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Ebenezer Obey-Fabiyi: The legend, his music

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
13 October 2019   |   4:13 am
Dressed in semi formal attire, he alights from the car, which brought him to the Federal College of Education, Osiele, Abeokuta.

Curator of Ebenezer Obey-Fabiyi cubicle at the gallery explaining some exhibits to guests

Dressed in semi formal attire, he alights from the car, which brought him to the Federal College of Education, Osiele, Abeokuta. The car waits in the driveway, its doors still opened. He walks in gently aided by his son, Femi; his personal assistant, Taiwo Olujimi and manager, Tunji Odunbaku. Three of them, two on one side, take him by the elbows to help him in. He seats in an armchair to welcome everybody who comes in a relaxed manner.

His presence draws a huge crowd of excited staff and students of the college, who took series of selfies with the legendary musician. Few minutes after taking his seat, the quietness that ushers him in is punctured by the surging crowd’s request for the rendition of his evergreen songs.

Voice though still sonorous, is feeble. His feet are nimble and weak.Age has gnawed, no doubts. And if you look straight into his eyes, you’ll notice that age has really set in. But the legend is still strong at heart. He still sings beautifully.

Evangelist (Prof.) Ebenezer Oluwaremilekun Olasupo Aremu Obey-Fabiyi is legendary. His music is per excellence. In fact, many still keep alive in their memories, his evergreen songs, which wouldn’t cease to rhyme with lore in their ears.

Born in Idogo, Ogun State, Nigeria of Egba-Yoruba ethnic background, he grew up in a place that has since disappeared from people’s consciousness. The town not so long ago, served as a train terminus and many railway men worked in the town.

“The journey of my life has been a source of testimony and inspiration to me. I was conceived in Idogo, born in Massey Hospital on Lagos Island, raised in Idogo and Abeokuta before finally coming to reside in Lagos,” the music icon, who has been active in the last 60 years and is still active, says.

You wonder the secret of his success?
“The kind of songs you release to the masses,” he says.The music legend says every artiste is a function of the kind of music he or she releases to the fans.

“When I go into the studio, I always asked myself three questions: ‘”What do I want to give to my listener? What do I want to impress on my listener? and What do I want the listener to remember me for in that particular music? These three questions guide me all through my career.”

The legend explains, “as a result, I rendered meaningful lyrics like counsel, prayer and advice, which listeners want to hear and sing. Also, when I tell a story like Ketekete, it is conceived to teach lesson that no one can please the world. Little wonder my hits have won lots of gold.”

He says, looking up quickly to the crowd, “when you sing sensible songs, it will touch people.”Obey-Fabiyi adds, “I’m almost 78 years old now, the songs I wrote at 40 still thrill people today.” He began his professional career in the mid-1950s after moving to Lagos.

The late Fata Rolling Dollar taught him some of the most valuable lesson a musician can learn, which is to try to see — honestly and down to its very centre —the world through good music.

After tutelage under Fatai Rolling Dollar’s band, he formed a band called The International Brothers in 1964, playing highlife-juju fusion. The band later metamorphosed into Inter-Reformers in the early-1970s, with a long list of Juju album hits on the West African Decca musical label.

Obey-Fabiyi began experimenting with Yoruba percussion style and expanding on the band by adding more drum kits, guitars and talking drums. However, his musical strengths lie in weaving intricate Yoruba axioms into dance-floor compositions.

As it is characteristic of Nigerian Yoruba social-circle music, the Inter-Reformers band excelled in praise-singing for rich Nigerian socialites and business tycoons.

Obey-Fabiyi, however, is also renowned for Christian spiritual themes in his music and has since the early-1990s retired into Nigerian gospel music ministry.

“I have been a musician for over 60 years. Mine is not changing from secular to gospel, but a call from God. Though it was difficult for me to say yes or no then, after 12 years, I realised God wanted me to use music to propagate his gospel. That was exactly what happened to me. After 17 years of doing that, the Lord allowed me to do special outreach and appearances. I charge people and I keep part of the proceeds for the ministry and myself. There were comments that I was backsliding then. But my works are there as evidence and I’m still using my music to serve God. I don’t miss anything,” he confesses.

Taking a cue from the surging crowd, Obey renders some of his hit tracks to the delight of everyone. From Aimasiko to Aye wa a toro, Ota mii dehin le yin mi, Oro Oluwa Ede, Board Members, Eniri Nkan he, Ori mi koniburu and Kete kete, he takes his audience on memory lane, enacting what seemed a pro-Bono show. He believes that the younger generation of artistes are doing well communicating their message.“

Obey, however, provides a caveat: “But they have to borrow from what we have. They can do better.”The juju music legend says, “we need to allow them pass through experiences of life. Let them experience the falling and making of mistakes, it is only then that they can learn.”

Some of his greatest hits include, Ewa Wo Ohun Ojuri, Aiye Gba Jeje, Ifelodun,Awolowo Babawa Tide, Olomi Gbo Temi, Olowo Laiye Mo, Ode To Nso Eledumare, Board Members, Odun Keresimesi, Ketekete and the ever popular Egba anthem.

The juju maestro and evangelist of the gospel listens as he can, as the proud crowd that gathered at the space struggled to ask for more. Obey’s music has gone from the lyrical to the philosophical and now spiritual. However, a common thread that is observable is his extraordinary engagement of the mind and celebration of humanity. The songs have remained stylistically daring, and astonishingly elegiac in composition.

Oludamola Adebowale, a documentarist and archivist says, “some of his songs like Ota mii dehin le yin mi, Oro Oluwa Ede, Board Members, Eniri Nkan e, Ori m koniburu, and most importantly, Egba, solidified Chief Ebenezer Obey as not just a musical genius but also as a man who is proud of his people and of his heritage.”

He continues, “I believe in the pursuit of excellence.”
It was Graham Greene who wrote that in every childhood, there is a moment when a door opens and lets the future in. Recently, Obey-Fabiyi opened the door of his heart for others to walk through it. He presented some of his personal effects — two guitars, dresses, shoes, eye glass, albums and covers, vintage photographs, among others, to the College Gallery, as part of the institution’s newly conceived idea of creating an heritage space for some of the country’s legends.

“I know this museum space will be of immense benefit and a source of inspiration to the students of the school and future generations who will find motivation in my story and journey through life as a musician, an African and an indigene of Ogun State,” Obey says a little while later.

“I donate these items to the school in good faith and hope that posterity will serve us well as we try to preserve our history for the benefit of generations to come. The need to start curating spaces for the preservation of our history and heritage is more important now than ever,” he announces.

His eyes flutter beneath the thick lenses as he sings some of his old tunes. “I dedicate these items to the memory of my parents. Most especially to my mother, Mrs. Abigail Oyindamola Abeke Fabiyi (Nee Toriola) from Owu quarters in Abeokuta, and to my father Chief Nathaniel Olasewo Fabiyi from Kesi, Abeokuta and to the glory of Almighty God who has been my source of strength all these years.”

Speaking on how he came about curating the space, Adebowale, says, “it is nothing but a privilege I will forever cherish. It’s not just about telling the story of his selfless and legendary life, but also witnessing his accomplishments, struggles and success at the same time.”

Earlier this year, from April 25 to 27, 2019, he had opportunity of curating the Festival Exhibition for the Ogun State government during the 2019 African Drum Festival in Abeokuta. The 2019 edition of the festival was in honour of Chief Ebenezer Obey and 13 other icons from the state.

Adebowale says softly, covering his eyes with his hands, “the purpose of curating this mini museum space is to celebrate a proud son of the soil. Obey started his musical career in the mid 50s. He focused on using his music to promote the cultural welfare of Yoruba land and most importantly the culture and heritage of Ogun State. To this effect, it’s worthy enough to celebrate an iconic figure who has allowed “Juju Music” to be an export from Nigeria. A global feat to say the least.”

Adebowale says, turning away suddenly to whisper into the icon’s ears, “all the items in this space were personally supervised and handpicked by myself and Baba Obey. The idea is not just to create inspiring works for posterity but also to inspire the younger generations and students of this great institution that they can also achieve greatness too, as long as they stay focused, work hard and stay diligent.”

Obey married Juliana Olaide Olufade in 1963. His wife, known as Lady Evangelist Juliana Obey-Fabiyi, died at Lagos State University Teaching Hospital on August 23 2011, aged 67. They have several children and grand children.