Apr 20, 2010

Orlando Julius - An interview

The interview

How my father's death changed my life

By Tunde Akingbade

Orlando Julius Ekemode, popularly called OJ, the ace Afro-highlife musician, is a man with global musical relevance. Quiet, unassuming, resourceful and multi talented, O J has performed in Nigeria, Europe and America for over 50 years. A song writer, trumpeter, film maker and performer par excellence, he encountered the late godfather of Soul, James Brown and also, wrote the award winning Going Back to My Roots for Lamont Dozier. He has performed alongside Hugh Masakela, Ronald White, Tony Allen and many other great musicians in shows around the world. He originated the art of fusing African rhythms with American soul or pop music in the 1960s. OJ is a star that knows how to blow the horns in his music, yet he does not 'blow his own trumpet' as an accomplished musician. Recently, he released 52 of his old songs. In this interview, OJ speaks on the influence of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in his career; Jimi Solanke, how he helped Fela Anikulapo at the formative stage of his group, Koola Lobitos, among others. Excerpts:

How did you come into music?

I started from school when I was in the elementary school. I was born in Ikole-Ekiti and I attended St. Peter's Anglican School there. That was when I was very young. I left the school because my father died when I was about entering secondary school. From Ikole - Ekiti, I moved to Ibadan in 1957. My father was a trader while my mother was a cloth weaver. She used to weave aso oke. Also, she used to sing in those days and I took singing from her. She had a group of women they called Egbe awon obinrin (Women's Group) and they used to sing together. When she wove those native materials at night, she used to sing and I would sit beside her, beat my drums and sing along.

Before that, I had always known that God gave me musical talent. In school, I also tried to develop it and brush up the talent. As I said earlier, I moved to Ibadan after my father's death. In Ibadan, I went to different Clubs to play with different groups. That was in 1957. In 1958, I was lucky to have been around during the time of Chief Obafemi Awolowo's Premiership in Western Region. He, however, didn't have the opportunity to put music in school though he had the Free Education Programme in Western Region. His party was called Action Group (AG) with the symbol of the palm tree. So, he decided to put something together with his party and they bought musical instruments to set up about 30 different bands. They used the Action Group headquarters at Oke-Ado, across the Odeon Cinema.

I know the place!

Yes. They used the place and Awolowo did not care about your place of origin. He brought all of us together there. They gave us the opportunity to use the place. That was where I played with different musicians in the region.

One day, one of the leaders who used to teach us how to play instruments got a contract to play at a function in Ondo. The hotel where we played was called Modupe Hotel. We went with him. I was playing the drums when we got to Ondo.

However, I was learning how to play the saxophone in Awolowo's musical camp. I continued practicing and was able to continue with the saxophone. From Ondo, we went to Akure and we played at Flamingo Hotel. I later came back to Ibadan because our leader left. It was there that I was able to join Eddie Okonta's Band. He used to play at Paradise Club at Kingsway Area in Ibadan. I played there in 1958, 1959 and I later went to play at Right Time Hotel in Ijebu-Ode. I was one of the band members who recorded the hit song; Mori sisi kan ni sa, Sisi dara tegan ko o. Aso alaso lolo yawo, Sis dara, tete malo, Sinati re poju, Oro re sun mi.

I remember that song in those days

After that, there was a day I.K. Dairo came to play in Ijebu-Ode. He saw me and told me, 'Aburo mi, wale o!' (My young brother, please come home!) He told me someone just gave him instruments for a dance band. Then I went to Ilesha with him. I began to lead I.K Dairo's Dance Band. You know I.K. Dairo had a juju band, Blue Spot Band, which he led. Mine was I.K. Dairo's Dance Band. I came to Ibadan and played the Afro highlife because when I played the people called it Afro. It was different from the highlife played by others. Jimi Solanke was my first vocalist. There was also Isiaka Adio and Eddie Fayehun from Akure. The band was in Ilesa for a while before I moved to Ibadan. That was in 1960, and 1961. In 1962, I decided to play at a club called Independence Hotel at Oke Bola. My band then was called Orlando Julius and his Modern Ace Band because in 1959 and 1960, I was thinking of how to modernise highlife music into Afro because if you listened to my highlife music then, it was not like Roy Chicago or Rex Lawson. I sang the songs: Mapa mi, Fimi mi sile; Aiye le and Jagua Nana. There was also Ma Fagba se yeye nitori ati sun e, Bomode ba mowo we oni lati bagba je, Awati mowo we, Asi ma bagba je, among others.


In 1964, Fela Ransome-Kuti (later Anikulapo - Kuti) used to come to my club. He was at Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) in Lagos then. He went to many clubs then but he used to come to my club in Ibadan every Friday. He came on my stage one day and I liked the way he played the trumpet; you know; he knew how to do that when he was in London where he studied music. He used to listen to my music. He was about to start his Koola Lobitos group then. Four members of my band were released to help him to start his band.

In Ibadan, I was so lucky because when Chief Awolowo brought Western Nigeria Television/Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service (WNTV/WNBS), I had a contract to play for four quarters on a variety show from 6pm - 7 pm every Saturday. I went to Lagos and got another contract to do the Bar Beach Show for another four months.

With Art Alade?

Yes with Art Alade. I was able to release so many songs then - Afro highlife. This week 52 out of those old songs will be released.

Congratulations on the release of these oldies. But can you give us an insight into what led to the composition and release of the songs: Jaguar Nana and Mapami Baby Mapami, Toba dosan mo fe je chicken, to ba se tan o mofe je eja dindin, diedie ni owo ntan lo, mapa mi baby ma pami? (Don't kill me/ baby don't kill me with your appetite/ in the afternoon/ you demand to eat chicken/ by evening time you ask for fried fish/ But slowly/ the money is going sown the drains).

You know in those days, it was good to sing songs that taught morals, and words of advice. Its not that I had a problem with a woman. No, there was no problem. In those days, when you read something that happened you will later put it into a song just as: Ma fagba se yeye nitori ati sun e. or my other songs, Ti e ba nsoro erora foye so/ eni ba dele ijo wa awowo yanu/ eni to ba moyi ere/ a yin Orlando. Egbeje ni irawo/ okan soso mi osupa etc. or Iwo ololufe ma ko mi/ ti nba se e o/ Olomi pemi so fun mi (You sweet heart, do not divorce me, if I offered you, my sweat heart, please call me and tell me).

I wrote the song Topless for ladies in Lagos. Then, ladies wore dresses that exposed their chests, so, I wrote; Asoti kobo ige ti won npe mi Topless/ Asa kan wo Eko/ Bi sisi duro wari/ Toba bere wan tunri / Topless koma da lati wojade (The dress that does not cover the chest that they call Topless/ A vogue has entered Lagos when ladies stand or kneel down/ you will notice it/ but Topless is not fit to be worn outside the home.)

I also sang E se rere (Be good to others). I used the same sound track for the movie of Eku Ida by Tunji Bamisigbin. I did a soundtrack for Tunde Kelani's Saworo ide. I have done a couple of sound tracks.

You have lived in the United States, in Ghana and now, you're in Osogbo, what motivated these movements?

The first movement was to the United States of America and I spent 25 years there I studied filmmaking recording there. I studied music production so that I will be able to help our people here. When I came back, we were at Adebola Street, Surulere. I brought a lot of expensive equipment for our studio here, unfortunately we were not able to record much because of the erratic power supply. Because of the poor power supply, some of our equipment were damaged. I needed to record some of my songs and that of my wife. So, we moved to Ghana during PANAFEST in 2003. At that time, Ghana was celebrating its four years of uninterrupted power supply. But we were able to go there and carry out the recordings. That was where I was able to record my album; Longevity and Reclamation. "Longevity being a long time that I have been in the music business and Reclamation being reclaiming some of the songs that I have done for other people and they ripped me off. The recording labels at that put my records on singles and EPS (Extended Plays) before coming out with albums. I thank God that today, my records are selling in Europe and America and that where I have been able to get royalties. Now, we have decided to release that 52 classics, which shows the complication of the history of my music career including when I met James Brown and how we featured together and other people I worked with - Lamont Dozier on that song that won the award; Kawa Oma Ranti, Ranti Ile O, Isedale Baba Awa (Let us remember Home/ The Roots of our ancestors/ You remember, Going back to my Roots?

Yes I remember. And you are now back to your roots?


Where are you originally from?

I am originally from Ilesa; Ijebu - Ilesa from Ijebu-Ilesa is just about five miles. We are all Ijesas it used to be in Oyo State, but its now in Osun State.

Are you related to one Dr. Ekemode because I know your full name are; Orlando Julius Ekemode?

Yes. The Ekemode in Ife?


He is my brother. He is my brother from the same father. It was thought in those days that if I used Ekemode in my name, I would sound like Apala or Sakara band. Julius is my baptismal name. So, Orlando was borrowed from the late Orlando Martins, you know the late Pa Orlando Martins?


In 1958 and 1959, when Chief Awolowo brought the first television African to Ibadan; the late Pa Orlando Martins, who had acted in films with people such as Bob Hope, the late Ronald Reagan, former US President and many other European actors was brought home then to perform at WNTV. He loved my music. Anytime I played at Oke-Bola, Pa Orlando Martins used to come to the club to listen to my music. That was how I got close to him and I told him I wanted to borrow his name and use it. That was how I bore Orlando Julius even before Orlando Owoh.

You actually reigned around the time James Brown reigned in America. I was in the Primary School and J.B released; Say it loud; am black and proud. What's your reaction?

One of my songs that he used was Ijo soul. I sang Atun gbe ijo tutun de/ ore bole jo/ sama ma mi o/ ijo ti ya (We have come with a new dance step/ My friend if you cannot dance just shake your body/ lets dance). Then, I blew the trumpet - pan pan pan rah! Ore mu iyawo e kalojo (My friend take your wife and lets dance - pan pan pan rah!). So, when James Brown came here and I gave him my record, he returned to America and came out with the popular, I feel good - with the trumpet sound param ran ran rah!

So, he took that from you?

Yes. I got that from the music of Sam and Dave but the one I sang, Ore mu iyawo eka lo jo para para para rah, he got that from me.

The way you get your inspiration and what comes out of your trumpet seems divine what do you think?

Yes it is.

How do you feel back home now?

I feel good, I feel great but the things that you get now are different from our time when we played highlife and Afro beat.

If you look at what is happening in the Nigerian music scene, are musicians well remunerated?

You see we are not being well paid. The hip-hop thing probably you will know more about it, but I don't. It is a problem that should be dealt with by government. And the corporate people too. For example, I was in America for 25 years I played in all the theatres for many years that I found it difficult to think of going to play in Europe. Musical festivals hold in America all the time. So, musicians should be working all the time

How did you meet your wife?

I met her through her godfather - Ambrose Campbell, you remember him?

Yes I remember him....

He sang; Ohun toba dara ko ra fomo re, Omo laso aiye omo laso omo laso aiye, omo laso. He also sang: eniri nkan he, to fe ku pelu e o. Owo eni to ti sonu nko? And that song he did for Chief Awolowo when Awo brought him here to sing during independence; Irohin rere, to de fun gbogbowa Awa omo Nigeria Agbomi Nira . Awolowo Ose, Bami Awolowo, Awolowo, Oluwa ake e Botiseke awoomo Nigeria irorun rere to de fun gbogbo wa Awa Omo Africa Agba omimira.

Did you say your wife is Campbell's daughter?

No. My wife was born in Chicago. She is Afro-American. I met her with Campbell who introduced her to me. He was her godfather.

How did she get to know Campbell?

Ambrose knew a lot of people in America. And he was very popular and luckily my wife met him and he became her godfather.


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