Globe features writer LESLIE MITCHELL shares memories of traumatic yet transformative times with the renowned Nigerian singer and actress PATTI BOULAYE who, like herself, has published an autobiography that describes a ‘wind of change’ in the west African country…
WHEN I lived in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s the name and face of a beautiful young woman was known to everyone.
Her smile shone from the billboards, on national TV, in newspapers and magazines advertising Lux soap for 29 years.
When she starred in the title role in ‘Bisi, Daughter of the River’ it went on to be the most popular film throughout the African continent. Everyone in Nigeria knew the name Patti Boulaye. We heard that she had won ‘New Faces’ on UK TV in 1978, the only contestant ever to score maximum points. On a brief visit to London, I saw her in the title role of Carmen in ‘Carmen Jones’ at the Old Vic Theatre.
I did not know until I spoke to her recently that she also played Carmen in the UK tour of ‘Carmen Jones’ at the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth in 1995. She is looking forward very much to visiting the same venue on Sunday, February 13, with her new one-woman show ‘Patti Boulaye – Aretha and Me’ paying tribute to the late ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin, whose hits included ‘Say a Little Prayer’, ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Respect’.
I was delighted to have a long chat with Patti about her action-packed career and what is driving her to continue to lead such a busy life in and out of the public eye. She is warm and witty but she is a many faceted person and was quick to tell me: “I don’t do religion, I do Faith!” She has had many successes but also hard times, particularly during her turbulent childhood in Nigeria when the faith of herself and her siblings was sorely tested, yet she continues to trust in God to guide and direct her.
What she witnessed as they were smuggled through the war front between the Biafran army retreating and the advance of the Nigerian forces in 1968 just before the Asaba Massacre made horrific memories which are still painful to recall more than 50 years later. Re-united with their mother in Lagos, their survival gave her an inner strength which I identify with as I, too, experienced the horrors of the civil war from the Biafran side only too clearly. Nothing since could be as bad, we agreed.
‘Determination in the face of racism, blatant sexual discrimination, bitchiness and avoiding the casting couch’
In 1971, at the age of 16, Patti left Nigeria to visit an older sister who was studying in London. Unsure of what career to follow, it was by chance that she began what continues to be her very successful career as a singer and actor on stage and TV in Britain and abroad. She has released several LP records of her remarkable singing voice but her determination in the face of racism, blatant sexual discrimination, bitchiness and avoiding the casting couch meant she did not initially make many friends. Patti was not interested in wild, after-the-show parties sticking to an early decision to totally avoid alcohol, smoking or dabbling in drugs.
She maintains her moral standards and works hard. After her marriage to her husband, Stephen Komlosy, she focused on family life with him, their two children and four step-children, stepping back from the limelight and her own career for a while.
During their regular visits to Nigeria, she became determined to do something about the limited rural health care provision and particularly about the HIV Aids epidemic which was being largely ignored in Africa. On a visit to the capital, Abuja, she was taken to see a children’s home crowded with babies and toddlers and was told that they had been abandoned by their families because they had Aids. Superstitious beliefs and traditions were prevailing.
“People are not fully aware of how the disease spreads or how it can be prevented from spreading and those affected will not come forward to get treatment at an Aids clinic,” she was told. “They are ashamed. If anyone they know sees them they will be ostracised. Also the medicine is so expensive.”
After talking it over with Stephen, friends and friends of friends, they set up a charity and called it Support for Africa. Sir John Major agreed to be a Patron. The charity’s aim would be to set up health clinics in rural areas, with the local people donating the land. The clinics would be nurse-led. The Royal Albert Hall was booked for a fundraiser and 3,000 Gospel singers of all ages united to form a choir and perform there. It was a sell-out and with the proceeds they were able to build their first Health Care Clinic in Okpanam in Nigeria later that year. Patti used all her skills of persuasion to keep the building costs reasonable. As well as general health care in the community, information posters and leaflets were available, including some about Aids/HIV. Patti’s sister Grace project-managed ensuring that no money was syphoned off and that the quality of the building was up to standard. Since then, two more Health Care Clinics have been built in Nigeria and two in neighbouring Cameroon.
‘A choir of 5,000 was formed, rehearsed and Patti led them as they sang and danced down The Mall’
A few days after the fundraising event, Patti was asked to join the steering committee for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and a choir of 5,000 was formed, rehearsed and Patti led them as they sang and danced down The Mall to Buckingham Palace to great acclaim on June 2, 2002.
As a mother observing, then seeing the young people around her, and her children, she was shocked by the lack of respect many have for their elders here in the UK. Respect is taught to African children when they are very young and that applies to all people, particularly to those just a little older than oneself. Patti told me that her pet hate is arrogance. She cannot endure those who are puffed up with their own importance and during her career she has met more than a few.
There are many people she found, particularly youngsters, who lack confidence, belief in themselves and their abilities and who had not realised that respect has to be earned as well as given. This has led to them having problems managing their mental health and anxieties. Patti gives motivational talks to young students at Middlesex University where she is Visiting Teaching Fellow in the Business School Faculty and other institutions of learning but having agreed that more is needed, Patti and Stephen established Bipada Academy. This organisation is dedicated to changing mindsets, helping teenagers and adults to fulfill their potential in life skills for good mental health and personal development. The results have been impressive in achieving life-changing behaviour in people of all ages, even pre-schoolers.
Patti did not entirely abandon her role in entertaining others and she has appeared in Royal Command Performances, made over 200 appearances in UK TV shows and had her own television series in Nigeria. She was one of the group of mature British celebrities to feature in the first Real Marigold Hotel reality series in 2016 when they visited India to sample the customs and traditions and to ask themselves if they could consider retiring there.
“I was very impressed by the respect and care given to older people there,” she said.
‘Patti’s middle name is Ngozi, which means she has come as a blessing to her family’
Her work was recognised in the 2016 New Year’s Honours list when she was awarded an OBE. She has also received an Honory Doctorate degree, is a Freeman of the City of London and is known as a motivational speaker in many countries around the world. She has had several exhibitions of her art work. The list goes on and on.
Patti’s middle name is Ngozi, which means she has come as a blessing to her family. The way that she has developed is a true credit to her late mother who instilled in her great strength of character tempered with compassion for others and her unshaken faith in the power of God. She laughs a lot, enjoys being a grandmother and great-grandmother, never fails to count her blessings, and looks and sounds fantastic.
What she has achieved and is continuing to do despite more than a few up and downs along the way is amazing. Her book, ‘The Faith of a Child’, telling her life story, is available in print and Kindle versions. Frequently as we chatted she said how blessed she felt in her life. I feel that there are many who bless the effect she has had on their lives.
So there is a lot more to the woman whose voice will fill the Theatre Royal in Portsmouth on Sunday, February 13. Patti is not just a beautiful woman with an amazing voice. I have my ticket ready.
PICTURED: Soul diva Patti Boulaye after being awarded the OBE in 2016