Feb 9, 2011

Orlando Julius and Afrobeat revisited

It was one of those unexplainable impulses that made me linger longer than planned at an Ikoyi hangout for all shades and ages of creative people.

In walked Basil Okafor, graphic artist/journalist, culture connoisseur and activist and, of course, we had to shoot the breeze and reminisce. He was happy that he had caught the musical act at the Lagos Black Heritage Festival that featured heavyweights Hugh Masekela, Orlando Julius, and Femi Kuti.

I chipped in that Masekela omitted the very important name of Peter King when he announced at the concert that Nigeria had produced two world-class musicians in Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Orlando Julius. Incredibly, a few seconds after, in walks Orlando Julius himself with his extraordinarily-talented dancer/singer African-American wife, Latoya Aduke.

Naturally, we all went through a session of oohs and aahs at this unplanned reunion. I told Orlando that I assumed he was still in Ghana, where he had relocated to years after we had met in Lagos after his second long sojourn in America. He surprised me by informing me that he had been back in Nigeria for over two years, in Osogbo, where he had set-up a sound and visual studio and was running a television programme featuring musical acts. It made sense in that in the 80s when we had re-established contact, he proudly told me that he had graduated from a filmmaking course in Berkeley, California, after a music-and-further-education trip to America.

Who created Afrobeat?

I asked Orlando about some of his key band members who had helped create his unique and pioneering sound of Afro-Soul-Beat as from the late 60s. He sadly informed me that my favourites like drummer, Moses Akanbi, and baritone saxophonist, Big Joe, were dead. Of course, this was depressing news. In a brilliant and soothing public relations gesture, his wife then offered me a new CD release of Orlando Julius’ compilation of master compositions and old hits, ‘Orlando Julius and his Afro Sounders: Orlando’s Afro Ideas 1969-72’. In many ways, this CD is a fitting tribute to these great musicians and concrete documentary evidence on how what is now defined as Afrobeat developed in Nigeria.

I have deliberately refused, since the 70s, to be drawn into the simplistic argument of who created and, is therefore, the father of Afrobeat. It is a spurious argument, much like asking who created Jazz; whilst unquestionably accepting that Jazz is Black/African-American music. In the same vein, Afrobeat is Nigerian-created music, period!

Yes, it is an offshoot and extension of the West African popular music Highlife, but it was made and shaped in Nigeria. Interestingly, Afrobeat’s different versions and flavours were created by well-schooled and experienced Nigerian musicians, which explains why like Jazz, Reggae, Rhythm & Blues, Soul, and now Rap and Hip-Hop, it is a distinct and universally accepted form of popular music.

It is safe, sensible, and factually logical to state that Afrobeat and its various flavours were created by Nigerian musicians who were interested in expanding the tonal and rhythmic frontiers of Nigerian Highlife music. It must be accepted and recognised that Nigerian musicians, like Rex Lawson in particular, Celestine Ukwu, Victor Olaiya, Eddie Okonta, Bill Friday, and later Victor Uwaifo, had incorporated their ‘tribal’ musical elements to create a distinct Nigerian Highlife flavour; different from Ghanaian and Sierra Leone Highlife. It is from this distinct and unique Nigerian Highlife flavour that the various inflections of Afrobeat evolved through assimilation, experimentation, cross-fertilisation, and individual musical innovation.

Laying the foundations

It will be fair, on recorded evidence, to say that the trio of musicians who laid the basic foundations and charted the path of what is now broadly classified as Afrobeat music are Chris Ajilo, Orlando Julius Ekemode, and Fela Ransome-Kuti, in that chronological order.

Simplistically, they respectively explored, experimented, and emphasised the expansion of the horn-ensemble complexities, soul-and-Yoruba traditional rhythms-marriage and Jazz riffs compositional structure and multi-rhythms of Nigerian Highlife music to create their brands of Afrobeat music.

It is, however, both Orlando Julius and Fela Anikulapo Kuti who performed live for many decades, with many recorded samples of their music over these decades, that best give a history of the development and growth of Afrobeat music. In this respect, Orlando Julius’ ‘Afro Ideas 1969-72’ is an extremely important CD and musical document that illuminates the early history and foundation of Afrobeat music.

Jagua Nana

Orlando, unlike Fela, had gone through the mill in Nigerian popular music. He started off in the late 60s as a drummer and flautist, and then took lessons on the alto saxophone. He began working with Highlife bands in 1961, playing with the Flamingo Dandies, I.K. Dairo’s Blue Spots, and Eddie Okonta’s band. He formed his own band, The Modern Aces, in 1964.

In 1965, he released his debut single, ‘Jagua Nana’, on the Philips West Africa label. It was a big hit because it was new. Orlando described it as “modern Highlife,” and essentially it was Highlife in a fast tempo and infused with rhythmic arrangements borrowed from Black American Rhythm & Blues and Soul music.

OJ and the Modern Aces released the landmark long-playing album, Super Afro Soul, in 1966. This was the official recorded announcement of the arrival of Orlando Julius’ Afro music in Nigeria. It was innovative and fresh; giving hints of greater musical things to come from him!

With a band now called Afro Sounders, Orlando Julius set out to develop and distinctly establish his own brand of Afrobeat music. As composer, singer, electric organ player, and tenor saxophonist, he led a band that explored depths of rhythmic structures, a seamless blend of Yoruba/African rhythms and Black American R’n’B/Soul. With the fiery Moses Akanbi on drums playing mostly on the high-hat and snares, dexterous shekere rhythms, crisp clave beats, congas, and snappy guitar riffs (from his brother, Niyi), OJ created his rhythmic definition of Afro-beat. It is a skippy rhythm, with his peculiar horn arrangements as embellishments to create his Afrobeat sound.

OJ’s rhythms

‘Mura Sise’ and ‘New Apala Afro’ are classic examples of OJ’ rhythms and on other compositions like ‘Home Sweet Home’, ‘Esamei Sate’, ‘Alo Mi Alo’, ‘Ketekete Koro’ and ‘Igbehin Adara’, he sings in Yoruba urging self-empowerment, good morals, fair-play in polygamous homes, and keeping faith with culture. Then there are the instrumental Psychedelic Afro-Shop and a welcome song ‘James Brown Ride On’, both recorded in 1970.

Orlando Julius’ compositions ‘Asiko’ and ‘Going Back to My Roots’ became hits for Hugh Masekela and Lamont Dozier respectively, in America in the late 70s. In the early 80s, he released the LP Dance Afro-Beat in America.

It’s been four decades since ‘Jagua Nana’, and OJ and his Afrobeat are still alive and, as Monk will say, ‘rhythmning!’

written by Tam Fiofori

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