Thursday 7 April 2022

Ebenezer Obey Remilekun Aremu Olasupo Fabiyi At 80

If only Ebenezer Obey’s mum knew! When her son said he wanted to be a jùjú singer, Madam Abigail Oyindamola protested vehemently. “In our family, we don’t sing people’s praises. Instead, they sing our praises,” the proud Egba woman reportedly told him. Not only did Obey go on to sing people’s praises, his own praises were also sung everywhere as he reinvented jùjú music. But you have to admire the pride and self-assurance of the mother whose first husband had abandoned because of childlessness after 20 years of marriage, who picked up the pieces, went on to marry the carpenter she had engaged to build the roof of her house, and finally had Obey with the “accidental” husband.

I grew up an omnivorous consumer of music, foreign and local. With no Spotify or YouTube, radio and record stores were the sources of free listening. But I had an extra luck: my father had a pile of vinyl records and a turntable. Years after his death in 1976, my grandmother (God rest her soul) handed them to me as my inheritance. Most of the albums were by Obey, clearly my dad’s favourite artiste. King Sunny Ade (KSA) and Idowu Animashaun, both jùjú stars, accounted for three each. There were a dozen Jim Reeves and plenty other Christian albums (my father was an organist and choir master of the Immanuel Baptist Church, Ilorin). I acquired other musical tastes from my uncles.

As a little boy, I thought jùjú music was the genre for Christians and fújì for Muslims. Fújì singers often recited the Qur’an. Obey always sang Christian songs. I enjoyed both genres but had zero knowledge of their origins until much later in life. I particularly like the concise history of the evolution of fújì given by Akorede Babatunde Okunola aka Saidi Osupa. Quoting his father, who also sang fújì, Osupa said fújì’s roots were in kiriboto, etiyeri, seli and wéré. Instructively, wéré (ajisáàri) was usually sung during Ramadan fasting to wake Muslims up for sahūr. Wéré gave birth to awurebe. The late Sikiru Ayinde Barrister transformed awurebe into what he later named “fújì”.

It is striking that almost all fújì artistes are Muslims, with the notable exception of the late Sunny T Adesokan. He branded himself as “Omo nna t’onko fújì” (“an Igbo guy singing fújì”). The branding — helped by his unquestionable talent and ability to create street slangs — worked but the rumour in town was that he had a Yoruba father and an Ikwere mother. There are Christian gospel singers who adopt fújì as the vehicle to express their art, notably Adekunle Fuji, Midnight Crew and Adedoyin Adeotun aka Okiki Jesu Fuji, but it is still understood that they are gospel, not fújì, artistes. Every evidence points to the fact that fújì has its roots in Islam. The jùjú story is significantly different.

Jùjú’s origins are traced to Abdulrafiu Babatunde King, a Muslim, who started playing at Lagos clubs in the 1920s. His band members were known for throwing their instruments into the air and catching them — a spectacle that drew crowds to their shows. The highlife-influenced genre, heavy on percussions and folklores, became known as “jijú” or “jùjú” — the unedited Yoruba word for “throw throw” (not to be confused with the juju that means magic). Many jùjú greats — Fatai Rolling-Dollar, Ayinde Bakare, YK Ajao and Ahuja Bello — were Muslims. Yet, as time rolled by, jùjú somehow became dominated by Christian acts, often featuring traditional church hymns and songs.

Obey, born Ebenezer Remilekun Aremu Olasupo Fabiyi, played a defining role in this. Following in the styles of the legendary IK Dairo and Rolling Dollar, his mentor, Obey would take jùjú to another level, infusing elements such as bass guitar and talking drums — along with guitar solos/interludes — to create a dancefloor flavour he called “jùjú miliki”. In all his melodies, you would not miss this thread: his lyrical content was built on a moral — in fact, Christian — message, burnished and garnished with axioms and prayers. He hardly sexualised women, unlike KSA, his friend and rival. KSA was the king of lewd lyrics. As kids, we could not sing some of KSA’s songs in front of our elders.

Apart from lyrical decency, there were many things I admired in Obey. Unlike the trend these days whereby some successful artistes claim to be “self-made” and “owe nobody nothing”, Obey paid due homage to jùjú greats that came before him. In ‘Oro Seniwo’, released in 1969, he sang in Yoruba: “Those who came before us/We need to give them their respect/Young people, don’t be arrogant/Arrogance will take you nowhere.” He went on to pay glowing tributes to IK Dairo, Ernest Olatunde Thomas (better known as Tunde Nightingale), Ayinde Bakare and Adeolu Akinsanya (Baba Eto), mentioning them by name, and including the names of their children — as was his custom.

I also loved the fact that he was a believer in one Nigeria and sang a number of songs promoting peace and unity during and after the Civil War of 1967-1970. He often sang songs that spoke to current affairs. I recall an album he released in 1980, I think, in which he sang “I am proud to be a Nigerian” (in English) and went on to name every state and governor. I was in primary school and it helped my knowledge of Nigeria. He sang about President Shehu Shagari’s “austerity measure” in 1983 which brought much hardship on Nigerians, as well as the 0-1-0 eating formula (no breakfast, no dinner) that came with Gen Ibrahim Babangida’s structural adjustment programme (SAP).

Yoruba artistes are known for praise-singing movers and shakers, particularly the business tycoons and socialites. It was, and still is, a major source of their income — beyond royalties and shows. It was something Obey did very well, even though he did not pioneer it. It served a purpose for him but it also served a purpose for me — it was through his songs that I got to know big names such as MKO Abiola, Alao Arisekola, Bode Osinusi, Victor Odofin, Lanre Badmus and Kuburat Kadijat Bisi Edioseri (“Cash Madam”) while growing up. His tributes to Badmus, Osinusi, Odofin and the Amojes rank among my favourites in the plethora of praise-singing hits that he churned out steadily.

Apparently, he was not always commissioned to sing those praises. For instance, the song for the Amoje family (‘Eje ka re’le Amoje/Edakun eniso l’Awe’) in 1975 caught them unawares. Olayiwola, one of the sons of Chief Anthony Amoje, told Akinsanmi Ogunsumi, an Obey fan, in 2008: “My dad asked me where I got the money to give Obey to sing my praises when I know that he is a very private person. I said I didn’t give him a kobo. Fortunately for me, I escaped further scolding when Obey also mentioned my dad’s name. My father couldn’t talk again. He bought a dozen of the album that day.” Obey was rewarded: he became the family’s official artiste for their social outings.

Even “Cash Madam” was taken unawares by the song. Edioseri said her real nickname was “Cash Woman” because she was a distributor of major household brands and often took lorryloads of cash to the bank at the close of business. The cashiers started calling her “Cash Woman”. Yusuf Olatunji aka Baba L’Egba, the late sákárà music legend, also sang her praises in ‘Yegede’. He called her “Cash Woman”. She had saved Baba L’Egba from a certain amputation by picking the hospital bills. But Obey did not know her well enough and called her “Cash Madam” (‘B’ere ba d’ere ebami pe Bisi o k’owajo’) in his evergreen album, ‘Board Members’, released in 1972. “Cash Madam” stuck forever.

Fair play to Obey: he sang the praises of his band members as well, not just the socialites. He valued family ties, often mentioning the names of their wives and children. He praised Samson Ogunlade (“Oko Mulikatu, Baba Ejire” — “Mulikatu’s husband, father of twins”), who was the pioneer captain of the International Brothers band which Obey founded in 1964 and renamed Inter-Reformers in 1973; Mutiu “Kekere” Jimoh (“Baba Nurudeen, Oko Fausa”); Oke Aminu (“Baba Dupe”), who died in a bike accident in 1972; Giwa Ojo Arigidi (“Baba Toyin”); Monday John (“Baba Femi”), the Edo-born guitar genius; Gabriel Adedeji (“Oko Wosila”); Vasco Da Gama (“Oko Amoke, Baba Taju”); and so on.

Obey dominated the jùjú circuit in the 1970s, frequently going on foreign tours, releasing hits upon hits, sometimes three in a year. While some were singles (or 45rpm, as they called it), most were full albums (long playing, or LP) with eight tracks. But in the 1980s, Obey had to start sharing the limelight with KSA, who had the edge of being on a global label, UK’s Island Records, had access to the best recording facilities in the world and got better global marketing exposure — all complementing his exceptional vocal talent and wizardry on the lead guitar. KSA’s ‘Synchro System’ would be nominated for a Grammy in 1982 — the first Nigerian to be so honoured. It was some feat.

Till the early 1990s, Obey stuck to his moral messaging. It was his unique selling point. While this did not engage the youth as much as KSA’s raunchy “samba” tunes and street slangs, Obey was still the top choice of the sober-minded jùjú lovers and those with ecclesiastical sentiments. It was just a matter of time for him to switch completely to gospel music and full-time ministry. It finally happened on his 50th birthday in 1992 when he was ordained an evangelist by the late Archbishop Benson Idahosa, a pioneer of charismatic Christianity in Nigeria. Obey thereafter founded Decross Gospel Mission. He was the general overseer until 2018 when he handed over to his son, Folarin.

His entry into music mirrored the personality of his self-assured mother. He famously trekked kilometres to the office of Decca Records on Lagos Island in 1964 and demanded to see the MD, calling himself “a future star”. His audacity and tenacity paid off: after much resistance from the secretary, he met the boss, a Briton named Mr Cress who was so impressed with Obey’s confidence that he personally booked 25 copies of the debut, ‘Ewo Ohun Oju Ri Laye’. This helped the 22-year-old multi-instrumentalist reach, and even surpass, the threshold of a minimum of 500 pre-orders required to sign him on. Need we discuss what happened next? The future star became a superstar.

He would later partner with Abiola to buy Decca West Africa Ltd from the British owners under the indigenisation programme of the 1970s. You should know Abiola: the man who won the June 12, 1993 presidential election that was annulled, resulting in a protracted political crisis. He was arrested and detained, never to return alive. He and Obey were buddies. Both were Egba — Obey was from Owu, Abiola from Gbagura. Obey sang his praises in a couple of records. Abiola himself was not a stranger to music: as a kid, he sang wéré to wake up fellow Muslims for sahūr. As a teenager, he had a band, making some coins to cater for his family and to also pay for his education.

Obey was a true mentor. When YK Ajao came on the jùjú scene, he sounded like Obey in an attempt to play in his class. But it was not working for him. “We later discovered that we were opening the market further for him even though he was [already] a leading jùjú musician. Owing to that, we were not known. And each time we performed, most people mistook us for Ebenezer Obey,” Ajao told an interviewer years ago. Obey called and counselled him: “YK, I want you to blend your music so that anytime someone hears you on radio, television or stage, he could easily say this is YK playing and not Ebenezer Obey.” Ajao came up with jùjú makossa and began to have a slice of the market.

Maybe Obey counselled Ajao from experience. When he too started out, he sounded much like IK Dairo. I am ashamed to admit that it took me decades to realise it was Obey that sang ‘Olomi Gbo T’emi’. I thought it was IK Dairo. Well, it was not in my dad’s collection, so I only heard it on radio. Songs like ‘Gbebe Mi Oluwa’ and ‘Ore Mi Maje Aja’ also misled me into thinking I was listening to IK Dairo without the accordion. It was when I bought a collection of Obey’s works dating to the 1960s that I got to understand that I had been mixing them up. He too had probably realised the similarity and created his own jùjú brand. His trajectory was never the same again. He soared like an eagle.

For all his talent, though, Obey was not the best dancer in town. It might have had something to do with his physique. You were more likely to see him tilt a little to the right and a little to the left on the same spot. He was also not big on the high pitch — there were a few instances his voice actually broke (not everybody can be Michael Jackson or Pharrell Williams, right? Fela’s attempts at high pitch were actually atrocious). What’s more, Obey always preached family values, and I was unable to reconcile that with the fact that he had children out of wedlock. The best of us are still human beings after all. Something always has to give in the kingdom of stardom. That’s the way life goes.

Can I name my best Obey album? Not really. As a young man, the philosophy at the heart of the album, ‘The Horse, the Man and His Son’, certainly taught me not to care too much about people’s judgment of me. It was the story of a man and his son who travelled with a donkey. People criticised them all the way — when the man sat on the donkey alone, when it was only his son sitting on the donkey, when both of them sat on it and when neither sat on it. You cannot please everybody. That message helps me deal with acidic criticism till today. But Obey also sang plenty wisdom and made enchanting melodies across many albums that I find it quite hard to point to one as my favourite.

As the “Chief Commander” clocks 80 today, he will surely miss his wife for 48 years. He married nee Juliana Olaide Olufade in 1963. She died in August 2011, aged 67. His promise to remarry is still pending. Overall, he has lived long and outlived many of his contemporaries. I doubt any member of his first band is still alive. Some died in recent years. John died in London in 2012. The velvet-voiced Arigidi (I just love his distinct harmony), the oldest surviving member, went home in 2019. Jimoh, the talking drummer, died in 2020. Notably, Obey always prayed for long life. It was an unmissable constant in his songs. His prayers were answered. Happy birthday, Oko Juliana, Baba Oluwashina.

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