Journalism in the service of society

Recalling the phenomenal ‘Metamorphosis’… Steve Rhodes’ musical legacy

(Tribute to Steve Omodele Bankole Rhodes — April 8, 1926 – May 29, 2008)

(The music impresario, Steve Omodele Bankole Rhodes passed on 13 years ago this week — May 29, 2008. In his glorious memory and honour, the article below, first published first published Friday, February 9, 2007 in The Guardian and also featured in the book, The Great Highlife Party by Benson Idonije, which captured  the essence of his artistic legacy, is reproduced)

THE collaboration of the Nation­al Troupe of Nigeria with the celebrated Steve Rhodes Orchestra in performance produced wonderful results last weekend.

 The venue was Hall 2 of the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, where Metamorphosis, the evolu­tion of highlife in Nigeria further received a big promotional boost. Fresh dimensions were added to performance to capture the mood of the past. And coupled with the big band treatment of the various vin­tage sounds and the historical com­mentary that described the music and the scene, it seemed no less than the creative treatment of actuality.

The show was billed for three days from Friday through to Sunday at 6 p.m. each day. The command per­formance which I attended was well packed with artistes and highlife devotees obviously because it was free. And the reaction of this enor­mous crowd was warm and enthusi­astic, to say the least, contrary to the accepted notion that Nigerians are difficult to please from their seem­ingly lukewarm reaction to and appreciation of artistic performance. The audience yelled and screamed after every performance. Excite­ment almost reached bursting point with performances of high artistic excellence.

The show was planned and struc­tured to a specific pattern, otherwise the engrossed interest exhibited by an audience that remained intact till the end, was obviously calling for a continuation – until God knows when.The implication of this unprece­dented acceptance is that there is now a general awareness that highlife is the basis of our popular music culture; there is now a resurgence in the popularity of the music.

The other side to this development is that the decline of the music is due in part to the inactivity of our musicians who have refused to patronise the music-for public con­sumption. If the scene was vibrant, there would be as many Steve Rhodes Orchestras as there were highlife veterans, all advancing the cause of this musical culture in various styles and dimensions. 

Part of the problem is that the highlife vet­erans alive today are still playing the songs that made them popular in the 50s and 60s, the same way that they did at that time, note for note, phrase for phrase, melody for melody. Needless to say that there are no new melodies emerging to lend a new dimension to the music. They have failed to inspire the new gener­ation of musicians who are now looking outwards for hip hop and rap.

Highlife in fact began to decline in the mid-60s after it had endured for decades. The first artiste to realize this drift was Fela Ransome-Kuti who gave it a revitalising effect with the jazz-oriented highlife version. It was an innovation which should have called for popular acclaim and acceptance in a scene that was musi­cal enough to appreciate the dynam­ic nature of music which is an expression of culture. 

But some of the leading highlife musicians of that period frowned at this innova­tion, saying that the music was being adulterated and polluted. They failed to recognise Fela’s cre­ativity and artistic bid to take the music to a new level. 

Even when I wrote the liner notes to Fela’s early highlife LP saying that Fela had emerged at a time that highlife was almost becoming a drab, I was casti­gated and persecuted by some of the veterans who are still alive today, busy rehashing the same music in the same old fashion.They continue to blame the youth for failing to appreciate their music while they make no effort to up date and extend the limits of highlife in tune with the dynamics of our culture.

Fela drove his experimentation beyond highlife through to Afrobeat which some critics regard as the exten­sion of highlife — And why not? Steve Rhodes is adding a new dimension to the evolution of highlife through recre­ating some of the old songs for big band instrumentation. Many more vet­erans should but they are lacking in the wherewithal — a sound musical knowledge — the type that would be able to arrange and score music for a band the way Fela also did. 

The knowl­edge that is also lacking is the ability to interpret scores by other arrangers the way it has happened with Metamorpho­sis where the prolific S. Uquah Jnr is responsible for giving a face lift to such highlife classics as Taxi Driver, lyawo Pankeke, Joromi, Time for Highlife, Omo pupa, Olomi and Mr. Fantastic. 

Steve Rhodes himself transformed hits like Onilegogoro, Onidodo, Abuja, Ailo, Sisi and Love Adure. Ayo Bankole Jnr rearranged Fela’s Water No Get Enemy for big band configuration while pianist Owoaje crafted Lagbajas Cool Temper for big band setting.The big band is represented in all its ‘ramifications, comprising almost all the instruments of the orchestra-trum­pets, trombones, saxes and the guitar-bass-drums format.

Conducting the band was young Benneth Ogbeiwi who performed this role with precision and professional poise. He also doubled on vocals with a con­cert voice that is evidently struggling to break out from this mould. His inter­pretations of Cool Temper and Mr. Fantastic were remarkable, posing challenges to the original versions.

Tunde Osofisan, ex-Roy Chicago singer and sideman has continued to prove that his voice has not diminished in strength and quality since 1960 when he joined the Rhythm Dandies. He proves this point every last Sunday of the month at the highlife revival parties held at O’Jez club. But he further emphasised this ability at the National Theatre last weekend when he sang two classics from Roy Chicago’s Rhythm Dandies’ song book. He gave beautiful treatments to Onilegogoro composed by the actor and musician, Jimmy Solanke and lyawo Pankeke written by the talking drummer, Apollo Aramide,

Perhaps the high point of the night’s vocal projections was the appearance of Bongolipso, an actor, musician from Delta State who has taken part in numerous stage plays particularly with the National troupe of Nigeria. His adaptation of a Rex Lawson  melody was lyrically instructive. With arrangement by Steve Rhodes himself the

song spoke to our present situation and provided food for thought.

Big band highlife interpretation began with Bobby Benson’s Taxi Dri­ver, which was created in the early 50s. But the story actually began with Fatai Rolling Dollar who simulated and cap­tured the essence of early highlife — from the 1930s.

The documentary aspect was enhanced by Steve Rhodes’ narration along a definite story line, but the mood of the past was captured to lend reality to the story by dancers from the National Troupe. Simulation also included the Afro hairstyle of the 60’s, the baggy trousers that men wore and the mode of dancing that prevailed at the time.

Metamorphosis was produced by Ahmed Yerima with Mrs. Hannatu Ibrahim, MFR as executive producer. Musical Director was Steve Rhodes himself with Benneth Ogbeiwi as con­ductor.

  • * First published Friday, February 9, 2007


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Steve Rhodes: A profile

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BORN to the family of Bankole Rhodes, a Nigerian judge and Mabel Jones Rhodes,  Steve Rhiodes’ interest in music began at the age of seven when received piano lessons from Kofo Abayomi and then was a choir-boy in the Christ Church Cathedral choir under T.K.E. Philips

He had his secondary school educations at various times at the CMS Grammar School, Dennis Memorial School, Onitsha and Enitonna High School in Port Harcout. While  studying for degree in politics and economics, he met a German music teacher who promised to give him lessons if he moved to Germany, Rhodes obliged and moved to Germany where he was taught music history, conducting and orchestration. To survive, he played in quartets, jazz clubs and worked with the British Forces Broadcasting Service.

In 1956, he returned to Nigeria and started work with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, where  he formed and led the radio orchestra called the NBC Dance Orchestra, a big band that also had dance music in its repertoire. He left NBC in 1958, and in 1961, took up appointment with the Western Nigerian Television as a programme director.

In 1971, he formed The Voices, first as a church band following the prompting of a pastor of the Christ Church Cathedral, Marina who desired a musical band to attract bigger crowd. The Voices later became the Steve Rhodes Voices, SRV, and much later transformed to the Steve Rhodes Orchestra, SRO.

The SRO went on many international tours where it won awards at prestigious festivals and competitions.  Its most memorable last big show was Metamorphosis, a large-scale multi-format production which featured a rich menu of music, dance, drama, poetry and spectacles. It was jointly organised by the SRO and the National Troupe of Nigeria, under its then Director of Music, Godwin and supervision of the artistic director of the troupe, Dr Ahmed Yerima, now a professor.

Steve Rhodes, who in the 60s also promoted the work of the late afrobeat legend, Fela Ransome-Kuti, died May 29, 2008, in a London hospital, where he had been admitted following a bout of illness.

On occasion of the 10th anniversary of his passing, his family endowed the Elder Steve Rhodes Award for the Best Graduating Music Student from the University of Lagos, and the first prize was presented during the University of Lagos Convocation ceremony on February 20, 2018.

*Adapted from Wikipedia

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