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An April date for the highlife maestro, Ajilo

An April date for the highlife maestro, Ajilo 4

The family of the legendary highlife musician, ChristopherAbiodun Ajilo, who died February 20 have announced that his final send-forth would hold April April 15 and 16.

His exit at age 91 has attracted a gale of tributes, which attest to his legendary status in the music and art community.  

Aside being a pioneer of the musical form, Ajilo had also helped to train, mentor and shape the career of many musicians who became great exponent of the form. He had also helped to expose and advance the career of many artists, through his service as; first, the Stage and Production Manager of the once-famous Lekki Sunsplash, founded by Dapo Adelegan of DP Lekki Limited and later, Benjamin Black, then a fresh graduate teenager under whom, humble Ajilo subsumed his huge reputation as an established artiste to serve; and second, as Manager of the Nigeria Copyright society. 

Renowned for his classic numbers such as Ariwo, composed in 1963, but given international appeal by Osibisa, and Eko o gba grebe, which was at a point considered for adoption as an anthem for Lagos, Pa Ajilo was a legend in the true sense of the word. He was in the class of those greats as Bobby Bension, Victor Olaiya, Roy Chicago, Adeolu Akinsanya, Ralph Amarabem, EC Arinze, Babyface Paul, and Fela Kuti long others, many of whose career he moulded.

Last December, he was 91, and his family, and associates including the journalist, Public relations practitioner, Abayomi Opakunle staged a modest celebration of his meaningful life and illustrious career. There was so much hope that he would continue to enjoy his retirement even at such an advanced age. However the music stopped for the man, easily referred to as a master of the saxophone and melodic highlife.

The veteran writer on music and broadcasting, Benson Idonije had earlier written about the contribution of Ajilo to the founding and advancement of not just highlife, but other indigenous forms of music. The article, first published in Idonije’s now rested famous column, Evergreen in The Guardian, was eventually included in his seminal book, THE GREAT HIGHLIFE PARTY, published by Festac Books and Culture Advocates Caucus t mark Idonije’s 80th birthday anniversary on June 2014.

An April date for the highlife maestro, Ajilo 5

…Born into music festivities, lived to the rhythms of his name

By Benson Idonije

CHRIS Ajilo whose real names are Christopher Abiodun Kola Ajilo is one of Nigeria’s foremost living legends of highlife, dance music and jazz.

As a composer, he has not written with the quantity of an Osadebe or Rex Jim Lawson or Roy Chicago, but the few songs to his composi­tional credit have enormous quality in terms of being melodically inventive and lyrically mes­sage-driven.

For him, it is important that every piece of music that is clearly his piece of music be iden­tified as his piece of music – Eko ogba gbere, Ojuere, Orilonise among others.

In a couple of months, the saxophone legend will be 82, but I had an intimate encounter with him 12 years ago when he was 70.  “I was born on Boxing Day, December 26, 1929 when Lagos was Lagos,” he said, smiling. “As my mother was trying to give birth to me, the fes­tivities of Christmas were going on our street, Okepopo, Lagos with the fancy dress boys dancing, cow boys riding on horses.”

Born into a Christian family, his father was a lay reader in church. He started going to church at a very early age, singing with the choir. But his interest in music actually began from CMS Grammar School, Lagos where music was one of the compulsory subjects for all students –at least for the first two years. It eventually became optional. He went to Christ Church Cathedral, and left there for CMS Grammar School, which was next door.

“At the school,” he recalls, “we were taught the theory of music – every student for three years. There were instruments like piano, drums which some of us played. But there were also singers and choral groups,” notes Ajilo.

An April date for the highlife maestro, Ajilo 6
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Did Chris Ajilo study music abroad? “I left for the United States of America in 1946 — to study engineering, but I got introduced to music which later took pre-eminence. I left within a year because in those days, American certifi­cates were not recognised. I started studying automobile engineering in America. When I got to England, I decided to go to Birmingham to continue my studies. I was working and studying at the same time. It was there that the love of music started to grow in me.”

On account of his profound interest in music, he took time out and went to the dance halls to listen to various orchestras in actual perform­ance – Ted Heath, Humphrey Lyttelton, Acker Bilk, Johnny Dankworth and his Orchestra which started as Dankworth 7 but later grew up to become a large orchestra. He decided to pursue the study of music with a serious sense of commitment. Said he:

“It was in Birmingham that I decided to take up music – 1 went to London and enrolled at the Central School of Music with Ivor Mairant who was a very good musician and guitarist. I was learning composition and instrumental music. One of my tutors was Eric Gilder. The first instrument I had was an alto saxophone which I bought at a pawn shop — a very old instrument. Within three months, it was falling to pieces.”

How did he find another saxophone?  “There was a shop called ‘The Saxophone’ owned by an old man. Each time I went to school, I would wait to feed my eyes by looking at the instru­ments. One day, he called me and asked if I wanted to buy. I told him, yes, but I could not afford it. He now asked me to come to his shop so he could introduce me to his technicians who repaired instruments in that shop – so he could get some for me to play

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“I did, and in the process, the technician taught me how to repair instruments. I too started to repair. Each time I finished with one, the owner would come and collect it — that was how I learnt to repair instruments. The advan­tage was for me to play before the owners came to collect. There was little time left between the end of repairs and the time the owners came to collect. This arrangement did not help me much. But later, I saved up to buy my own instrument – the tenor saxophone.”

As soon as he became proficient and confi­dent on the instrument, Ajilo joined the Junior and Senior bands of the school. That was where he met Sammy Lartey- with an associa­tion that endured. He introduced Lartey to the school.

Some of his teachers were Eric Gilder, Johnny Dankworth, Don Brandel, Ronny Scott and Aubrey Frank, a clarinet teacher. He played in London while still in school — with some English boys. He performed at Mayfare Club in Manchester, had a stint with Arthur Rowbury at Astoria, Nottingham. Chris Ajilo came back home to Nigeria in January 1955.

How did he find his feet on the Nigerian music scene? “The same day I came, I started leading a band. Kazoo Anifowose who was in my band in Birmingham had come home long before me to arrange a band for me. By the time I came, a band had been assembled for me at West End Cafe, which was owned by Larinde Cole with my sister Comfort Ajilo as vocalist

“The band was West End Cool Cats in line with the Cool Cats I led in London. Sammy Lartey who had left London with me also joined the band. Actually, the band featured Bala Miller on 2nd trumpet; Victor Olaiya 3rd trumpet; Chris Ajilo, saxophone; Sammy Lartey, saxo­phone; Kazool, 1st trumpet; Tex Oluwa, bass; Lander Saxore, percussion.

The band played jazz, dance music of the ball room type such as waltz, tango, fox trot, quick step, swing, Latin American, Latin, all sorts.” The band lasted for only three months.

Why did it disband after so short a time? “Yes. I left the band – because I found it strange that musicians did not own their instruments. My plan was to have my own band. I just accepted to play because it had already been assembled for me before I came.”

How did he pick up the pieces? “I now went to Ghana where I first met Chief Bill Friday. He was then playing at weekends in Havana, owned by a Nigerian. They were mostly Nigerians in the band. I was with them for a few weeks before I came back home to form my own band in August 1955 – ‘Chris Ajilo and His Cubanos’. We did a lot of touring across the West Coast featuring Marco Bazz on trumpet; Tony Obbs, saxophone; Omoba Johnson, trom­bone; Bayo Martins, drum; Tex Oluwa, bass; Lander Saxore, bongos.”

According to Chris Ajilo, “we started the first tea time dance at Ambassador Hotel, Yaba. We played there each time we came back from tours. Bobby Benson played when we were away. In between, Bobby wanted me to play in his band – and I refused. Finally, we agreed to form a group called ‘Bens Ajilo’ — featuring Benson, Sammy Lartey and Chris Ajilo. We played at Chez Peters, Balogun Square, Lagos every Thursday. The band lasted for a short while – this was before the formation of the Cubanos.”

At what point did Chris become a prominent member of NBC Dance Orchestra? “NBC Dance Orchestra came into existence in 1957 with Steve Rhodes as Head of music. The band was recording every week with musicians such as E.C, Arinze, trumpet; Modebe, drums; Chris Ajilo, saxophone; Israel Banjo, trom­bone; Mike Falana, trumpet; Sammy Lartey, saxophone; Ayo Vaughan, bass; lekan Animashaun, baritone saxophone; Lander Sasore, bongos among many others.”

Chris Ajilo kept the Cubanos intact until the 70’s, a 12-piece band that was split with two sec­tions – one playing at the Mainland – Apapa Club and the other at Ikoyi Club.

In 1964, Chris Ajilo went to Ibadan to settle into the residency of Gangan Night Club, Lafia Hotel while also featuring instrumental music at the University of Ibadan International School. All through the civil war, he was in Ibadan where he also performed on regular basis with an operation that comprised essentially some of his students at the international school.

He came back to Lagos in 1971 to team up with the late Art Alade on the popular ‘Art Alade Show1 while also leading The Jazz Preachers. He also taught music at the Nigerian Institute of Music from where he joined Phonogram Recording Company, “It was from the Institute of Music that I was invited to join Phonogram which later became Polygram – as a producer in 1979. I was there till 1991 when it was sold to Premier Music. From 1992, I became a consultant to the compa­ny. I was the Artiste and Repertoire Manager for Polygram. In 1996, I left Premier for the Performing and Mechanical Rights Society (PMRS).”

Chris Ajilo has since left Lagos for his home­town in semi-retirement status, running a music school; but occasional­ly, he comes to Lagos to perform for the pleasure of it. Some of his record releases include, Eko ogba gbere, Ojurere, Onidodo, Ariwo, Oh Christiana, llu Eko, Orilonise.

  • Originally titled: Chris Ajilo… Encounter with A Living Legend, the article first published Wednesday October 12, 2011 is in the collection The Great Highlife Party, published by Festac News Book in June 2016 to mark 80th birthday anniversary of Benson Idonije.
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