Journalism in the service of society

Roy Chicago’s wealth of folklore

THE entertainment business has this uncanny way of investing artistes with nick names that have stuck – to the point of eventually replacing their real names. Nigeria’s saxophone virtuoso, Paul Isamade who met his untimely death in a car accident in London in 1962 was popularly known as ‘Baby Face Paul.’ They call current guitar maestro Alaba Pedro ‘Alabama’. Alto saxophone legend Charlie Parker was named ‘Bird’ just like Michael Jackson is being fondly referred to as ‘Wacko.’ In the same vein, Nigeria’s John Akintola, a talented musician and a major force in the development of highlife in the early sixties was called ‘Roy Chicago’.

A product of the 50s highlife, he was not exactly a member of the Bobby Benson Orchestra as most historians think. The truth is that he merely learnt the rudiments of music at the feet of Bobby Benson in Lagos. A teacher by profession, he had come from Akure in Ondo State of Nigeria under special arrangement – in the early fifties when the popularity of highlife was gathering momentum and Bobby Benson was seen as being at the center of activity in the country – with his Bobby Benson Jam session as the rallying point. He learnt to play the trumpet and saxophone and in fact almost all the instruments of the orchestra, an experience which Bobby Benson facilitated, even making the intruments available.

Like Zeal Onyia, Eddy Okonta, Chief Bill Friday and even Victor Olaiya who was leading one of Bobby Benson’s musical sets, Chicago majored on the trumpet which became his customary instrument. But he also played the tenor saxophone, an instrument on which I found him more expressive and lyrical – reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young of the Count Basie Orchestra – in terms of tonal conception.

An amiable person and a wonderful band leader, his early notable impact was made at Central Hotel, Ibadan where his aggregation was the resident band at the time that Eddy Okonta was reigning supreme with his Rhythm Aces at Paradise Hotel in the same city.

Eddy Okonta had found his rhythmic concept at the time and had evolved his own individual style which went down well with the audience; but Chicago was still searching for a definite direction. This was in the mid – 50s and in the process, he provided an avenue for a more relaxed and variegated kind of entertainment as, along with imitative highlife of the Ghanaian type he also played dance music forms that included waltz, calypso, jive, fox trot and the like – a mixed grill.

Consequently, while Eddy Okonta attracted the vibrant youth of that period to Paradise Hotel, Roy Chicago’s music interested sophisticated Nigerian elites and foreigners who saw Central Hotel as an ideal place to unwind after a hard day’s job. And on hand as sideman – to provide supportive roles was Etim Udo, a fine saxophonist who was heard in later years with E.C. Arinze at Kakadu in Lagos. His studio recording sessions with Inyang Henshaw, Celestine Ukwu, Zeal Onyia among others in terms of solos and ensemble sound are prodigious, evocative and inspiring, Another important member of Roy Chicago’s outfit at Central Hotel was Marco Bazz, a trumpeter in the Dizzy Gillespie – John Fadis tradition  whose real name was Marcus Bazunu. The band also featured a young alto saxophone player whose name was John Edet, an ardent follower of the saxophone icon, Earl Bostic. These three front line musicians helped to establish the popularity and reputation which Roy Chicago enjoyed at the time.

However, the band disbanded in 1959 with members all going their separate ways. Chicago found is way to Lagos where he eventually made it. The breakthrough came in 1960 with his outstanding performance at the independence celebrations along with Victor Olaiya who was already an established star.

Chicago came into the limelight with his beautiful rendition of calypso music. Added to it was highlife that was rooted in Yoruba traditional culture with the introduction of the talking drum into instrumentation as an integral part of the rhythm section – with such folkloric songs as Yoyo Gbe, Keregbe Emu, Are owo niesa among others as early hits.

Like Rex Lawson, Chicago has the reputation for leading one of the most popular Nigerian – oriented highlife bands in the sixties. They both relied on their roots for inspiration without any iota of influence from Ghana; and Chicago’s approach in particular moved away completely from the seeming church hymnal progressions identified with early big band highlife to identify with African music. Rhythm was his business and it was fundamentally established by the likes of Mike Enahoro, one of the pioneering guitar players with Chicago’s Rhythm Dandies outfit. And, along with drums, conga, maracas, claves, fiddle bass and talking drum, a heavy rhythmic pattern emerged.

He also had young, enterprising musicians on the front line instruments: Trombone player Sam Osayande had the tone of renowned jazz giant J.J.Johnson; and was one of the finest around, often sharing solos with alto saxophonist Olu Idienuma who had a distinctive tone on the instrument even as his solos were jazz – oriented with phrases that were sweet and pleasant to listen to.

Chicago himself doubled on trumpet and tenor saxophone, an instrument he eventually abandoned for “Empress,’ his close relation to take over. The combination of these well-articulated horns gave the band a clean and tidy ensemble sound that spoke for remarkable professionalism. And of course, Roy Chicago was the major vocalist.

The appearance of Tunde Osofisan as vocalist expanded the scope of the band’s repertoire in terms variety even as he came with materials with predictable melodic structures such as Maria and Bosede which sounded fresh and original. The audience loved it. The band had a large following as a result. But whether this departure from the authentic folkloric approach was in the right direction is debatable. However, this new dimension helped to widen the scope of the band’s profound repertoire. And indeed, the Rhythm Dandies had quite a rich repertoire, quite a variety!

One striking phenomenon with the band was that despite the profoundly huge repertoire, the songs all had their distinctly different qualities. Chicago was able to achieve variety in melodic inventiveness as well as the high sense of lyricism because he was quite receptive to ideas. He adopted a cooperative spirit which allowed the band to perform compositions from contributors from various backgrounds:

The materials were many and varied. Mr Akinlolu Fafowora who was then in the Foreign Service composed the famous Wa-Zo-B, Fiwa Jomi, Iba Fun Obi, Ayokele, Igba ewe, Jesu and Baba Mokie. In a viable industry, Fafowora could make a fortune from royalties from these compositions.

Jimi Solanke, a renowned actor and musician wrote Onile gogoro, Khaki No Be Leather and Mama aba mi wi for the band.

Apollo Aramide who later joined the music department of the Nigerian Navy was the first to play the talking drum in the band. He wrote Iyawo Pankeke and Esin Owewu.

The late Adeleye who worked with the Daily Times in those days contributed Aiye Soro, Ajo Nile Aiye and Kale sanwa jowurolo

However, the late Tunde Lawrence, proprietor of Gaskiya College went back to Roy Chicago’s forever authentic folkloric tradition and contributed Owo ya lemi and Keregbe emu with the typical African call – and – response approach.

The late Adeolu Akinsanya gave 50 x 20 and Aiso Aba, the special composition that welcomed Chicago back from incarceration for running down two school children   – in a fatal accident.

In a rather fundamental way, highlife remains the basis and reference point for all   West African indigenous and popular forms. Roy Chicago made his mark by putting his individual stamp on his performances. Unfortunately, he had no access in his time to modern studio recording facilities to capture and preserve the beautiful essence of his highlife. As a result, we cannot enjoy the full benefit of his legacy.

  • First published August 5, 1998, article excerpted from the boo,The Great Highlife Party, by Benson Idonije;  Festac Books; 2014  to mark Idonije’s 80th birthday anniversary celebration)
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