Interview: Orlando Julius Ekemode, back to his roots

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Bolaji Alonge with Orlando Julius in his Ilesha country home

Orlando Julius is a legendary Nigerian musician, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He has graced the Nigerian music scene for six decades and is still going strong. OJ fuses traditional African rhythms, highlife with American soul, pop and R&B with captivating showmanship, keeping his audience on the dance floor. A playlist of his songs selected by Eyes of a Lagos Boy and mixed by DJ Ray Bee Brown is added for the reader’s pleasure.

Born on 22 September 1943 in Ikole-Ekiti, South West Nigeria. He grew up between Ekiti and Ilesha in Osun state where his father is from, OJ took off to Ibadan at age 14 on his own. Orlando Julius can be described as one of the forerunners of Afrobeat, he started out in 1960 with the great trumpeter Eddy Okonta as well as IK Dairo.

OJ left for the United States in 1974 and collaborated with artists including Ambrose Campbell, Hugh Masekela, Lamont Dozier and many others. His 1966 effort, Super Afro Soul, made him a national celebrity in Nigeria and even went as far as to influence music in the United States. Carlos Santana personally selected Orlando and his Nigerian All-Stars to accompany him to Hawaii to play at a festival in 1992.

By 2001, UK label Strut Records reissued the 1966 album ’Super Afro Soul’ before other labels including Soundway and Vampi Soul released his Afro Sounders recordings, all spreading the word on OJ’s pioneering influence. He recorded movie soundtracks for Wale Fanu’s ‘Owo Blow’, Tunde Kelani’s ‘Saworoide’ and Tunji Bamishigbin’s ‘Eku Ida’ among many others. Passionate about reviving highlife music, he recorded albums with Nigerian legends including Fatai Rolling Dollar and Alaba Pedro, Roy Chicago’s guitarist. Some of his evergreen classics are; ‘Adara’, ‘Ololufemi’, ‘Colombia’, ‘Ope’, ‘Ise logun ise’, ‘Jagua Nana’ amongst many others.

Orlando moved to Ghana in 2003 after playing a concert at Panafest (the long-running Pan-African Historical Theatre Project). He set up a studio in Accra and recorded his album, ’Longevity & Reclamation’. He moved back to Nigeria in 2008 and started touring  the world with UK band Heliocentrics in 2013. Orlando Julius now lives in Ilesha, Osun state with his wife, dancer and back up singer Latoya Aduke Ekemode.

Who is Orlando Julius Ekemode?

To me he is still this young guy, a musician. I have been playing music for a long time and I have traveled to a lot of countries in the world. I am so glad that most of those shows were sold out. I promised to tell you anything you want to know, from my beginning till the end – I mean till the middle of the beginning.

Can you please tell us how you got into music?

My professional music journey started when I recorded my first single, ‘Igbehin Adara’ in 1960. I was already playing shows, travelling up and down South-West Nigeria. I loved playing music, singing and drumming from childhood. My mother was the one who really pushed me, she liked to sing as she worked on yarn – she produced Aso-Oke (a hand-woven cloth created by the Yoruba people of West Africa) and when she sang I got my sakara drums, sat with her and sang along. We both loved to sing together, sometimes she would walk with me as we sung all the way to my school gate before she went back home. My mother gave me clothes to sell and my father had a shop in Ikole Ekiti, but I wasn’t interested in helping them to sell clothes. My father had two wives and my mother was the second wife, my mother is from Ekiti and I saw how they helped my father carry fabrics from Ikole Ekiti to Ijebu, about 285km. From when I was a child, I knew music was the way for me.

Do you remember your first show and when was it? 

I was an apprentice with other big names,  one of them was Eddy Okonta, a hero trumpeter. He started playing at Premium hotel in Ibadan where I visited regularly in 1960. I also played with the Flamingo Dandies because of my love for Afro soul and I had previously been playing highlife music too. I started with the saxophone in 1964. I played with IK Dairo, Tunde Nightingale, Chris Ajilo, Bola Johnson, St. Augustine, Ojoge Daniel, Dele Ojo, all of blessed memory.

So you started in 1960 and when did you travel to the US?

My musical adventure led me to the US in 1974. I was fixated on playing and teaching music because I could play the saxophone, drums, maracas and the keyboard so well. I could play with any group unrehearsed and still do great music. People liked my music and they invited their friends to listen and dance, there was a high demand for Afrobeat, Afrosoul in the diaspora, from the 1970s till now. Life in the US was great. I co-produced an album with Hugh Masekela titled ‘The Boy is Doing It’ and one of my tracks ‘Asiko Lo Laye’ became a hit. My song ‘Isedale’ was also a hit in the US and it won a Grammy Award when it was sampled by Odyssey, ‘Going Back to My Roots’ in 1981.

There is a classic picture of you and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in a deep conversation, what was that encounter like? 

James Brown came to play in Ibadan in 1970, he had performed previously in Lagos but I didn’t see the show. I too was playing at Paradise hotel in Ibadan around the same time and we had to rehearse. One of those nights some of Brown’s band members came to watch and that was how he heard about our music. He sent a message he wanted to meet me, I replied that I would also love to meet him.  We had a great time together, Brown asked me about my art and we talked about everything, exchanged pleasantries, signed autographs and created a friendship, we went on to record ‘James Brown Ride On.’ From then on, it became the flagship song they played in clubs and parties, people would spray us with cash at performances.

Orlando Julius, James Brown
Orlando Julius with James Brown, Ibadan 1970

What about your relationship with Fela Anikulapo Kuti?

When Fela came back home from the United Kingdom, I was already performing. I met him at Ibadan Independence Club, where my band, Modern Aces, performed around 1963/64.  He was playing his trumpet with the mute (capped trumpet) off stage, I welcomed him on our stage to join us.  The ladies loved him and my musicians as well. A few of them followed him to start his Koola Lobitos band, a very good band. I was told he asked one of my guys if I would join him and his band. Of course my band member told him that is not possible,and he would never ask me such. I can say we had mutual respect for each other, but our paths were different, we really did not spend time together, hang out or anything of that nature, besides, I left Nigeria for a while.

How did you meet the flamboyant dancer – your wife Latoya Aduke Ekemode.

I met Latoya through the late Ambrose Campbell, who was a father figure to her.  We became friends and her understanding of my music swept me off my feet. Naturally, she became a member of my band. We tour the world together. I am very happy she came along, so many good things have happened since she joined my band, my music has also grown.

We are in Ilesha where you live, about five hour away from Lagos. Why did you leave the bustling city life to settle in sleepy and beautiful Ilesha?

Ibadan is quite close. We decided to leave the go slow and overcrowded big city to settle here in Ilesha, to be closer to nature and sharpen our creativity. Remember I am also from here.

Do you think people today appreciate Afrobeat?

Nigerians love and appreciate Afrobeat, they are into it. It is really good to write and compose and see people from other countries dance even without understanding the language I speak. Fortunately, Afrobeat/highlife is still growing, many young people  appreciate it and dance to it, even as they are coming up with different styles to modernize it.

How many albums have you released?

I released 11 albums and have done several EPs and singles. Some I can’t even remember. My first music video, Adara, was recorded at the Osun shrine along with Ise Logun Ise and Dance AfroBeat. Tunde Kilani on camera was great, Wale Fanu on sound, an excellent production.

You are touring the world with the band Heliocentrics for some years now, can you tell us about your cooperation?

Heliocentrics is a cosmic band, my music is organic, together we do great music. We met in 2013 when we did a show in France. Our friend and label owner, Quinton Scott, thought it would be a good combination. Julien LeBrun of Hot Casa Records invited us, he re-issued my song ‘Disco Hilife,’ a song I first recorded in 1975 at Ginger Baker’s studio in Lagos, with Dora Ifudu singing and Gboyega Adelaja on the keyboard. ‘Disco Hilife’ became the song every DJ plays every weekend since 1976.

He (LeBrun) invited me to perform with his Latin band Setenta, it was a great performance and Quinton suggested I try something with Heliocentrics. Our first show was great, like we already worked together for years. Professional musicians give me happiness in the studio and on stage. When on tour, we have become like a family.
Our album, Jaiyede Afro, was released on K7 Records and got to number 13 on the World Charts.  We have toured on that one album since 2014.  We traveled most of the globe with Heliocentrics and additional musicians, great adventures, great music, great memories. No stress, mutual respect, no run-aways, no wahala. All I had to do is perform, no stress of logistics.

It’s been a tough year for artists because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Knowing you as a frequent feature at shows in Europe and the Americas, how have you been holding out?

Yes this virus has really turned every upside down. I was set to perform in New York in March, also to record a new album in the U.S and do a few more shows in Europe and South America, but all that did not happen. We lost a lot of income, just as other musicians and creatives. I have been taking things very easy, isolated, here in Ilesha. Fortunately, our royalties are keeping us afloat.

What is next for Orlando Julius?

What’s next? Well, I am still working on music, I want to finish this album for my label. We are also completing our new house and venue, here in Osun State, Ijebu Ijesha to be precise. It will feature audio and visual studios and serve as a venue for shows and events. It has been a long quest to open the Ojahh Orlando Julius Afrohouse of Highlife. It is finally becoming a reality, with hard work. But I wish I had come to Osun State, to build on my land much sooner.

What is your advice to the young people of today’s Africa?

Young people around the world are different, but music remains the same and it has brought us closer together. Young African musicians should do music right, they should be able to take it beyond the continent and do more traditional music to show the world the deep roots of our culture.

1 Comment

  1. It’s perfect to see an amazing music maestro featured here. I too, believe that if you’re successful and wealthy enough you may not need to live in the bustling Lagos neighbourhoods.
    A lotta great things happened to him in Ibadan like meeting great artists, he must revere the city.

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