentors?
My greatest hero was always a gentleman called Jean Pierre RAMPAL. Rampal died last year at the age of 82; and when I was growing up I listened to every recording he ever did and I was so proud.
When I finished my music education I went for a master’s class. And in the Academy there was Jean Pierre RAMPAL He was my teacher for the master’s class. And I think he is the greatest flute player that has ever lived. He has recorded over 200 records. He has made himself a fortune of over 100 million dollars.
Can you think of a significant event that was central to shaping your life?
There had been many. Maybe the day my manager/producer KUNZE called me and told me that my album was No.1 in the American charts in 1974. The album was called Silver Convention 1. I couldn’t believe that I was so lucky. That was one of my most important moments.
What does it take to be a world-class flutist? What specific skills, attitudes and habits does it involve?
It takes madness, it takes stubbornness, it takes… I don’t know. It is you believing that you can, at some point in your life, you can master something, and through that master what you have been trying your whole life.
I believe in riches, a certain level of awareness which has to do with spirituality. It is when you dedicate your whole life to the perfection of something. You realize that may be you have a birth vision that you came to this earth to do something specific. And in my case I believe I came to play the flute, to give pleasure to the people around me.
In what ways do you do what you do more innovatively than other flutists?
I love jazz. I love improvising, and I love to play also pop music. I use my classical education to put our whatever is in my head. I am one of may be few flute players in the world at the moment who compose. I compose my own flute concertos. I wrote a classical ballet and working on a new symphony and a modern Opera called “HAUSARIA. So I’m very pleased at the part of being a performer and also a composer
Some people are motivated by love for what they do: others are motivated by money (or lack of it), fame, or the thrill of competition. What motivates you?
I’m motivated by a dream I had as a six-year-old. I said to myself (when I held my first flute in my hand), Tee-Mac, one day you’ll be the greatest flute player on this earth. I have not achieved it yet, but I’m working towards it.
Can you perform free of charge?
I’ve performed hundreds of times especially at Jazzville [Lagos, Nigeria] every time free of charge.My compensation is the happiness of the listener.
In writing classical music, who is your target audience?
Classical music is a multi-billion dollar industry. And I will say [I write for] the intellectual, the well-educated, the middle class, the diplomats. Even the hip young people are into classical music. Anybody who grew up with classical music in his education will love classical music.
What’s your composition routine like?
I have ideas at any time. I can sit down in my car and a melody comes into my head and I quickly note it down. I have a laptop (PC) with a very sophisticated composition programme in my suitcase. Wherever I am I can just take my laptop out and compose philharmonically on my laptop. I have the complete system in my bedroom in Nigeria, in Bangkok and in New York. So anywhere I am I can always sit down and compose.
How do you start your typical day?
I start my day with a big glass of water to give a little bit of liquid to my body. Then I exercise. Stomach exercise, push-ups, and exercises with weights for my chest. I go onto my bicycle in my bedroom for about 30-45 minutes. I have my bath, then eat breakfast and then I start working out on the flute. Depending on how busy I am I do one hour. This is my routine, how I start my day.
Do you have an ideal environment for creating? Say your sitting-room, your study, in the bath or even on the beach?
I’m happiest in nature. I can walk through a forest or sit on the beach and then the melodies just come, they just surround me after quick scoring down. If I’m under pressure I use to work the best. If I have a deadline to finish a film track in an album, then I work the best.
How important is a good memory, concentrative powers, clear thinking and a quick intuition in being a top-flight flutist?
A good memory is very important, for how else could you memorize about 24 concertos? One has to always train one’s memory. One has to eat healthy and sleep well so that memory keeps up till old age.
Your two-hour classical ballet, the City of Mer Kailash, has 60 dancers and an orchestra of 107. How long did it take you to write and what was your inspiration?
It took me two years. It was a [sleep-] dream. We in Eckankar [a religion] believe that in every dimension there are cities and places. In one of the dreams I was taken to the third dimension where the capital is the City of Mer Kailash. What I saw in that dream, guided by a spiritual traveler, is remembered in the ballet. I rewrote it that it is a child who’s being taken through the dimensions to the City where he meets the ruler of that dimension, Brahm, who is God in its incarnation as the ruler of the third dimension. The child meets Brahm, meets other religions and had conversations.
Then the child wakes up in his bed and sings the most important aria of the ballet. (He sings):
Music in the memory of this dream
Sound and vibrations penetrated my ears
Million colours and countless shades
Music is a language understood by everyone.
Dreams are remembered in every song
Music is the memory of this dream.
I’d like to know why you specialize in the lesser known flute composers like Quantz, Bach, Francis Poulenc, and Francesco Saverio Mercadent. I learned that you get hired more in respect to this specialization.
Jean Pierre Rampal, my teacher, has recorded all the famous flute concertos to a degree and perfection nobody can ever beat him. So anybody who knows anything about flute concertos buys Jean Pierre Rampal’s version. But when I’m older and have more time I will also record the standard flute concertos like the Mozart flute concertos, the B flute of Bach and the Quantz flute concertos, etc. But at this moment they are so well recorded by Chan Pierre Rampal nobody can beat him.
It’s been that the difference between a master and a neophyte is practice. Repetition. What’s has your experience been?
There is no short-cut. You want to become a master at something you have to pay your dues. You have to repeat and repeat and repeat. Mastership is being earned by a tremendous amount of time. It seems like the brain takes in something better if you’ve done it for many years and if you have paid your dues. Some people have a karma which allows them to be good at 10/11 because maybe they’ve played in a previous life and already paid the dues. And they did not fulfill what they wanted to do in that life and then they came back and remembered a lot. I believe that about two lives ago I played the flute already. That’s why since childhood I’ve always wanted to play the flute because I remembered.
You had a world hit when you were 21, with songs like Fly Robin Fly and Get Up and Boogie.
No, I was actually 24. And it came totally unexpected. I was doing another album called United where I composed songs which were much better, much more sophisticated. But I learned in show business it’s not always the sophistication which makes money. Often it is what is called the KISS system – keep it simple, stupid. So the other album which was more commercial unexpectedly made it. And I made some good money with it.
How did you manage to remain in control with so much fame and money? How were you able to maintain balance? Some people would have gone overboard with the fame or stopped playing classical music and go into pop music full time.
I went through the same thing young people do. I bought myself a couple of cars. I spent a lot. I enjoyed myself. I had all the beautiful girls around me. But one day I said to myself, I have met other top artists in my life, from Louis Armstrong to Paul McCartney to Ella Fizgerald to Chic Corea to Jimi Hendrix. And they were so down to earth, simple and humble. I realized the true artist doesn’t change. It is the one-day fly who is today famous and forgotten tomorrow. When he is forgotten he will still want to pretend that he is a star.
How do you handle disappointments, misses, failed outcomes, and barriers?
Disappointments are a part of one’s life. And I look at every disappointment as a lesson. I try to learn out of mistakes and disappointments because, being an artist, I’m very sensitive. Disappointments sometimes hurt me more than the normal individual who may have developed an elephant skin. But I always say to myself, You cannot only be lucky. There must be disappointments in life and you must learn out of it.
The happiest people on earth are people who are doing what they love or who are loving what they do. This experience is it only meant for talented people such as you?
I think that happiness is relative. One may be happy in doing what one does. I believe that everybody in doing his job, be it a bricklayer, a carpenter, a journalist or politician, if he does it to the best of his ability, he will be happy too.
What’s your greatest desire? If an agent of God was to manifest before you now and tell you that one of the three most important things you want will be made manifest immediately, what will it be?
I would love to write a symphony for which I will be remembered.
The most difficult part of our lives are sometimes our relationships – with family, friends, lovers. What’s your experience like?
I have many of my relationships with women breaking down because of music. My lovers would often say that I spend too much of my time practicing and traveling throughout the world and that I neglect family life. They don’t seem to understand that I have a purpose and family life is not my main thing. Music is my main thing to me. But those who love me, like my late mother, my sisters, my son, they have understood. And they bear with me.
You’re 52 but you look as if you’re in your late 30’s. How do you keep health and vitality at such peak?
I exercise. I eat healthy foods as a vegetarian and only occasionally fish. I meditate twice a day because, going through a very stressful time and life, one has to also find, every day, time to be in peace with oneself.
Has music made you rich?
Music has made me rich with life experience and music has made me comfortable with material things.
Can you name the three greatest books you’ve read? That has influenced your life most?
I will say that my hobby is religious philosophy. The first book which really grabbed me was the Bagavat-Gita by Swami Prabupada. For ten years I studied Hinduism and Hare Krsna Movement to find out what made them tick. And then I came across an absolutely astonishing book by Paul Twitchell called Dialogues With the Masters; and that introduced me to Eckankar. And then the third most important, the absolute book I believe exists, is called the Shariyat-Ki-Sugmad – its like the bible of Eckankar – where everything is explained with a precision I have never met before in any books, neither in the [Christian] Bible nor in the Koran.