Roy Chicago and the origins of highlife music

By Oladele Olusanya

What are the origins of highlife music? And how did Yoruba musicians in the 1950s and 60’s exploit its big band rhythm to make it the dominant commercial music of Yorubaland in those heady days around the time of Nigeria’s Independence from Great Britain. These were questions that intrigued me as a young teenager growing up in Lagos in the sixties. Thus it was that one evening in 1963, to further our musical education, my brother Tope and I were taken by our mother’s driver, a man named Oyoyo, who had played in various highlife bands in his time, to meet members of Roy Chicago’s band at their base at the Abalabi Hotel, Mushin.

Oyoyo told us that Roy Chicago, whose given name was John Akintola, was the musician who introduced traditional Yoruba gangan, the talking drum, into the set of a modern highlife band. He always sang in Yoruba, and his virtuoso drumming was in the great musical tradition of our people.

We were on vacation. Abalabi Hotel was within walking distance from our house on Cash Street. And as we walked with Oyoyo along Agege Motor Road, we sang out the lines from a song Roy Chicago had just released. It was about the thief who had stolen his trumpet when it was left in a van after a performance at the Abalabi Hotel.

Ole to ji kakaki wa,

Nibo ni o ti fun

The thief who stole our trumpet,

Where will he play it?

On this late evening, Oyoyo shepherded us past the doorman at the Abalabi Hotel to the back of the performance hall to meet his friend Alaba Pedro. Pedro was the rhythm guitarist in Roy Chicago’s band.

Pedro took us to the stage where the instruments and sound systems were being set up for the night’s performance. He tapped the drums, strummed the guitars, and shook the shekeres as his friend Oyoyo engaged him in small talk. We followed them, but we stood back, too awed to touch anything. We already knew the names of many of these traditional Yoruba musical instruments. There was a gangan, a set of akuba drums, and two shekeres of different sizes.

But we saw many modern instruments of a different purveyance. These were shiny appliances in brass and steel, several guitars, a saxophone, a trumpet, and a set of modern jazz drums that stood gleaming to one side near the free-standing microphone pole. This was a highlife band, a modern musical ensemble that was very different from Ajagbe’s somewhat crude and ancient traditional group, where every instrument had remained the way it had been for a century.

Pedro introduced us to other musicians who played in Roy Chicago’s band. There was Peter King, the tenor saxophonist. We also met the male backup singer, Tunde Osofisan, who Oyoyo did not know. Tunde was a much younger man and a recent addition to the group. We were told that this young man sometimes stood in for Roy Chicago when the bandleader’s voice was hoarse and raw from blowing too much into his trumpet. Besides being a singer, he told us he was an actor.

The older musicians had been comrades with Oyoyo when they all played together at the Central Hotel, Adamasingba, in Ibadan. As we listened, we heard other names mentioned. Among these were Etim Udo, Marco Bazz, and Rex Jim Lawson, non-Yorubas who, at one time or the other, had been members of Roy Chicago’s Abalabi Rhythm Dandies. We prostrated for each man as we greeted them.

“E pele, sir,” we said to each in turn.

They were our heroes. Besides, they were our elders. Some were as old as our father, who was then forty-three years old. Then Pedro presented us to the great man himself.

Roy Chicago beamed at us and acted as if we were important grown-up fans of his. He was a handsome, charismatic man of above-average height. He was thirty-two years old—at the height of his fame, and in the prime of life. He was smooth skinned and smooth faced. And his suave voice put the two of us at ease—young teenagers who should be at our “lesson” instead of sneaking into a hotel with young ladies of questionable virtue loitering around its entrance and foyer.

Oyoyo asked Roy Chicago to tell us about his music. And this is how we came to hear the story of the origin of highlife music from the mouth of one of its greatest practitioners.

“To me, the song that started the modern commercial trend in music in Lagos that led to ‘highlife’ was Fatai Rolling Dollar’s Easy motion tourist.”

Roy Chicago spoke in a well-toned mellifluous voice that, to us, was no different from the way he sounded on his records.

“Of course, we must admit that Fatai learned from others who came before him. These were the unsung heroes who no one paid attention to. Those musicians in the 1930s and 1940s were not popular, and they made very little money. There were no paying clients or sponsors in those days. They did not have the adoring, record-buying fans that musicians like me have today. But I have come to realize that ‘Easy Motion Tourist’ released about ten years ago, was the grandfather, baba nla, of all our current Yoruba popular music. It was the last important stop on a route that took two different directions. One road led to highlife, the other to juju music.”

And, indeed, we also recognized that Fatai Rolling Dollar’s “Easy Motion Tourist” had all the elements of a modern rock song that could have been composed by our musical heroes who were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones from England. The subject of the song was contemporary, as Roy Chicago explained to us. It concerned one of the band members who had been locked out of the house where he had a rented room when he returned late one night after an engagement with the band.

Ka ma jiya ka to lo laiye

Ka ma we won ka to lo laiye

Nitori nwon tilekun mo omo onile

On kigbe, “Ma wo le.

Ma wo le o, Omo asa.”

Let us not suffer

before we leave the world,

Let us not go to prison

while we are here on earth;

For they shut the door on the landlord’s son

And they shouted, “Don’t enter,

Don’t come in, you son of a gun.”

Roy Chicago continued, “My friends and I have often argued about the different versions of ‘Easy Motion Tourist.’ There is a debate about who composed the song. I think it was Seni Tejuoso, who, with Fatai Rolling Dollar, was part of a group that sang it with Araba. I know that it was Seni who was locked out of his house because he told me the story himself. The earliest version of the song was recorded by the trio before they all did it separately, although Araba’s version has become the most popular.”

According to Roy Chicago, Fatai Rolling Dollar cut his musical teeth playing with the brilliant composer, singer, and guitarist. Julius Araba, who he considered the doyen of modern Yoruba musicians. One of Araba’s classics was his denunciation of gossiping women in Lagos in the early 1950s. We had heard this song on the radio.

Nibito gbe nse ofofo kiri

Ategun wa fe gele lo;

Owo jabo sonu

Yeri jabo sonu

Omo jabo sile

Oro re, oro re o

Oro re o, repete

While she was gossiping

The wind carried off her head tie

Her purse dropped and was lost

Earrings fell by the wayside,

Even her child fell off her back—

This is my story,

my long and interesting story.

“But before Araba became famous, there was Kokoro, the blind street singer with his tambourine and haunting voice. His actual name is Benjamin Aderounmu. Now, instead of playing for pennies in the street, he has his records being sold in the shops. And he performs on radio and TV stations in Lagos and Ibadan.

“I must also mention Babatunde King, Irewole Denge, and Ojoge Daniel, whose pioneering efforts led off to what we call juju music today.

“But we have come a long way from those early days. This is no longer the unsophisticated era of Araba and Fatai Rolling Dollar, whose music was known as ‘palm wine’ music.”

Roy Chicago explained to us that Fatai and his group used to play for free at social events like birthdays and naming ceremonies. Their hosts only had to provide them with jollof rice, moin-moin, and all the palm wine they could drink.

“What we have now is a modern sophisticated music that we call highlife. Unlike in the old days, we are paid well for our music. We have many rich sponsors like my friend, Tunde Vincent.

“In my opinion, highlife is the best music on the scene today. It is beloved by our sophisticated Yoruba elite who have been educated in England and have good, paying jobs. And it is not just here in Lagos but in the whole of Nigeria that highlife has become king. After Yoruba popular music branched into its two main stems, highlife became the elder of the two. Juju music is the junior. I call it our less sophisticated younger brother.”

To Roy Chicago, highlife, with its big-band sound and dance-hall milieu, which could be called upon to entertain a queen of the British Commonwealth, was a music that could not be compared to juju, which, to him, was glorified praise singing amplified by guitars and native drums.

“No one can say for sure when highlife began in Nigeria. Some people who have an opinion on the matter say it came from the Gold Coast, which, as you know, was renamed Ghana by Nkrumah after its independence in 1957. At that time, highlife was a mishmash of American jazz horns, Cuban drums, and the song rhythms of the Akan people of the Gold Coast.”

He continued, “I do not think Yoruba highlife came from the Gold Coast. This music is part of our culture. It has been sung before kings and at the investiture of chiefs for more than a century all over Yorubaland. The only thing that changed was that after the Second World War, sailors came in from Europe and America and brought the guitar. But even before the guitar, we had the agidigbo.

“And even if we are to admit that some elements of highlife originated in the Gold Coast among the Akan people, when it reached Lagos and Ibadan, we made it into our own music that appealed to the educated Yoruba elite who flocked to our shows. I am proud to say that highlife today is entrenched firmly in the Yoruba sphere of influence. In any case, the Akan people of the former Gold Coast are an ancient affiliate of us Yorubas. We share many similarities in language and culture.

“When this new highlife music arrived on the scene, young musicians like me adorned it, like an expensive agbada, with a rich Yoruba embroidery. Once I got the hang of it. I, for one, downplayed all those flashy horns from Cuba and Ghana. Instead, I gave pride of place to our traditional akuba drums from Oyo.

“Instead of singing in English, I sang in our native tongue. And I added Yoruba proverbs and lyrics from fables and folk tales I remembered from back home. I was the first person to bring in a drummer with the talking drum into a highlife band. I did this because I wanted to pay respect to our elders and to promote the culture of our people, which many young people in our time are beginning to neglect.

“But I also wanted to be modern. I learned to play the trumpet and the saxophone from Bobby Benson. After this, I brought in the best guitar players I could find to play in my band. This is how I gave my music the solid modern rhythm you hear today.

“Now, I have reached a stage where I want to be not just a musician but a social commentator. I want to chronicle the social scene of our modern society. What happens here in Lagos concerns me a lot. Even though I was born in Ikare-Akoko deep in the heart of Yorubaland, I see myself as a Lagosian.

“What I see or hear around me on the streets of Mushin, Idi-Oro, and Yaba is what I want to talk about. I talk about the war between the sexes and the high cost of living for the common man in this heartless town that appears to belong only to the big politicians in their agbada and Mesi oloye cars. I want to document the lives of ordinary men and women, not the ‘permanent secretaries’ and their aje butter wives who live in Ikoyi.

“This is what the Ibo writer Cyprian Ekwensi is also talking about with his stories about Lokotown.

“Finally, I want to talk about the fun and heartache of being a young man in Lagos, and the machinations of the modern Lagos woman.”

He crooned for us his latest release.

Beri won, wan se di rebete,

Beri won, wan soyan goloto;

750 by 50, idi nlanla

Obinrin nbe l’Eko ile.

See them with their big backsides

See them with their pointed breasts;

750 by 50 is the size of their buttocks

These are the women of Lagos city.

“How do you make up these songs?” my brother Tope asked him. “How do you know what to say?”

“I must tell you it is not easy. I don’t even know how it happens sometimes. Most of the time, it is not of my doing. It is a gift given to me by Allah.” Roy Chicago was born a Moslem and made frequent reference to the deity of the imale.

“Sometimes, when I close my eyes or when I go to sleep, the words are in my head. They come out of my mouth when I wake up in the morning.”

Leaving his music, Roy Chicago now sang for us lines from a recent hit by another Lagos highlife bandleader, Victor Olaiya. Roy Chicago obviously had a lot of admiration for his rival.

Ilu le o, ko sowo lode

Obinrin nkigbe, Okunrin nkigbe

Kaluku lon kegbe owo.

Sisi mura gege, wa ka e mole,

“Mo bere e titi,

Nwon o jise fun e ni?”

Iro lon pa o, owo lonwa yen.

Times are hard,

There is no money in town

Women are crying, and men are worried.

Everyone is crying out for money.

The lady dresses up to catch you at home.

“I’ve asked for you several times.

Were you not told?” she says.

It’s all a lie, it is your money she wants.

“I, Roy Chicago, consider myself at this moment to be one of the masters of Yoruba highlife music. After all, it was me who introduced Yoruba talking drums into highlife. But my friend, Victor Olaiya, is the person who embodies highlife music in its full richness and artistry.

“Just listen to his records and hear him blow those horns. His band has the most sophisticated trumpet and saxophone sound in town. Victor uses his bass and rhythm guitars in a way similar to what E. T. Mensah does in Ghana. But when you listen carefully, you will notice that Olaiya has maintained his Yoruba bona fides, with authentic hand-beaten akuba drums and dundun talking drums, which, I must say, he copied from me.”

Roy Chicago chuckled. Then he continued, “We were not surprised when Olaiya was chosen to play for Queen Elizabeth when she visited Lagos in 1956. In fact, we were all proud.”

He took us to the Abalabi Hotel manager’s office. I remembered there was a ceiling fan whirring overhead. It was a hot and humid Lagos afternoon. Roy Chicago switched on a gramophone player lying on a side cabinet. He placed the stylus on the vinyl and played a record by Victor Olaiya from 1961.

E ba mi so fun sisi yen ko mai lo o

Nitori mo ti so wipe faaji tele la wa

Sisi jowo, ko mayi lo o

Omode nse mi, iya mi da

Ebi npa mi, Mo fe mu yan

Duro de mi, ko gbe mi saya

Ko wa fun mi loyan tutu mu o

Help me tell that sister not to leave yet,

For we are here for pleasure.

“Sister, please do not go.

I am like a child.

Where is my mother?

I am hungry

and I want to suck at the breast.

Lay me on your chest and give me

cool milk from your breasts.”

Roy Chicago was a smooth talker with a deep font of knowledge and a way with words. We were mesmerized by his exuberant personality and the way he talked to us freely about his music. It was obvious that he knew a lot of the history of highlife music. We told him we wanted him to tell us about other musicians who had made an impact on the development of his beloved highlife music beside himself, Fatai Rolling Dollar, and Victor Olaiya.

He responded to our request with pleasure. “I am only too happy to talk about some of the other great highlife musicians who are my contemporaries and also those who came before me. Some of them are not even based in Lagos.”

“One of them is Ambrose Adekoya Campbell, who we call Rosy. He was born around 1919, so he is even older than those ‘old-timers’ like Julius Araba, Seni Tejuoso, and Fatai Rolling Dollar.”

According to Roy Chicago, Ambrose had a very interesting story. There was little money to be made from music when he was a young musician in pre-World War II Lagos. So he stowed away on a ship bound for Europe that had berthed in Lagos harbor. He wanted to make his getaway to greener shores.

“That was how Ambrose left for England around 1938. When he got to ilu Oyinbo, he succeeded in attracting an audience for his brand of Yoruba music. Within a few years, he had become the leader of a band in central London in a place called Soho. His band was made up of a group of young talented Nigerians and Ghanaians. Later, they were joined by other musicians from the West Indies. What they all had in common was that, though greatly talented, they were poor and hungry. They all worked at various low-paying jobs on weekdays to make ends meet.

“Gradually, Ambrose became quite popular, and his band members became financially comfortable. He made his name and was recognized as a master. Thus it was that when Chief Awolowo opened the first television station in Africa, in Ibadan in 1959, Ambrose’s band was invited from London to play at the dedication ceremony.”

Roy Chicago sang for us one of Ambrose’s well-known songs. It was “Ku si mi l’aya”
– Die on my chest.

Mo ri sisi kan to njo “Ku si mi l’aya”

E wa woran, mi o le gb’oju mi o;

Ti o ba si t’ero to duro,

ma ba sisi yen lo.

I saw a lady dancing to “Die on my chest.”

Come and watch, I can’t take my eyes off her,

If not for the people standing around,

I would have gone home with that damsel.

“That song was recorded by Rosy in London in 1956,” Roy Chicago told us.

We told him we had heard the song on the radio. But we did not know who sang it. Roy Chicago told us he considered that song to be as iconic as Araba’s “Easy Motion Tourist,” which Ambrose also sang and recorded.

“Apart from ‘Ku si mi l’aya,’ Ambrose composed and recorded many famous songs like ‘Omo l’aso,’ ‘Eni ri nkan he,’ and ‘Fun wa ni tawa.’ Many of these songs have been copied by many musicians including myself.

“From what I hear, Ambrose still has his band in London. They are called the West African Rhythm Brothers. And strange enough, I understand that he calls the nightclub where he plays in London, not far from Piccadilly Circus, the ‘Abalabi’—just like our joint here in Mushin. I am not sure, though, if that is the official name of the club.

“Many people say that Ambrose is the grandfather of highlife music. But to me, with his diminished emphasis on trumpet and saxophone, his music is more juju than highlife.”

Roy Chicago then told us about another great musician who lived in Lagos. This man, he said, was the real father or “baba” of highlife, on whose shoulders he and Olaiya climbed to fame.

“Olaiya and I might argue until tomorrow about who is the king of highlife in Lagos today, but we both know that we have a baba who is alive and active in this town. This man is Bobby Benson.

“It was Bobby who started the highlife movement as we know it today in Lagos. It was in the early to mid-fifties, in those pre-independence days when Lagos teemed with young men like me and Olaiya with talent and ambition. Even though we struggled to make a living from our music, we wanted the lives of the people around us to be more meaningful. We saw ourselves almost as revolutionaries or freedom fighters. And we found our leader in Bobby. He told us that we were just as important in the liberation of our people from a British-dominated colonial mentality as our political leaders like Zik.

“It was under Bobby Benson that I, Olaiya, and many other Lagos highlife musicians, learned all we know today.”

Roy Chicago now told us the story of this man, one of the most controversial and arresting figures in modern popular music in Yorubaland.

*****

“Bernard Olabinjo Benson was born in 1922 to a prominent Ijebu family in the town of Ikorodu. Bobby is only a nickname. I think it is based on his initials, B.O.B.,” Roy Chicago said, as he began the story of his fascinating mentor.

“His elder brother is the well-known Lagos socialite and lawyer, T. O. S. Benson, who, as you know, is a minister in the government of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa.

“When he left school, Bobby’s family wanted him to learn a trade. He told them he wanted to be a professional boxer. But after trying his hand at boxing for some time, he ran away to sea to become a sailor. He was a restless young man. After many years of putting in at various seaports all over the world, he got tired of life as a sailor. He jumped ship in Liverpool.”

According to Roy Chicago, it was at this time that Bobby found that he had musical skills. He learned to play the trumpet, and started backing various bands in London and other British towns. He played jazz, foxtrot, and waltzes. Everything and anything was in his repertoire.

Bobby had always been attracted to beautiful women. It was in England that he met his wife, Cassandra, a mulatto of mixed Scottish and Caribbean blood. They met through the introduction of a mutual friend. Bobby was immediately deeply taken in by Cassandra, and soon, they discovered they were soulmates.

Roy Chicago explained to us that Bobby, especially in his younger days, had a lot of masculine charm that women found irresistible.

Bobby always loved the strange, the beautiful and the exotic, in his music and in many other things in his life, Roy Chicago said. And what could be more exotic to an African boy from Ikorodu in Ijebuland than this sophisticated high-toned girl who was half Gaelic-European, half Caribbean and one quarter African. She was beautiful, strange, intellectual, and well read—more so than any woman Bobby had ever met. He wooed her and made love to her with a devotion that was combined with an almost intellectual passion.

Bobby was lucky. His passion was reciprocated. He and Cassandra took pleasure in each other’s company. For their shared love for art and music complemented the sensuousness of their physical attraction and male-to-female bonding.

“Bobby once told me that on the day he met Cassandra, he knew he was going to marry her. ‘You are a woman after my own heart,’ he said he told her. And that was how they got married.”

Luckily. marriage did not lessen their ardor as is so often the case with many young people. In their one room in an attic in Finsbury Park, after they had made love, Bobby and Cassandra would talk long into the night of their music and their ambition. They spoke of how they would go back together to his native country to make a name for themselves.

When at last he came back with her to Lagos, the two wanted to have a show together.

“What shall we do?” she asked.

“I will play and sing, and you will dance,” he replied.

And so it was that Bobby and Cassandra started their show in the lounge of a hotel on Lagos Island. Roy Chicago told us he couldn’t remember which one it was. Bobby played the piano and the trumpet. Cassandra sang and danced.

But they soon tired of their show. Though it was popular, they were not making much money. So Bobby put together a group of musicians and made them into the first commercially successful highlife band in Lagos.

In the years ahead, Bobby played the role of mentor to a whole generation of singers, drummers, trumpet players, and guitarists who would make highlife music the most popular music in Lagos. It was in that exciting era when British rule in Lagos was coming to an end after a hundred years. Everything seemed possible for young people especially those who were educated and regarded themselves as possessing good taste in wine, women and music.

“The sky is the limit,” those young people said to one another, as they smoked their menthol cigarettes and drank English gin at one of their popular Lagos hangouts like the Ritz Hotel on the island or the Kakadu Club on the mainland in Ebute Metta.

Roy Chicago told us it was at this time that he and Victor Olaiya cut their musical teeth as members of Bobby Benson’s band. It was much the same way, he said, with many other musicians like Chris Ajilo and Eddy Okonta, who had now also made their mark on the Lagos music scene.

According to Roy Chicago, Bobby’s “Taxi Driver,” released in 1956, was the archetypal highlife song. It was a simple but brilliant recording that would always be for him the best in the genre.

“‘Taxi Driver’ marked a great beginning for highlife. But it was sung in ‘pidgin’ English, not Yoruba, which I prefer.”

*****

On that afternoon when we heard him talk of his music at the Abalabi Hotel, Roy Chicago stood at the pinnacle of the highlife movement, which he had helped to develop, and which had swept Yorubaland off its feet over the previous decade. We did not know this, but our friend was destined for bad luck and a precipitous decline.

Just a few months after our meeting with him, he was going home late after a show at the Abalabi. The story was that he was going to drop a girlfriend off on Lagos Island before he went back to his flat in Surulere. He was either tired or tipsy—nobody was sure. But he hit a pedestrian with his brand-new American car, a Chevrolet. Unfortunately, the victim died.

Roy Chicago was arrested. He stayed in a cell at the Broad Street Prison awaiting trial for nearly a year before he was released. Some said that it was his friend and benefactor Olatunde Vincent who used his influence in Lagos social and political circles to get the judge to release him.

It was during his incarceration that his band, led by the backup vocalist Tunde Osofisan, recorded a song to buoy up the spirit of their bandleader. This recording also became a hit. It was titled “Aiso aba.”

Aiso aba lo m’eiye wa je’gba.

Aiso aba lo m’eiye wa je’gba loko,

Eiye i je’gba, a mo o.

Mara le m’okan le. Roy Chicago, mara le.

It is the lack of season of the aba fruit

That made the bird eat egba seeds,

Birds do not eat the egba seed, we all know.

Have courage, Roy Chicago, and take heart.

At the height of his fame, Roy Chicago never forgot his humble beginnings in a small town in Akoko far from the bright lights of Lagos. He knew well the vagaries of fame and fortune. And he talked about it in his music.

K’ale san wa d’oruwo o, oba rere

Ye ye ye, an be o, oba rere.

Let our evening be better than our morning,

We beg you, our good Lord.

But he was done in by the vagaries of fortune and the decline of highlife music that followed its brief ascendancy. After his release from jail, Roy Chicago found he had lost all his money paying lawyers and bribing policemen and prison warders during his detention. He was flat broke. Most of his sponsors had deserted him. His old friend Vincent tried to help. But by this time, he too had his own financial difficulties. We were told that it was his mentor, Bobby Benson, who paid for his rented room in Surulere and tried to raise money for him to purchase new musical instruments to reorganize his band.

But his music had fallen out of favor with the fashionable youth and well-to-do elite of Lagos. Members of his band drifted away. He could not pay them the wages they got from the juju and soul bands that were now the rage in Lagos.

Abalabi Hotel also fell on bad times. It was bought by a businessman who cared little for big-band music as a source of revenue. Its rooms were taken over by young women of easy virtue on rent by the hour for the transient pleasure of “area boys” who had come into money, as well as well-heeled middle-aged men in fancy cars who came surreptitiously at night to the seedy suburb of Mushin from their homes in Ilupeju, Palmgrove, and Surulere.

The big hall that once reverberated to the blast of trumpets and the sophisticated drums of a major highlife band was taken over by a woman selling amala, tuwo, and gbegiri. The name of the establishment was changed to Mayflower Hotel. Its old aura was lost forever.

The fate of Abalabi and its brilliant bandleader became a metaphor for the decline and demise of highlife music. Not just Roy Chicago but Bobby Benson and other highlife giants faded from the music scene in Lagos as highlife was swept aside around 1967 by a deluge of soul music from the United States.

The local imitators of this American sound were the soul and Afro rock bands in Lagos, Benin City, and Ibadan. Groups like the Hykkers and Wrinkar Experience were formed by boys barely out of high school. A James Brown copycat named Geraldo Pino, from Sierra Leone, had the attention of the youth.

These were the groups, not Roy Chicago and other highlife musicians, who now dominated the bookings and filled the assembly halls of universities and popular performance venues in Lagos and Ibadan. It was difficult for a highlife musician to make a living. Olaiya saved himself by belting out soul tunes at his shows. His band was fronted by an exciting young singer named Joni Haastrup.

But Bobby Benson had inspired another young musician who had sharpened his skills under Victor Olaiya before going abroad to study music at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He came back to Lagos to become the most famous trumpeter and saxophonist Yorubaland and Nigeria would ever know, climbing even higher than Bobby, Olaiya, or Roy Chicago.

This was Fela Ransome-Kuti. He was the iconoclastic son of Oludotun, who had taught our father, the Black Prince, at Ijebu-Ode Grammar School. In the years ahead, this scion of Egbaland would lift Yoruba music to the highest echelon it would reach on the world stage.

Like Victor Olaiya’s and Roy Chicago’s, Fela’s songs in the early days were quintessential highlife, infused with images of love and longing.

Mo regberun maili

nitori omo pupa.

Ya mi lagbada re

Ki nle lo, ki nle lo o.

Mo rin Ibadan si Lagos

Nitori a du ma dan.

I traveled a hundred miles

Because of the light-complexed girl.

Lend me your agbada

So I can go to see her.

I traveled from Ibadan to Lagos

All because of my black beauty.

Fela was one of the few musicians trained in the highlife genre who read the omens and decided that a change in direction was in order. In 1969, at the height of the decline of highlife, Fela went on tour in the United States to revive his musical fortunes. Although his nine-month stay in America was marked by disappointment and lack of a commercial breakthrough, he came back with new ideas. These led to the release of his seminal song “Jeun Koku” in 1970. This recording saved Fela’s career and established him as a musical icon of our people.

His music was now known as Afrobeat. But no one doubted that, despite its sophisticated saxophone, trumpet, and piano riffs and the “scratch” guitar borrowed from black American funk music, the backbone of Fela’s Afrobeat was the same drum matrix established by traditional Yoruba musicians like Solesi in the previous century.

Fela used his music to promote his Yoruba and African roots, asking his people to be proud of their skin color and heritage.

Tani so pe awo dudu

ti mo gbe sara yi o da o?

E mu wa ki nri o

Who says the black skin

I wear like a cloak is bad?

Bring him out and let me see him.

Thus, as highlife was receiving its last rites, it gave birth to a viable offspring through the music of Fela. The practitioners of this new Afrobeat included not just Fela but also Segun Bucknor, Tunji Oyelana, and Orlando Julius.

As we listened on our turntables or sneaked from our university campus in Ibadan to watch Fela live at the Kakadu Nightclub in Alagomeji, we saw that in Afrobeat, the call-and-response pattern of Yoruba music and the do-re-mi Yoruba vocal tone were replicated not just by traditional drums but also with guitar, piano, and horns—modern musical instruments imported from ilu oyinbo.

Despite these foreign accompaniments, however, we recognized that Fela’s music was clearly Yoruba. Even though ilu dundun, the talking drum, was not prominently featured in his music as in that of Roy Chicago, pride of place was given to the other traditional drums and musical instruments of Yorubaland.

Fela’s use of rhythm was archetypal not just of our music but of the Yoruba language itself. It echoed the choruses and songs that had accompanied the stories and fables told for centuries by generations of children in Yorubaland. With Fela, highlife music reached its apogee, going on to spawn many exciting new music genres in the years and decades ahead.

Excerpt from A NEW AGE, Itan – Legends of the golden age, Book 3 by Oladele Olusanya. pages 302-318, Published by Xlibris, USA

Copyright 2020 Oladele Olusanya. All rights reserved.

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