Celebrating Ebenezer Obey-Fabiyi at 80
Juju music maestro, Ebenezer Fabiyi, popularly known as Ebenezer Obey should be a most fulfilled man at 80 years, having evolved and popularised a unique brand of music, which he used to impact heavily on millions of his fans. For decades, Obey was in the lead of his Miliki brand of juju music, earning in the process the title “Chief Commander”. Perhaps more than anyone else, he successfully embellished entertainment, Godliness and philosophy in his music and thus commanded a huge followership. Until recently when age slowed him down, Obey was popular in religious gatherings as he was in ravishing social parties – the owanbe.
In an age where songs have lost the classic touch, retaining just shallow recitation of words that are neither deep nor meaningful to their listeners; in the face of fast-eroding morals in the music industry, there’s something to cheer: the veneration of Evangelist (Professor) Ebenezer Oluwaremilekun Olasupo Aremu Obey-Fabiyi into the 80s class.
A native of Idogo, Ogun State, a Nigerian of Egba, Yoruba ethnic extraction, he grew up in a place that has since disappeared from people’s consciousness. The town served as a train terminus that employed many railway workers. The journey of his life has been a source of testimony and inspiration. He was conceived in Idogo, born in Massey Hospital on Lagos Island, raised in Idogo and Abeokuta before finally coming to reside in Lagos.
In a country, where to be 55 is a rare achievement, Obey-Fabiyi has surpassed expectations and has remained steadfast to the gospel of juju, which he received at the foot of the late Prince Olayiwola Olagunju, the legendary Fatai Rolling Dollar. His music is per excellence. In fact, many still keep alive in their memories, his evergreen songs, which would not cease to rhyme with lore in their ears.
Obey’s songs appeal to the soul. “When I go into the studio, I always ask 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,” he had told The Guardian in October 2019, when a cubicle dedicated to him at the Federal College of Education, Osiele, Abeokuta gallery was unveiled. In his 80 years on earth, Obey-Fabiyi has proven what determination and tenacity of purpose could do in a person’s life. The highly philosophical musician believed that when you sing sensible songs, it would touch people.
Even at 80, songs he wrote at 40 still thrill people today. They are evergreen. From Aimasiko to Aye wa a toro, Ketekete, 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, Ota mi dehin le yin mi, Oro Oluwa Ede, , Eniri Nkan he, Ori mi koniburu, and most importantly, the ever popular Egba anthem, these songs solidified him as not just a musical genius but also as a man who is proud of his people and of his heritage.
Obey began his musical training-cum-career as a member of the school band at Methodist Primary School, Idogo. He quickly rose through the ranks to become the bandleader, enduring an experience that shaped him into a dexterous and harmonious music maker.
But it was not all a rosy affair at the beginning. Through a dint of hard work, he excelled. He went through some challenges trying to get a label that would promote him and his band. In fact, the story of his making will not be complete without chronicling his ordeals with Decca West Africa Company. Determined to succeed, Obey-Fabiyi was turned down the first time he went to the company in Lagos. Dejected but not defeated, he returned home. He went back to the company a week later and met with the same hurdle — a secretary who would not allow him access to the company’s artiste manager.
This time, the 22-year-old artiste was lucky to meet the Managing Director of Decca West Africa Company, Mr. Cress. Obey proposed a deal that would be fair to him and would equally pose little to no risk to the company. He asked the company to place him on trial, record his songs, and sell them without giving him any share of the initial album proceeds. The goal was to see if the album would sell the benchmark 500 copies, and if so, DECCA would sign Obey and his band. He was confident in his ability to pull off this proposal.
Decca recorded five songs to make Ebenezer Obey’s first album, Ewo Ohun Oju Ri Laye, in 1964. Obey personally marketed this album; sadly, he could only sell 481 copies, 19 short of the benchmark 500 copies.
At the perceived failure of the album, the future seemed bleak for the young talent. However, things turned for good. Mr. Cr
ess had taken an interest in the confident and optimistic young musician from the outset, and when the album was 19 copies short of actualising Obey’s dream and signing a deal that would go a long way in determining whether or not he would reach stardom, Mr. Cress bought 25 copies of the album. This means that Ebenezer Obey sold six copies above the benchmark 500 copies and so started a career that would span several decades and place him among the most elevated Juju musicians in Nigeria. He made Juju music lively and enjoyable, using more Yoruba drums, and mixing these drums with the guitar sound. He also made sure that there was less singing and more instrumentals in his songs. This allowed for people to revel in his tunes and reminisce on every sentence he uttered. These set Obey’s style apart, and informed his being credited with the modernisation of Juju music.
He began his professional career in the mid-1950s after moving to Lagos. The late Fatai Rolling Dollar taught him some of the most valuable lessons 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 began experimenting with Yoruba percussion style and expanding on the band by adding more drum kits, guitars and talking drums. However, his musical strength lies in weaving intricate Yoruba axioms into dance-floor compositions. Characteristically of Nigerian Yoruba social-circle music, the Inter-Reformers band excelled in praise-singing for wealthy 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. 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 had several children and grand children. The lessons inherent in Ebenezer Obey’s life and music will certainly endure for many more years to come.