If there would be one word to describe Ifi Ude, and by extension her music, I suppose it would be effervescent. She is lively, laughs a lot and her music videos, several of which are available on You Tube, are at best eclectic, far removed from what one would call mainstream in Nigeria and even Poland.
Despite her Igbo name, a legacy of her Igbo father, Ifi looks every inch a Pole, well perhaps with the exception of her hair, and in the subtle light of the exquisite Delicja Polska Restaurant, where we met for lunch, her eyes were alive and vivid. She was born in Enugu 27 years ago but had been moved to Poland by her Polish mother when she was three and half.
She had had to explain her name to her fellow Poles until she hit the limelight in a Polish singing competition and became a national sensation for her brand of music, which explores Polish folklores and her African roots. Now, she says, no one ask her about the origins of her name.
But regarding her music she explains: “I don’t have one role model. I catch inspiration in folk music. I want something more, not just reproducing something that is already in existence,” she said in her halting English, often pausing to find the right word.
Her Polish is fluent and eloquent and she enthusiastically offers tips on reading, spelling and pronouncing Polish words, a language I understand is quite difficult to grasp for a foreigner.
Ifi is familiar with legendary Nigerian singer Fela and his son, Femi, but other contemporary singers, she is not quite familiar with, and doesn’t seem very impressed with the little she had seen.
“You know, I think it is the same problem as in Poland. Nigerian artistes are looking to America, they want to be like Americans. It’s a pity,” she said.
But what irks her the most, and this she states quite categorically, is the use of effects to modulate voices.
“Everytime, it’s vocoda, vocoda aaaaaagh, like that,” she says. And at this point, a kind looking stewards comes to take her order for lunch. She stops him with a hand and says, “wait, I must finish what I have to say.” When she was done speaking her dislike for computer improvised vocals in music, she turned to the waiter with a smile and an apology and then placed an order.
Now her talents are coming through and are getting noticed. And yet, she is not being carried away, it seems as she has a clear idea of what her arts should be like and what purpose it should serve.
“I play the guitar and the piano,” she said, “I like Tuva music. It’s a place in Siberia. They have a therapeutic way of singing. I like Malian music as well. I like the Tuaregs who are fighting for independence and you will see that in one hand they have a machine gun and in the other, they have a guitar. I prefer that hand with a guitar. And when they play it’s like magic. They play African music and this is clean art for me.”
Apart from music, she has just written children books which will be hitting the shelves shortly. She seems optimistic about this. But writing is not something she is as keen about as she is about other aspects of the arts. Her preferences are: music, film and photography, in that order – and this too she emphasized is how she likes it.
Though she hasn’t starred in any films yet, her love for the art is more than a fancy. “I studied anthropology of culture and in the last two years, I focused only on movies, how to read movies, how to capture symbols in movies,” she explained.
But in the meantime, her principal focus remains music and she is working hard to build her brand, which has captivated Poland. “I love Polish villages. I may stay a year or two in Warsaw to properly establish my brand and then move to the countryside, so that when I have kids I could say, ok, go out and play without worrying that something is going to happen to them,” she said.
But with Ifi, it is quite possible she may change her mind, giving her impetuous nature, something one associates with creatively minded persons. She admits she is impetuous and this was clearly demonstrated four years ago when she had gone to a restaurant to eat. But when her order had arrived, she had something of an epiphany. She resolved instantly to become vegetarian.
“I love meat. I loved meat very much but I felt something in my heart and I said, no, no, no, no. I felt something in my heart and I said no. Sometimes people want to quit alcohol, or quit smoking and they make plans and stop smoking for one week. I think one day you feel the pull of not smoking and it becomes a problem. Maybe I am an idealist but in my case it worked,” she said.
And for four years she had not had meat or fish and now cooks vegetarian at home, sometimes Nigerian food: okra soup and the likes, meals her mother marvels at she said.
And this not because she is very conversant with her birth country Nigeria which she had visited only twice since she first left (she couldn’t distinguish Igbo names from Hausa names for instance) but principally because of the bond and the uniqueness that heritage confers on her.
“My family wanted me to live in Lagos but I couldn’t. I could live there for the experience but I have nobody there. In our age, the most important things are friends, not family because we are starting off creating our own families. If I don’t have my friends or my fiancé or my sister, I will be lonely,” she said. One could see a shadow crawling across her face.
But she would be happy to collaborate with Nigerian singers and spread her brand across to the continent from where she draws some inspiration. She had already collaborated with Poland-based Senegalese singer, Mamadou Diouf on her hit song Ark Tika.
When I asked her if we would see a brand Ifi in Nigeria someday, she says: “I would love to but before that I would like to create some partnership with African musicians. I can’t just come and say I am Ifi Ude, love me, love me, love me. I want to do something with Nigerian artistes so that it will be more sincere.”
But for now, she still has the whole of Poland to conquer with her music, and considering her talent and astronomical rise to fame, that shouldn’t take too long.