A conversation with Ebenezer Obey-Fabiyi (Part 3)
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 realised 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 implores 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 9-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.
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 Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale 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 Indigenisation 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, Chief Ebenezer Obey enjoyed stardom as a Juju musician and Juju-genre reformer and innovator till he got the call to become a gospel musician.
…A humble custodian of morals (Part 4)
(This is the first report on the interview conducted with Chief Ebenezer Obey-Fabiyi on April 18, 2021. With viewers on three platforms now at over 16,000, there is a strong loyalty between him and his admirers. For its entire recording, see https://youtu.be/nAJbdi0nJUw)
HOW should a man who has tasted the different flavours of fame express his gratitude for his many blessings? He could take his cue from Chief Ebenezer Obey MFR, the most recent guest at the famous Toyin Falola Interviews. During the interview, the Chief Commander was asked if he could count his blessings, and he replied that they were too numerous for him to quantify. Nevertheless, he expressed his thanks to God for his days of little beginnings and the musical talent and the grace granted him to use such talent in a way that brought him global fame. He also thanked his parents for the education, love, and sacrifice; and the mentors God placed in his life early in his career. A reflection on his music will prove the legend’s claim that his blessings are too numerous to mention.
Chief Ebenezer Obey is famous for the sweet-sounding beats of his songs and the didactic message of most of his tracks. In a world where moral decadence is on the rise, what can music do to help? Are songs for entertainment and socialization alone? For this musical maestro, songs should not serve to entertain alone; they must also serve as tools for change in society. His music records are full of morals and advice for the youth, with the songs drawn from his personal experience to educate the youth and guide them on the right path. When adults make mistakes, those mistakes should serve as a warning and guide for the young, and that is one of the common elements of Chief Ebenezer Obey’s songs. A quick mental review of his songs will show how incessantly the musician hammers the importance of virtues such as humility, hard work, and patriotism. He has often been referred to by critics and reviewers as the only musician of the Juju music order whose focus is not on singing about women, alcohol, and other themes popular among musicians in the same genre. His songs are didactic, encouraging, and good projectors of real-life issues.
Indigenous folklore has been the safe musical haven for many song composers for as long as anyone can remember. From the days of Nigeria’s earliest musicians like Fela Sowande to Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade, to contemporary musicians like The Cavemen and Burna Boy, we have always had musicians who seek musical muse in the refuge of the abundance of traditional folklore. However, what happens when one sings gospel music? Can traditional folklore still be kept to? Is there a link between one’s genre of music and traditional folklore? Chief Ebenezer Obey can be regarded as a custodian of our traditions and culture through music. This same Chief Ebenezer Obey is a Christian music evangelist. In responding to questions on whether or not traditional folklore and Christianity should meet in music, Chief Ebenezer Obey said both could work hand-in-hand, as the adoption of the Christian faith is not tantamount to the abandonment of the riches of our traditional folklore and culture. According to him, “Some people have a misconception that once you’re a Christian, you have to do away with culture. But that is not and can never be possible because it’s not possible for anyone to do away with culture.” True to the Chief Commander’s assertion, culture is the way of life of a people; therefore, it cannot go into total extinction. Serving God does not hinder one from respecting and loving one’s culture. In fact, a creative cannot do without the culture because most creative endeavors are fabrics of culture.
Listen to him: For example, take a Juju or Fuji musician; the ability to tell compelling stories and combine them with excellent sounds differentiate the average Juju or Fuji musician from the legends. Storytelling is an important aspect of music genres like Juju and Fuji, and our culture encourages storytelling. The art of storytelling is one of the fabrics of our culture, and we constantly hear songs woven from popular folklore, both legendary and contemporary songs. The songs woven from stories are more relatable to the audience because they are hinged on a known story, and they serve as an eye-opener for the younger ones. Cultural folklores spice up the musical world, and they get us closer to nature, which in turn gets us closer to God. Obey’s “The Horse, The Man and The Son” is an example of a song based on popular folklore. Obey amplifies the message of one’s inability to please everyone with this lore. He does not rest at telling this story but draws on examples that reflect how insatiable humans are.
Chief Ebenezer Obey enjoyed the support, love and sacrifice of his mother, which served as a stepping stone to his success. His mother always shared life lessons and Yoruba maxims with him, which sharpened his knowledge of the Yoruba folklore. Beyond the life lessons that Mrs. Abigail Fabiyi shared with her son, she was always there for him. According to the Chief Commander, his mother lived for her children; that was her purpose. Mrs. Fabiyi dedicated her time and resources to ensuring that her children become great in life, which made her reluctant about Ebenezer Obey becoming a musician. Obey’s prodigious journey in the world of music started from his earliest years on earth. His mother always discouraged him from moving about with musical troupes, claiming that she would love to become a popular and influential person, not a riff-raff musician. She wanted him to become a doctor or a lawyer, as those were the professions she considered responsible.
Mrs. Fabiyi’s fears were born out of motherly love and a genuine wish that her children succeed. She thought that music would not bring her son the desired success she envisioned for him. She believed that stereotypical societally-stamped professions were the only means through which Obey could become successful and ride “bless your car.” Obey’s mother deployed all the motherly negotiation skills in her arsenal, but the Chief Commander was passionately resolute about surviving and thriving in the music world. The biggest, yet unspoken, fear of Mrs. Fabiyi was that her son would indulge in the vices popular among musicians–drug abuse, alcoholism, smoking, and the likes. When she eventually disclosed this fear to the young Obey, he vowed and promised his mom that he would not indulge in these vices, and true to his vows, he was neither a smoker nor a drunkard, no a drug abuser as a musician. The windows to indulge in these vices were truly thrown open, but the Chief Commander kept the promises he made to his mother.
What defines a legend? Is it their contributions or their legacies? The life of Chief Ebenezer Obey proves that a legend is not defined by what they have achieved in their field alone but also by their contributions and legacies, and the Chief Commander is a legend in every sense of the word. A celebrated Juju musician, composer, and pioneer of the Juju Miliki sub-genre, Ebenezer Obey took his legendary status some steps further by setting up a foundation and the Ebenezer Obey Music and Skills Acquisition Institute. The institute offers young talents the opportunity to learn the ropes of a musical career while also learning valuable skills to empower them, make them employable and relevant in today’s world. The idea of a skills acquisition program was spun from the belief that skills can never become too saturated and skills can never be irrelevant.
The Ebenezer Obey Foundation also supports young talents who do not have the financial capability to enroll at the institute. It is a rare privilege that the likes of Ebenezer Obey could learn the ropes of music through non-formal education and still create the fantastic music they created during their prime time. However, the world has evolved, and one excellent way developed countries have stayed true to bringing up and molding musical talents is through musical schools and institutes. It is a joy to see that Ebenezer Obey is a pioneer in total music education in Nigeria.
There are claims that Juju music went into inexistence following Chief Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade’s bowing out from the genre of music. Juju is a music genre whose complexities and fusions require brilliance and talent. It was Nigeria’s most popular music genre during the prime of Obey and KSA, but it is believed that the music genre lost its elevated position when both musicians switched to gospel music. What then is the fate of Juju music? Will it return to its elevated position? Will it enjoy patronage? Will rising musicians explore the Juju genre? Nonetheless, the Chief Commander said he has come across musicians whose brilliance and style of play prove that the future of Juju music is bright. He mentioned his collaboration with popular contemporary musician Simi, in her cover of “Aimasiko” as a sign that the new generation of music artists enjoy Juju, and quite a number of them infuse the genre into their music.
One of the interview highlights was the suggestion to immortalise Obey’s name by connecting his fame to solving poverty and the possibility of opening a museum to keep various objects, photographs, and records. The Toyin Falola Interview with Chief Ebenezer Obey was a moment of truth, discovery, and revelations that aptly defines Obey as a charismatic, patriotic, accommodating, religiously tolerant, and talented musician. His responses to the questions at the interview portray him as a national asset with a wealth of experience who is ready to contribute as much as he can to the advancement and development of Nigeria. Obey’s songs are relevant to older people, his contemporaries and agemates, and the later generation also finds the evergreen songs enjoyable.