Africa: I Gave Fela, Sunny Okosun, Others Their Break – Odion Iruoje
It was a discussion in the newsroom of LEADERSHIP on how Fela Anikulapo-Kuti attained stardom and who gave him his early break that led the duo of TAYO ADELAJA and HANNAH ONI to the quiet but artistic home of Odion Iruoje in Festac Town, Lagos.
He was not just the producer of Abami Eda in his early days, he was also the producer of the late Sunny Okosun, the Ozzidi King; Late Ayinla Omowura, a leader of a Yoruba genre of music called Apala which had a sizeable number of cultic followers; Ofege the 70’s school boy musical band from St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, Ikoyi, Lagos.
They were the most outstanding school boy band of all time! The popular Nigerian televangelist and the Pastor of the Household of God International, Kris Okotie’s album, Just For You was also produced by him in 1978 with so many others. He is not much different from the Abami Eda considering his environment which is like that of most artists; it is adorned with paintings, art work and sculptures. Iruoje speaks on his passion, music then and now among other issues.
You did not study music, neither are you a musician, how then did you become a producer?
Music is part of art. I am a sound engineer. Music production is engineering and art combined. It is more of art though. I never studied music truly, but a producer does not have to be a musician. He also does not need to study music. I actually have passion for music.
How many artists have you produced?
I have lost count. As a matter of fact, there are some albums I produced and did not put my name on the labels.
Who are your favourite top five artistes and what is your trademark or peculiarity as a producer?
I see every artiste independently. The number of records each artiste sells determines their popularity. Even when you hear an album, people know that is my production. My style of production distinguishes me from the others. What I see in an artiste, other producers may not see it. I listen to the music brought by the musician, what I look for is what makes the music different from every other. I pay attention to the style and what the musician is trying to create that differentiates such an artiste from the others. What is his strong point? What is his weak point? All these are things I put together and work on, just like a raw sheet from a factory, and I pick it up, furnish it, then push it out. I give most of them the break they needed, like Fela I gave him the break he needed.
You know the public decides their favourite and I am popular because of them. I don’t have favourite because everyone has their own strength and weakness point. Producers don’t have favourite.
What attract me to them is what makes them different from any other person, the sound. You must be creative, you must have your style and certain element in you that must make you different from any person, when all these characteristics are put together, then you can develop and sell out.
There was this contention that Fela was not the originator of the Afro beat, who created Afrobeat?
Fela did! Who else came up with the beat-Afro beat? Fela christened it Afro beat any way. He came and said “I have a new sound”, and he said it is called Afro beat. Who else had a powerful beat before Fela or who else played it before him? If you talk about Afro beat, Fela will readily come to your mind, every other musician then were playing different kinds of highlife. Fela too was playing a different type of highlife before he came up with what he called Afro beat. Fela created Afrobeat no doubt. He had done records but Jeun Koku started Afro beat. I can say it anywhere, Fela was the originator of Afro beat. When Fela wanted to start Afro beat, he came to us that he wanted to change his style of music and he wanted the music to be heard all over the world.
It was not too far from what he brought, that was Jeun Koku, by the time we did Beautiful Dancer, I added more drums since it is Afro Beat. As an African beat, there must be heavy drum, so we added more drums and kongas, and of course that shot him to limelight, and that’s the break he needed, and he became more popular.
Afro beat comprises highlife, jazz and African drums. The highlife is the percussion and the guitar tones, and then the jazz in it was the drum set and drum set has a lot of horn. Complete horn lines are what Afro beat has, including baritone, clarinet, name it, that was the Afro beat, before it was just jazz and highlife.
When he toured the United States of America, he met James Brown and that greatly influenced his music. He came back with his own brand of music which was like that of James Brown. The horns and the rhythm are more of the highlife. Orlando Julius had his band which is different from normal highlife of Roy Chicago, Victor Olaiya, Eze Arinze and Eddie Okonta. Everyone of this musician had their style. Afro beat cannot be grouped with highlife, in fact, I think Afro beat is the development of highlife. Immediately Afro beat came in, highlife disappeared.
Can you recall your first meeting with Fela Anikulapo and your impression as well as experience with him?
When he created his new sound ‘Afrobeat’, Fela came to us at EMI because of his vision of making it a world brand and he saw only EMI as the recording company that could help him attain that goal. The day Fela came to EMI, the Managing Director of the company summoned me and told me that the eccentric musician was at the gate and that he did not want to see him. I asked him why, but the MD waved me off and insisted that he was not interested in seeing him. I met him that day and we spoke about his music and vision.
Despite the fact that the MD did not want to see him, Fela did not take no for an answer, so he went that day and came back again. I think it is the third time I persuaded the MD to give him a chance, but he declined. Seeing my interest in Fela, he asked me to take him to my office if I so desired. I took him to my office and we discussed. That was how we met and bonded. Fela told me that he had a new song that he wanted us at EMI to release. I asked him, why EMI? He looked at me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I know that EMI is worldwide’. We discussed at length and he agreed to release the record without a contract until after three months. Such was his confidence in his work.
I reported back to my MD. He told me that though the arrangement was fine, he hoped that there would not be a problem later, because he did not want any problem. He told me bluntly that I would be responsible for any problem that might arise from the deal since I was the one who stuck my neck out. I was at his place for rehearsals and I booked an appointment for him a few days after in our studio.
The real Afrobeat seemed to have almost gone into oblivion. Jeun Koku was the beginning of Afrobeat and it developed. What he played in Jeun Koku was not exactly what he played in Ojuelegba or Beautiful Dancer because he was developing it. What the new generation knows as Afrobeat is not the Afrobeat that I did with him. What he played in his later years was not the Jeun Koku, Don’t Guard Me, Beautiful Dancer, Ojuelegba or Na Kpoi style. The rhythm changed and the arrangement was different. The only two people who have played something close to Afrobeat are Femi and Seun Kuti. In his later years, he became a social critic. He was doing protest music, using his music to oppose the perceived injustice of the time. He departed radically from the original music he created.
He was a legend in terms of music, especially the arrangement of the horn. He was the only person we can credit the origin of the music genre, Afrobeat. He was a disciplined musician and well read. He graduated at Holy Trinity School of Music in the UK. He was unique in his ways. He was very dynamic in his actions. Working with him was great. You just learnt to work with Fela. He came up with unique things; he had a high sense of humour and was very knowledgeable. He brought everything into his music. If you were a disciplined person, he was the best person to work with.
I wish to state that Fela should have been honoured long ago. He deserved it. He put Nigeria on the music world map and that is no mean feat. But because he was anti-government, nobody is recognising him and his works. However, the people are remembering him, especially at the grassroots – and that’s very important.
What is your assessment of the music industry now in comparison to the past?
For the first time the Nigerian musicians got the rhythms right. A rhythm that can move anybody from anywhere in the world. You cannot help it when today’s music filters through the music box, radio or at parties, it moves you to either dancing or nodding. Nigerian music today moves anybody no matter the race, tribe and culture, all over the world. When you go to America, it is popular not just among Nigerians but among others when they are partying. In New Zealand, they play Nigerian music often and same for most Africans countries. From galala dance which was initiated by Daddy Shokky, built on by Davido, Olamide, Tekno and the likes who make the dance to become popular not just in Nigeria but across Africa and beyond, Nigerian music today has gone far. The dance steps came with its choreography which blended well with the music, thus making it unique.
What about the lyrics of the present generation which many considered as lewd and highly immoral?
Like every other music, some lyrics are very sensible, some are not sensible, some are not serious, while some are serious, as a matter of fact, it really depends on who is listening to the music. Some music that I may think is irresponsible, to some youth, they are enjoying the music and that’s the best for them because that is what they enjoy the most and in music, that’s what is very important. What they are saying might be very funny, and you may find yourself laughing to it because and you are happy listening to it, and you are like who cares about what he is saying, because it is interesting to you, which may not be of interest to the older generation.
Sincerely, in my own opinion, the lyric of music has always been morally corrupt right from the 60’s till date. The recent corrupt content is not more than what it was then. Even then, it’s so direct and worse because they call it as it were unlike the recent ones that use more of slangs. For instance, Victor Olaiya song of Baby Jowo ko ma i lo, Omode nse mi…. Ko wa fun mi l’oyan tutu mu ooo (Translated, it means, please baby don’t go, feed me with your cool breast). Like I said, it depends on who is listening to it in the society we are now. It’s just that technology makes it easier to download, thus the spread everywhere, social media also help with the hypes and spread too.
Are you still into music production, sir?
Yes, I have an artiste in the studio now cooking something.
Is technology a threat to the music industry?
Technology has virtually taken over the music industry. How many bands do we have now? There is no musicianship, no guitarists, drummers or musical band, rather technology has taken the place of bands. Now, one man can sit at his desk, and play the role of about a 60-man band. Sitting by the desk, he can play the solo guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, drum set and the rest with the modern day technology. It is now technology playing the role of all the bands. Of course, it is a threat because it is wiping out musicianship because we don’t have bands anymore.
Technology is and will always be a threat to the music industry because almost every artiste have studio in their houses, and nobody cares about producers or artist managers. All they do is to just sit at the comfort of their house and then produce an album. After production, then he markets it anyhow he likes. They have forgotten the essence of division of labour and expertise in handling production process, as they now see no need for producers, marketers and promoters because they believe that they can do it all alone.
That is the greatest mistake a lot of artistes make. What actually happens is that after you have picked most of these artistes up, developed them and had given them a break, and they obtained stardom, they would now look at it as what is the big deal. They will now conclude that they can do it without recourse to producers, and this singular action spell their doom, thus resulting to the end of their career because they cannot replicate that which brought them to stardom under the tutelage of their producer. They ignored the producer to their peril.
Technology now makes it easy for album to be released within a few days. In the past, the release of an album could take a while and it involveed human and team effort. Proper scrutiny of the work, as a matter of fact then artistes work are properly dissected, diagnosed and certified okay before it would be released into the market. That attributed to the high rate of old music that is evergreen.
Does technology aid piracy in the market?
Of course it does because they can easily download the music, online, on radio, and after downloading, they burn it on CD and sell it. The artiste whose work is pirated would be the loser. Despite the fact that technology improves human life and makes production easy, the effects on the industry cannot be overlooked, it has its disadvantages as well. There are now pirated CDs and DVDs.
Does it mean that technology is also responsible for the fading away of local music and live performances?
Life performances by bands may not totally be affected by technology because the instruments required by the band are not yet available on the keyboard. Let me use Juju music as an example, juju is very difficult to play on the keyboard. You need the talking drum, bata drums, omeles and so on. Those are the limitations of the keyboards right now and very soon they are going to find a way around to playing these local instruments.
Thank God life bands are now being sponsored in parties so it means life bands still enjoy patronage. People are becoming conscious of live bands now, especially those who went to music school, they would not want it to fizzle out, because how will they be able to showcase their talents and what they have learned while in school? So they won’t want live band to go because they want to play and earn a living from it.
In the next five years what should we expect from the music industry?
Five years? Well, that is too close because there may not be obvious changes, maybe 50 years.
When are you considering retiring?
In my kind of profession, we don’t retire. Many musicians don’t retire from the music and you can’t even say you retire as a musician. Producers are more active and work longer than the musician. Producers are like wine, the older they are the better, most especially for producers that are in tune with modern music trends. Let me quickly point out that music in our own days was not quite financially rewarding unlike now. My motivation then and even now is my interest and passion for music
How Fela Created Afrobeats Music-Odion Iruoje
By TAYO ADELAJA and HANNAH ONI