King Sunny Ade and the Orpheus option
Juju music is the wine of Nigerian parties and no one serves it better than the maestro himself, King Sunny Ade. On Saturday, May 20, King Sunny Ade was again on the band stand with his men, dishing it out to the Nigerian glitterati at the Iyin-Ekiti country home of the late Major-General Robert Adeyinka Adebayo, former governor of the defunct Western State, who died last month at 89. It was a grand event, not only to pay homage to the departed patriarch, who until his death, was the oldest living Nigerian army officer, but also to honour his children, including Otunba Adeniyi Adebayo, first elected governor of Ekiti State, and a man of high social standing.
Otunba Sunday Adeniyi Adegeye, also known as King Sunny Ade, is the most consistent ambassador of Juju music along with his old collaborator and rival, Evangelist Ebenezer Fabiyi, alias, Ebenezer Obey. The two men have carried their genre of Nigerian music all over the world. Some years ago, I was travelling from Accra, Ghana to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Ethiopian Airways. One of the songs played to entertain us was that of King Sunny Ade. At many national and international events, Sunny Ade had hoisted the flag of Nigeria. I remember in the early 1970s when Nigeria hosted the All African Games, Sunny Ade and his band played at the National Stadium, Surulere, at the opening ceremony. General Yakubu Gowon, then the military ruler of Nigeria, presided over the ceremony. In 1977 during the Black and African World Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC 77, the great man was also there. At that time, General Olusegun Obasanjo was our military ruler.
As I watched him last Saturday, I cannot but wonder about his staying power, his incredible mental capacity and his stamina. None could resist Sunny Ade’s magic, his intoxicating lyrics, his mesmerizing dance steps, his poetic cadences and the sheer geometric balance of his percussions. It was not surprising that the high and mighty joined Sunny Ade on stage to honour him with wads of naira notes. Among the audience were the likes of Alhaji Aliko Dangote, the president of the Dangote Group, politicians like Governors Godwin Obaseki of Edo and Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti, Ministers like Kayode Fayemi, former Governors Olusegun Osoba, (Ogun) Olagunsoye Oyinlola (Osun) and the enigmatic James Ibori of Delta State.
Juju music has come a long way since the time of Isaac Kehinde Dairo when he dominated the scene and Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey were then peeping from the door. Dairo was the giant who dominated the scene in the late 1950s and 1960s until Sunny Ade and Obey busted into the stage and changed the game forever. The question is who are the people peeping through the door now? Yes we can talk of the likes of Aiyefele and few others, but the truth is that the Juju scene is facing crisis of new converts and acolytes. The audience is still there, but there are fewer and fewer students in the school.
Perhaps Juju is facing a better fate than some of the old music genres like Apala and Highlife. Many Nigerians, especially those in the Yoruba heartland of the West, still prefer Juju music for parties. In the heydays when I.K. Dairo ruled the roosts, the court was crowded with the likes of Jimmy West, Ojoge Daniel, Tunde Nightingale, Sunny Agaga, Idowu Animasaun and Irewolede Denge. At that time the Muse of Music was a Nigerian and many genres of music flowered and thrived. Today, what is the Nigerian music?
There are many Nigerian musicians on the scene now, but can they be accused of playing Nigerian music? Yes, there are many giants on the Nigerian music scenes today, but are they playing Nigerian music? There is no doubt that artistes like D.Banj, Wizkid, Asa, Davido, Timaya and Adekunle Gold are of universal standing with fans all over the world. But are they rooted in the intoxicating muscular rhythm of African songs that thumbs the soul like the music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti or that enduring legend of Benin, Sir Victor Uwaifo?
Nigerian music has always been part of the organic essence of our popular culture. They change, but they are always rooted in our soil and they represent the songs of our hearts. Our music, like our jollof rice, is decidedly Nigerians. They may have a foreign flavor, but then we manage to domestic them. That was what the likes of Roy Chicago, Victor Olaiya, Bobby Benson, Rex Lawson, Adeolu Akinsanya, Celestine Ukwu, Oliver De Conque and Stephen Osadebe did to highlife. Blackman Akeem-Kareem, Orlando Julius, Segun Buknor occupied their grounds with dexterity. Then the parade of women; Comfort Omoge, Christy Essien-Igbokwe, Bunmi Olajubu, Stella Monye and the ageless Onyeka Onwenu.
The fate we fear for Juju may have already befallen Apala and Sakara music once dominated by the likes of Haruna Ishola, Ayinla Omowura, Sefiu Ayan, Baba Legba and Kasumu Adio. Fuji is struggling despite the long reign of stars like Ayinla Kolington and Adewale Ayuba. Gone were the heydays of the incomparable giant, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister.
Why do we feel that Juju is threatened despite the presence and performance of talented men and women like Sir Shina Peters, Segun Adewale, Fabulous Olu Fajemirokun, Dele Taiwo and Aiyefele? First there is little apparent academic interest in Nigerian indigenous music. By now, there should have been series of books and documentaries on megastars like Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey and Uwaifo. I remember that journalism giant, Mike Awoyinfa, wrote books on both Obey and Sunny, but such efforts are the exception and not the rule. Where can we read serious works on the likes of Dan Maraya Jos or Bongos Ikwe? Which university or polytechnics has done serious works on the poetic lyrics of Haruna Ishola or Dauda Epo Akara?
The second threat is the decline and decline of Nigerian languages. I once asked my children as we were listening to one of the modern Nigerian songs on the car radio: “in what language is he singing?” I was told it was English or a Nigerian version of it. The decline in Nigerian languages, encouraged by politicians, preachers and teachers, is affecting not only Nigerian indigenous music, but also the growth of our literature, including literature in English. How can a scholar, who is not rooted in Igbo language and culture, be able to write like Chinua Achebe or fully understand Arrow of God? I know we are in serious trouble when one of the governorship aspirants in a south-western state was addressing a political rally in the English language! In the past when the likes of Obafemi Awolowo, Ladoke Akintola and Adegoke Adelabu ruled the political world, that would have been an anathema.
Few weeks ago, I was at the premises of Fabunmi Memorial High School, Okemesi, Ekiti State. On the walls were the legend: Don’t speak in vernacular! You can imagine that in this 21st Century, some people still consider the Yoruba language a vernacular! And some of these people are teachers of our children. It has been scientifically proven that children learn better and faster when they know their mother tongues well. This serves as the foundation for other educational explorations. That is why the likes of Professor Wole Soyinka are very fluent in their mother tongues. It is also scientifically proven that children can learn up to 10 languages. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian who became the first Black African to be elected the Secretary-General of the United Nations, is fluent in eight languages. Major-General Ike Nwachukwu, former senator and former Foreign Affairs, Ministers, is fluent in many languages including Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.
We need to encourage our artistes to also use their talents in a way that would enhance our civilisation and culture. Music is important that is why it is also played in heaven by the angels who are praising God all the time. In ancient time, Orpheus, the Greek tragic hero, was sure no creature; man, animal, living or non-living, can resist his music.
Orpheus was the son of Apollo who married Eurydice, the eternal beauty. Orpheus, at birth, was presented with a magical lyre, and with this, he became the greatest musician. When his wife died accidentally shortly after their wedding, he decided to seek for her in the land of the death. He charmed every creature on the way with his music and finally met Pluto, the god of Hade who released his wife to him on one condition. He must not look back until he left the darkness of Hades and embrace the light of the land of the living. But he could resist the urge to take a quick look at his wife. He saw her. But he has disobeyed and he watched helplessly as his wife dissolved into the smoke of eternity.
The great music of the masters like Sunny Ade, Victor Uwaifo, Fela and Dan Maraya Jos are parts of our national heritage. We should not wait to look back for them like Orpheus when it is too late.
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