Ebenezer Obey: A Juju music colossus

Ebenezer Obey 1983 album jacket

Ebenezer Obey rebranded his band several times, ultimately becoming a superstar within a few years. He knew years earlier that talent alone was not enough to sit among the stars in the Nigerian music industry, and that it was not about having a band or even being signed under just any label. He knew that success in the music industry was hinged on being signed by a big brand that had the resources to massively promote the artist’s music. This is evident in the fact that, despite having his own record label, which was reasonably successful by the highest standards, IK Dairo, whom many Juju musicians looked up to, had to release his hit song, ‘Salome’, under DECCA Records. IK Dairo understood the extent of big-name labels like DECCA, and it was this same important factor that Obey realized too. This made him double his efforts to get signed under the highly competitive DECCA Records. At the sale of 506 copies of his debut single, Ewo Ohun Oju Ri Laye, the record label signed Ebenezer Obey in 1964.

Obey’s DECCA deal gave him access to some of the best resources any artiste could ever have, and being an exceptional talent himself, he soon saw the light of stardom. His single, ‘Olomi Gbo Temi‘—which is still played by many radio stations in the country, especially during love-related events like a marriage ceremony—catapulted Obey to the limelight. This single was released in 1965, and it got people accustomed to the new name that was breaking into the world of Juju music in Nigeria. ‘Palongo’, another single by the Chief Commander, was released in the same year. Like some of Obey’s earliest songs, ‘Palongo’ is a song targeted at a lover. The persona employs his lover to let go of uptightness and take to the dance floor. It is a song where the beats deftly switch between an upbeat and fast sound to slow and meditative. ‘Palongo’ enjoyed wide acclaim as a song for events and was loved by all in the mid-1960s. This single cemented his fate as a star musician. True to the claims he made to Mr. Cress, Ebenezer Obey became a star.

Ebenezer Obey is not the originator of the popular Juju style of music; however, he was at the forefront of the genre’s refinement, experimenting with various style. Obey’s style, fondly called Juju Miliki, set him apart from other Juju musicians. He introduced the use of more than one guitar to Juju music and the use of the bass guitar. The essence of the bass guitar in Obey’s production was for the instrument to serve in place of a low-pitched drum. This helped him generate rhythm while switching between the tonic and the dominant tonal sound degrees against the much popular use of the bass guitar as a harmonic bass. By the 1960s, the bass guitar had become one of the key instruments of any serious Juju band.

Following the success of his ‘Palongo‘ single, Obey soon began to experiment with Yoruba idioms and sayings. He stuck more with philosophical and meditative songs that had lessons to teach, against the then popular choice of singing about women and their beauty or body features. If anyone thought Obey’s choice of philosophical Juju music would affect his fan base and sales rate, they must have been mistaken. Obey’s brand of Juju music continued to prosper; he sold hundreds of thousands of his small albums (SLPs) and even made a tour around London with his band in the early 1960s. Ebenezer Obey enjoyed a successful career as a Juju musician, and he was nicknamed “Chief Commander” by his fans during his frequent tours of the United Kingdom when it was rare for a Nigerian artist to go on regular foreign tours, especially with the members of their band.

On their return from London, Ebenezer Obey and his band released an album titled In London in 1969. Tracks on the nine-song album include: Egba, Ijesha, Ibadan, Iba F’Oluwa, Ijebu, Ondo, Ogbomosho, Ori Mi Koni Buru, Ore Se Rere and Omo Oba Sijuade. This album was a hit, and it further registered Obey’s prominence in the Juju music genre. Looking at some of the songs on this album, one would notice that Obey’s songs had started tilting towards the philosophical and the didactic as early as the 1960s. Of all the songs on this album, ‘Ori Mi Koni Buru’ remains the most popular and most evergreen, and till today, it is played on radio stations and by ardent lovers of the Chief Commander’s songs.

Ebenezer Obey and Sunny Ade

The 1970s ushered in some reformations in Obey’s band, and the name was changed from the International Brothers to the Inter-Reformers band. During this era, Obey reached the peak of his 40-year stint in the Juju genre of the Nigerian music industry. Obey and his healthy competitor, King Sunny Ade, soon overshadowed IK Dairo and other Juju musicians in popularity and fame. Obey and King Sunny Ade enjoyed a healthy competition for over 40 years, where both parties signed lucrative deals, got invited to parties, and held spectacular shows.

The rate at which Obey sang at parties greatly increased because his breakout season in the late 1960s and 1970s coincided with two factors. One, it was when the nation was strained ethnic-wise, and the Igbo musicians who sustained the Lagos highlife and partying lifestyle had migrated to the East, which left an expected gap in the music industry. Two, it was during the Nigerian oil boom, and Nigeria was already making a name for itself as a large exporter of crude oil and oil-related minerals, and this meant that Nigerians had enough money to fund a lavish lifestyle. Obey and Sunny Ade, both young and forward-thinking musicians, continued to evolve their style to penetrate people’s hearts, making them increasingly popular and the poster boys for the Nigerian Juju style of music.

Some of Obey’s best albums include Juju Jubilee, Adam and Eve, Inter Reformers, Around the World, and Obey in the 60s. Obey’s evergreen songs include ‘Ori Mi Koni Buru’, ‘Olomi Gbo Temi’, ‘Edumare Soro Mi Dayo’, ‘The Horse, The Man and The Son’ (also called Oro or Ketekete), ‘Miliki’. ‘Olowo Laiye Mo,’ and ‘London La Wa Yi’. He made about 100 albums, many of which were produced by DECCA Records. At a point, the Commander released at least three records every year; yet, the frequency of his albums did not make his fanbase get tired of him and his band, as there were always modifications and new approaches that made each new record stand out from the ones before it. His records are said to have sold millions of copies, and it got to a time that Obey targeted the international market; after all, if one had conquered his locality, the next proof of his excellence is to test other waters. Following his United Kingdom and United States tours, Obey released Current Affairs, a two-track album, in 1980. The album featured Oba Okunade Sijuade and the Ogunpa Flood Disaster.

Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade did not have a pronounced rivalry. However, as it always is with two aces in any field, their fans and the media considered both parties at loggerheads with each other. This rivalry could be said to have helped both talented musicians grow, as rivalry meant that the fans of one artist would want to outdo the other’s fans in the purchase of albums, in attending concerts, and in invitation to parties. Obey’s Juju Miliki sub-genre kept on growing, and there was a time when it was claimed that he had close to 30 players on his band, each playing a different musical instrument.

Though Obey opted for foreign musical instruments midway into his career, he stuck to his traditional style of singing and ensured that his didactic message and prolonged guitar stringing were always present in his songs. He performed at the birthday parties, naming, and burial ceremonies of very important people, and sometimes, he recorded singles or albums based on some of these shows. Some examples of songs recorded based on shows are Adetunji Adeji and Omoba Sijuade. He was fond of praising his band members in his songs; his eulogy of Mutiu Kekere is a case in point. He also sang the praises of Alhaji Alalade Animashaun, Ajala the Traveler.

Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and Moshood Abiola (MKO) had more than one thing in common. They were both born in Ogun State, but beyond that, they were both given birth to when their parents had lost hope of having children. In the end, both Obey and Abiola became very successful. Although many people do not know this, Obey and Abiola shared a close-knitted brotherly bond, and they took this bond further when they both acquired DECCA West Africa Limited, following the Indigenization Decrees of 1972 and 1977. And so it was that Ebenezer Obey, from soliciting for support and promotion at the DECCA West Africa office on the Lagos Island, with the self-confident and prophetic announcement of “I am a future star,” went on to become a star. And not only did he reach stardom, he so excelled that he bought over the company where he once begged to be recorded without pay. Upon purchasing DECCA West Africa, Obey and Abiola renamed the company Afrodisia Limited, a record label that went on to secure the sole rights to all songs released by Ebenezer Obey. For about four decades, Ebenezer Obey enjoyed stardom as a Juju musician, innovator and Juju-genre reformer till he got the call to become a gospel musician.

Story by Toyin Falola

University of Texas, Austin.

culled from Naijatimes.ng