Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey: Still Evergreen

Everyone has his or her favorite guitar hero, but when it comes to juju music, you have to give it up for the maestro Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey. At the recent Globacom entertainment platform, better known as Evergreen Series, a star-studded music concert in Lagos, die-hard lovers of Obey rekindled their love for his rhythms and appreciated his lyrics, writes Lanre Alfred

The characteristic music of every race is forged from the very passionate heat of its sorrows, dreams of the future and attainments of the day. However, only a few minds can create order out of chaos, happiness, concrete and abstract intimations of what the future may hold. Only a very few creative minds can do that. And such great minds constitute a gift to every race and generation. Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey is a leading light in his generation.

Old Wine Tastes Better

Despite the trans-generational appeal of the current Hip Hop genre, some enthusiasts believe that Nigerian music can never be as good as it was in the yester years. Starting with his innovative efforts in the 1950s with a live band, and conscious attempts to modernize his art through subsequent decades, Obey basically wrote a book on how to apply the language of the blues to a highly amplified instrument and ramp it all up with folk-rock intensity. His stunning displays introduced instrumental virtuosity to a popular music genre.

Ebenezer Obey may have quit the popular music genre but he never falls short of his spectacular lyricism, which made him the darling of many a local and international music enthusiast as well as the poster icon for generations of Nigeria’s music hopefuls.

For music stars like Obey, opportunities will always come up for them to showcase their enduring artistry: the Globacom Evergreen Series, a studded music concert, presented such an opportunity for lovers of the Juju maestro to rekindle their love for his rhythms and appreciate his lyrics. Obey’s performance at the concert, among other things, reawakened memories of his dazzling creativity and early achievements both as a Juju music champion and innovator, particularly his endless array of evergreen recordings that convinced the world that a guitar cradling Nigerian folk musician could often express as much as some of the the world’s greatest lyricists.

…At the Evergreen Concert

Intercontinental Hotel, Lekki, Lagos, the venue of the concert creaked at the eaves as Obey hit the bandstand, the old simply got caught and lost in a mesmerizing lyrical swirl while the young Afro-hip hop generation kept pleading for an encore.

Obey effortlessly laid to rest fears that he might find it difficult to put up a spectacular performance like he recently did in a joint concert with fellow pioneer Juju music exponent, King Sunny Ade.

Contrary to perceptions that he may fall short of expectation at the Glo Evergreen Series concert, Obey emphatically upped his game and put up an even more spectacular performance than he did when he shared the stage with King Sunny Ade. The setting of the show was regal. Only a few guests could resist the allure of watching a fusion of different generations of music.  The concert also paraded the talented duo of Jude Abaga, better known as MI, and Yemi Sax. With a saxophonist, a rapper and an iconic juju musician billed to thrill guests, many were positively anxious to see what such a premium assemblage would deliver.

Indeed, the performers did not disappoint the guests who looked every inch delectable in their gorgeous attires.  First to mount the stage was Obey.  He started the evening with a song that paid tribute to God titled Iba lo ye Kase and gave the audience the rare privilege of requesting for any of his favourite songs, which he promptly rendered to their delight.  Without betraying the slightest sign of old age, Obey took total control of the stage right from the first strike on his guitar.  Moved by the classic rendition, significant members of the audience could not hold the urge to dance.

As he rendered his timeless and enduring evergreen songs, it was all too evident how he has been able to hold Nigeria and, indeed, the world spellbound with his music over the years. The evangelist also took time out to spice up his performance with some anecdotes.

Obey, Yemi Sax and MI: The Beautiful Collabo

Dreadlocked Yemi Sax, garbed in a white caftan, was the next to thrill the audience with his dexterity on the saxophone.  He reeled out tunes of the “old school” aided by soundtrack from the DJ to the delight of the audience.

MI was at his vintage best that night as he dished out hits of contemporary flavor.  The concert audience, a mix of different generations, brought together by their love for music, danced and sang along with Mr. Incredible who mesmerised all with his stagecraft.

By the time MI left the stage, guests were already in another realm of musical bliss. The highpoint of the event was the collaboration by Obey and the two younger artistes, M.I. and Yemi Sax, whom Obey described as his children.

They performed together to the immense admiration of the crowd. Obey led the way with two of his evergreen tracks Ore mi e se Pelepele and Olomi gbo Temi with M.I. emblazoning his signature rap pattern into the two songs. Yemi Sax also jazzed up the tunes with his saxophone.  Their performances drew spontaneous burst of applause.
The show was aptly anchored by two foremost resourceful comedians, Gbenga Adeyinka and Okey  Bakassi.  They laced the show with rib cracking jokes.
Obey, who got a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd, thanked Globacom for the great honour done to him by being the first Nigerian artiste to be featured on the Glo Evergreen Series platform.
He commended the Chairman of Globacom for conferring the epithet of Great Commander on him.

Obey’s Professional Career

The Juju music exponent started his professional career in the mid-1950s under the tutelage of late highlife musician Fatai Rolling-Dollar. After years of tasking but worthwhile apprenticeship under the highlife artiste, Obey left Fatai Rolling Dollar's band, and relocated to Lagos, where he formed his band and named it, The International Brothers in 1964. The band, which played a fusion of highlife and juju music, later metamorphosed into the Inter-Reformers Band in the early-1970s, produced a long list of Juju album hits on the Decca music label.

Obey attributes his gift of lyrics to God. According to him, he finds it very easy to compose his songs, an achievement he readily acknowledged as beyond the skill of many music artistes. “It’s not just about becoming a composer, it doesn’t start and end there, but what kind of songs are you composing?  That is the question,” he explained. “If you can compose good songs, good songs last forever, it will become a point of reference and you would easily become the benchmark for good musicianship”.
People want to listen to Obey everywhere; some love to listen to him all of the time.  Perhaps it has to do with his wonderful artistry. People know an artiste for his qualities. And Ebenezer Obey is indeed, a man of exceptional qualities.

Experimenting with Yoruba Percussion

Obey began experimenting with Yoruba percussion style and expanding on the band by adding more drums, guitars and talking drums. Obey's musical strength lies in weaving intricate Yoruba axioms into dance-floor compositions. As is characteristic of Nigerian Yoruba social-circle music, the Inter-Reformers band excelled in praise-singing of rich Nigerian socialites and business tycoons. Obey flourished in music and artistry in the 1970s, which was an era characterized by many firsts and experimentation in Nigerian music culture. Afro-fusion brand of music was being popularized by the late Afrobeat genius, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, but alongside this revolution, juju music was also flourishing with Ebenezer Obey and Sunny Ade as major exponents who were perceived at the time by their numerous fans as archrivals.

An intriguing aspect of this development was that the two musicians had their different styles, backgrounds and approaches, a situation which made this perceived rivalry a healthy one that added value to the emerging juju music of that period. It was not the type of rivalry that engendered bad blood but that of competition, motivating each exponent into releasing records that were capable of outdoing the other person. The situation forced both men to work harder on their lyrics and instrumentation, all of which helped them churn out great memorable hits that have become the classics of Nigerian and African music.

One memorable song that projected Obey’s music in a career overdrive was ‘Board Members’ recorded in 1972 upon the band's return from Britain. Other hits of the period were Iwa ika Kope (1974), KeteKete, Epo Ila (1973), Ota mi Dehin Lehin Mi (1976), Eto Igbeyawo and Madele (1974) among several others.

While King Sunny Ade contributed in no small measure to the development of juju music in the country – for instance, they both re-introduced multiple guitars which were used as far back as the 1940s by the Jolly Boys Orchestra into their instrumentation – Obey claimed responsibility for introducing Western drum kits and the transition of the music from a neo-traditional form to an urban social type.

Obey who made his first record in 1963 said: "I noticed that people like to stick to their own ways, especially old people. They don't want to compromise. But the younger ones always want freedom from the old system. They want new things; and knowing that, I modernized the music, and created my own fashion in music, the ‘Miliki’ system.”
And he never stopped at that, Obey happened to contribute meaningfully to the modernization of juju music. Before he came on the scene, the fathers of juju music only played one guitar but he introduced three guitars and arranged it in such a way that it caught the attention of both the youth and the older folks, and it worked.

The three guitars are tenor, rhythm and lead and in order to keep the competition aflame, King Sunny Ade emphasized the innovation of the tenor guitar, which Bob Ohiri, who was exposed to it in Fela's Africa ’70, later played in Sunny's African Beats aggregation. It’s been a long while from the era in which Ebenezer Obey emerged to command the planes of Nigeria’s juju music genre yet the juju music exponent, though he had since retired into active gospel music and evangelism, is still famous for the timeless Christian spiritual themes in his music.

The Globacom series will be staged in different parts of the country with each edition featuring different music legends collaborating with highly rated musicians.

On Secret of His Evergreen Music

"I want to give thanks to God Almighty and I want to return all the glory and honor to His Holy name because of the journey, God is my everything.  He is the architect of my life, who by His love purposed and arranged my life to be what it has been in the last 71 years.”

On His Musical Lyrics

Obey described his ability to compose easy flowing lyrics as, "the gift of God.  It is very easy for me to compose songs, not everybody can do that.  It’s not just about becoming a composer, it doesn’t start and end there, but what kind of songs are you composing?  That is the question.  If you can compose good songs, good songs lasts forever, it will become a point of reference.  People would want to play it everywhere; they want to listen to it all the time.  People know an artiste for his qualities. If I’m on the bed the inspiration to compose comes, early in the morning when I woke up and go to the toilet, it comes. It can come anywhere even on stage. You can’t compose when you’re occupied; no that’s why it comes when people cannot disturb me, on my bed and toilet.” Funny enough, he said: "My Parents were not musicians.  My father was a carpenter, my mother came from Kesi family of Owu, Abeokuta and their village is Abese in Ifo Local government”. 

Memories of Glo Evergreen Concert

Till date, episodes of the evergreen concert colour the memories of music enthusiasts and fans lucky enough to be part of the grand event. Olumide Atanda, a Juju music enthusiast, who flew in from Manchester, United Kingdom to witness the concert, described it as a once in a lifetime experience. “I do not regret coming for the show at all. It’s an experience you live to remember. There is need for more corporate entities and the government to put together concerts like Glo’s Evergreen concert…they will serve the purpose of enriching our music experience and intimating younger generations of wonderful music and artistry that was the foundation of whatever contemporary music fare we project now,” said Atanda.

Indeed, many who were at the show relive the experience with infectious delight and a craving for an encore.

The Juju music maestro and one of Africa's greatest music legends described the Glo Evergreen Series concert as a very good development and an opportunity for the younger generation to learn from the legends of Nigerian and African music. This, he explained, serves to facilitate the transmission of a very rich and enduring music culture across the generational divide in Nigeria and the African continent as a whole.

“The Glo Evergreen Series has opened another vista in the entertainment industry, which will be cherished forever. Through the platform, living legends will have an opportunity to mentor the young ones and improve the quality of contemporary music on the continent,” he said. The music genius also commended the Globacom management, particularly its founder and Chairman, Dr. Mike Adenuga Jr. for deeming it fit to introduce the evergreen series.

“He is a man of honor and integrity who has contributed immensely to the growth of our economy through creation of jobs for many Nigerians,” he said.
Obey described MI and Yemi Sax who performed with him as promising young artistes with appreciable following and the ability to enrich and add greater value to the music industry by their artistry and messages.

The Glo Evergreen series is a special music concert packaged to honour outstanding African musicians who have contributed immensely to the growth and development of the continents’ music industry for decades. Globacom is collaborating with two top Nigerian companies, Nigerian Breweries and top notch Nigerian Airline, Arik Air to celebrate African musical legends and icons.

The Glo Evergreen Series saw Obey belt out the best of his evocative music. Both the old and young music enthusiasts in attendance were captivated by his sweet mellifluous voice as he dipped into his repertoire of old songs, treating them to a rare musical experience.

Culled rom ThisDay