By, Oladele Olusanya
When I and my siblings were growing up in the sixties, music set the tone and the mood around which the daily routine of our lives and family events revolved. The commercialization of Yoruba traditional music started in our own time. People now actually made music full time. And they made enough money from it to feed their family, pay their rent, put clothes on their backs, and send their children to school. Commercial music had made its entry into Yorubaland over the previous decade before the early 1960’s, especially in the two biggest cities, Ibadan and Lagos. ‘Highlife’ music was the most profitable commercial music of that time. And who better to introduce us to the Lagos highlife scene of the early 1960’s than the famous bandleader who everyone called Roy Chicago. Born John Akintola, he was the musician who introduced the traditional Yoruba gangan talking drum into the set of a modern highlife band. He always sang in Yoruba. And his virtuoso drumming was in the great musical tradition of our people.
It was to meet members of Roy Chicago’s band at their base at Abalabi Hotel, Mushin that our mother’s driver and handiman, a man from Owo we called Oyoyo, took me and my brother Tope one evening in 1963 to further our musical education. We were excited. Abalabi Hotel was within walking distance from our house on Cash Street. We were on vacation. As we walked with Oyoyo along Agege Motor Road, we sang out the lines from a song Roy Chicago had just released. It was about the thief who had stolen his trumpet when it was left in a van after a performance at the Abalabi Hotel.
Ole to ji kakaki wa,
Nibo ni o ti fun
The thief who stole our trumpet,
Where will he play it?
On this late evening, Oyoyo shepherded us past the gateman at the Abalabi Hotel to the back of the performance hall to meet his friend Alaba Pedro. Pedro was the rhythm guitarist in Roy Chicago’s band. Pedro took us to the stage where the instruments and sound systems were being set up for the night’s performance. We stood back, too awed to touch anything. There was a gangan, a set of akuba drums, and two shekeres. We also saw many modern instruments – shiny appliances in brass and steel which included several guitars, a saxophone, a trumpet, and a set of modern jazz drums that stood gleaming to one side near the free-standing microphone pole.
Pedro introduced us to other musicians who played in Roy Chicago’s band. There was Peter King, the tenor saxophonist. We also met the male back-up singer, Tunde Osofisan. We were told that this young man sometimes stood in for Roy Chicago when the bandleader’s voice was hoarse and raw from blowing too much into his trumpet. Apart from being a singer, he told us he was an actor. The older musicians had been comrades with Oyoyo when they all played together at the Central Hotel, Adamasingba in Ibadan. As we listened, we heard other names mentioned. Among these were Etim Udo, Marco Bazz and Jim Lawson, non-Yorubas who at one time or the other, had also been members of Roy Chicago’s Abalabi Rhythm Dandies. We prostrated for each of these men as we greeted them. ‘E pele, sir,’ we said to each in turn. They were our heroes. And besides, they were our elders. Some of them were as old as our father, the Black Prince, who was then forty-three years old. Then Pedro presented us to the great man himself.
Roy Chicago beamed at us and acted as if we were important grown up fans of his. He was a handsome, charismatic man of above average height. He was smooth skinned, smooth faced, and smooth limbed. At that time, he was in his mid-thirties. He was at the height of his fame and in the prime of life. Everything about him was smooth, including the suave way he put the two of us at ease, young teenagers who should be at our ‘lesson,’ instead of sneaking into a hotel that had young ladies of questionable virtue loitering around its entrance and foyer. Oyoyo asked Roy Chicago to tell us about his music. And this is how we came to hear the story of the origin of highlife music from the mouth of one of its greatest practitioners, Roy Chicago himself.
‘To me,’ he began in that mellifluous voice that sounded to us no different from the way he sang, ‘the song that started modern music in Lagos was Fatai Rolling Dollar’s “Easy motion tourist.” Of course, we must admit that Fatai learnt from others who came before him. These were the unsung heroes who no one paid attention to. Those musicians in the 1930’s and 40’s were not popular. They made very little money. There were no paying clients or sponsors in those days. They did not have the adoring, paying fans we have today. Let me say again that I have come to realize that that record “Easy Motion Tourist” released about ten years ago, was the grandfather, babanla, of all our current popular music. It was the last important bus stop on a route that took two different directions. One road led to highlife, the other to juju music.
And indeed, Fatai Rolling Dollar’s ‘Easy Motion Tourist’ had all the elements of a modern rock song that could have been composed by our musical heroes at that time, who were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones from England. The subject matter of the song was contemporary. It concerned an incident in the life of one of the band members, who had been locked out of the rented house where he had a room when he returned late one night after an engagement with the band.
Ka ma jiya ka to lo laiye
Ka ma we won ka to laiye
Nitori nwon tilekun mo omo onile
“Ma wo le.
Ma wo le o,
Let us not suffer
before we leave the world,
Let us not go to prison
while we are here on earth;
For they shut the door on the landlord’s son
And they shouted,
Don’t come in.
You son of a gun.”
Roy Chicago continued, ‘My friends and I have often argued about the origin of the different versions of ‘Easy Motion Tourist.’ There is a debate even among us musicians about who actually composed the song. Personally, I think it was Seni Tejuosho, who with Fatai Rolling Dollar was part of that first group with J. O. Araba of blessed memory. We know that it was Seni who was locked out of the house where he had a rented room. I think he wrote the song from that personal experience. The earliest version of the song was recorded by the trio before they all did it separately. In fact, Araba’s version was the nost popular at the time.’
According to Roy Chicago, Fatai Rolling Dollar cut his musical teeth playing with Araba, who he considered to be the doyen of modern Yoruba musicians. One of Araba’s classics was his denunciation of gossiping women in Lagos in the early 1950’s. We knew this song from the radio.
Nibito gbe nse ofofo kiri
Ategun wa fe gele lo;
Owo jabo sonu
Yeri jabo sonu
Omo jabo sile
Oro re, oro re o
Oro re o, repete
While she was gossiping
The wind carried off her head tie
Her purse dropped and was lost
Earrings fell by the wayside,
Even her child fell off her back to the ground.
This is my story,
This is the long and rich story.
‘But before Araba, there was Kokoro, the blind street singer with the tambourine and haunting voice. I must also mention others like Babatunde King and Ojoge Daniel who branched later into another genre later called juju music. Those were our pioneers. But we have come a long way from those early days. This is not the unsophisticated era of Araba and Fatai Rolling Dollar, whose music was known as “palm wine” music.’
Roy Chicago explained to us that Fatai and his group used to play for free at social events like birthdays and naming ceremonies. Their hosts only had to provide them with food and all the palm-wine they could drink.
‘What we have now is a modern, sophisticated music that we call ‘highlife’ which is played by Olaiya and myself. Unlike in the old days, now we are paid well for our music. We have many rich sponsors like my friend, Tunde Vincent. Highlife is the best and most modern music on the scene today, especially for our sophisticated Yoruba elite with education and good paying jobs. This is not just here in Lagos but in the whole of Nigeria. After Yoruba popular music branched into its two main stems, highlife became the elder of the two. Juju music is the junior. You can say that it is our less sophisticated younger brother.’
To Roy Chicago, highlife, with its sophisticated big-band, dance-hall milieu that could be called upon to entertain a Queen of the British Commonwealth, was a music that could not be compared to juju, which in his mind, was little more than glorified praise-singing amplified by drums.
‘No one can say for sure when highlife arrived in Nigeria. Most people who have an opinion on the matter say it came from the Gold Coast. This was the same Gold Coast that was renamed Ghana by Nkrumah after its independence in 1957. At that time, highlife was a mishmash of American jazz horns, Cuban drums and the song rhythms of the Akan people of the Gold Coast.’
He continued, ‘I personally do not think Yoruba highlife came from the Gold Coast. This music has been part of our culture. It has been sung before kings and at the investiture ceremonies of chiefs for more than a century all over Yorubaland. The only that changed was that in the forties and fifties after the Second World War, sailors came in and introduces the guitar. But even before the guitar, we had the agidigbo. And even if we are to admit that some elements of highlife originated in the Gold Coast among the Kan people, when it reached Lagos and Ibadan, we made it into our own music that appealed to the educated Yoruba elite who flocked to our shows. I am proud to say that highlife today is entrenched firmly in the Yoruba sphere of influence. In any case, the Kan people of the former Gold Coast are an ancient affiliate of the Yorubas. We share so many similarities in language and culture.
‘When this new highlife music arrived in Nigeria, young musicians like me dressed it, like an expensive agbada, in its full Yoruba robes. Once I got the hang of it, I for one, tried to downplay all those flashy horns from Cuba and Ghana. Instead, I gave pride of place to our traditional akuba drums from Oyo. And instead of singing in English, I sang in my native tongue, adding Yoruba proverbs and lyrics from the fables and folklore I remembered from back home. I was also the first person to bring in a drummer with the talking drum into a highlife band. I wanted to pay respect to our elders and the culture of our people, which many young people in my time had begun to neglect. But I also wanted to be modern. So, I learnt to play the trumpet and the saxophone from Bobby Benson. After this, I brought in the best guitar players I could find to play in my band. This is how I gave my music the solid modern rhythm you hear today.
‘Now, I have reached a stage where I don’t just want to be a musician, but a social commentator. I want to be the person who chronicles the social scene of our modern society. What happens here in Lagos concerns me a lot. Even though I was born in Ikare-Akoko deep in the heart of Yorubaland, I am now a Lagosian. What I see or hear is what I talk about. I want to talk about the war between the sexes and the high cost of living for the common man in this heartless Lagos that appears to belong only to the big politicians in their agbada and ‘Mesi oloye’ cars. I want to document the lives of ordinary men and women, not those ‘permanent secretaries’ and their ‘aje butter’ wives who live in Ikoyi.
“This is what the Ibo writer, Cyprian Ekwensi, is also talking about with his stories about Lokotown. Finally, I want to talk about the fun, not just the heartache of being a young man in Lagos and the machinations of the modern Lagos woman.”
He crooned for us one of his latest releases.
Beri won, wan se di rebete,
Beri won, wan soyan goloto
750 by 50, idi nlanla
Obinrin nbe l’Eko ile
See them with their big backsides
See them with their pointed breasts;
750 by 50 is the size of their buttocks
These are the women of Lagos city
‘How do you make up these songs? My brother Tope asked him. ‘How do you know what to say?’
“I must tell you, it is not easy. I don’t even know how it happens myself. Most of the time, it is not of my own doing. It is a gift given to me by the gods. Sometimes, when I close my eyes or when I go to sleep, the words are in my head and they come out of my mouth when I wake up or open my eyes.”
Leaving his own music, he now sang for us some lines from a recent hit by another Lagos highlife band leader, Victor Olaiya. Apparently, Roy Chicago had a lot of admiration for his rival.
Ilu le o,
Ko sowo lode
Obinrin nkigbe, Okunrin nkigbe
Kaluku lon kegbe owo.
Sisi mura gege, wa ka e mole,
“Mo bere e titi,
Nwon o jise fun e ni?”
Iro lon pa o,
Owo lonwa yen.
Times are hard
There is no money in town
Women are crying, men are worried.
Everyone is crying out for money.
The lady dresses up to catch you at home.
“I’ve asked for you several times.
Were you not told?” she says.
It’s all a lie,
it is your money she wants.
“I, Roy Chicago would humbly consider myself at this moment to be one of the masters of Yoruba highlife music. After all, it was I who introduced Yoruba talking drums into highlife.
“But my friend, Victor Olaiya is the person that embodies highlife music when it comes to its full richness and artistry. Just listen to any of his records and hear him blow those horns. His band has the most sophisticated trumpet and saxophone sound in town. Victor uses his base and rhythm guitars in a very modern way, similar to what E.T. Mensah has done in Ghana. And when you listen carefully, you will note that Olaiya manages to maintain his Yoruba bona fides, with authentic hand-beaten akuba drums and dundun talking drums, which I must say, he copied from me.”
Roy Chicago chuckled. Then he continued. ‘We were not surprised at all when Olaiya was chosen to play for Queen Elizabeth of England when she visited Lagos in 1956. In fact, we were all proud.’
He took us to the Abalabi hotel manager’s office. I remembered there was a ceiling fan whirring overhead. It was a hot and humid Lagos afternoon. Roy Chicago switched on a gramophone player that was lying on a side cabinet. He placed the stylus on the vinyl and played a record by Victor Olaiya from 1961.
E ba mi so fun sisi yen ko mai lo o
Nitori mo ti so wipe faaji tele la wa
Sisi jowo, ko mayi lo o
Omode nse mi, iya mi da
Ebi npa mi, Mo fe mu yan
Duro de mi, ko gbe mi saya
Ko wa fun mi loyan tutu mu o
Help me tell that sister,
‘Do not leave yet,
I have said we are both here for pleasure.
Please, sister, do not go yet
I am hungry,
I want to suck at your breast;
Wait for me, Lay me on your chest
And give me cool breast milk to drink.
Roy Chicago now told us of the great man on whose shoulders he and Olaiya climbed to fame. “Olaiya and I might continue to argue about who is the king of highlife in Lagos today. But we both know that we have a baba who is still alive and active in this town.. This man is Bobby Benson. It was Bobby who started the highlife movement around 1954 in those heady pre-Independence days. And it was under him that Olaiya and I, and many other highlife musicians of today, learnt all that we know.”
Roy Chicago proceeded to tell us more about his mentor and idol. His full name was Bernard Olabinjo Benson, but he was known universally by his nickname, “Bobby.” Born into a prominent Ijebu family in the town of Ikorodu, this man would become one of the most controversial and arresting figures in the history of modern popular music in Yorubaland.
“His elder brother is the well-known socialite and lawyer, T.O.S. Benson, who is now a Minister in the government of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa.” Roy Chicago gave us this information, which however we already knew.
“When Bobby left school, his family wanted him to learn a trade, but he wanted to be a professional boxer. After trying his hand at this for some time, he ran away to sea and became a sailor. But after many years of putting in at various ports all over the world, he got tired of life as a sailor. He jumped ship in Liverpool. It was at this time that he found that he had musical skills. He learned to play the trumpet. And he started to make a living backing various bands in London and other British towns. He played jazz, foxtrot and waltzes. Everything and anything was in his repertoire.
“He was always attracted to beautiful women. In England, he met and married his attractive wife, Cassandra. She was a mulatto, of mixed Scottish and Caribbean blood. When he came back with her to Lagos, the two wanted to have a show together.”
‘What shall we do?’ she asked.
“I will play and sing, and you will dance,’ he replied.
Roy Chicago continued the story for us. “And so it was that Bobby and Cassandra started their show together in the lounge of a hotel on Lagos Island. I can’t remember now which one it was. He played the piano and the trumpet. And she sang and danced.
“But they soon tired of their show. Though it was popular, they were not making enough money. So, he gathered together a group of musicians and made them into the first commercially successful highlife band not only in Lagos but in the whole of Nigeria. And in the years ahead, Bobby Benson played the role of mentor to a whole generation of musicians, singers, trumpet players and guitarists who would make highlife music the most popular music in Lagos and other cities in Nigeria. It was in that exciting era before Independence from the one-hundred-year British rule in Lagos, when everything seemed possible for our people once we had our freedom.
“The sky is the limit,” people said, as they smoked their menthol cigarettes and drank English gin at one of the ubiquitous Lagos bars like the Ritz Hotel on the island and the Kakadu Club on the mainland in Ebute-Metta.
Roy Chicago concluded the story by telling us how both he and Victor Olaiya cut their musical teeth as members of Bobby Benson’s band. It was much the same way, he said, with many other musicians like Chris Ajilo and Eddie Okonta, who would make their mark in the years ahead. And according to him, Bobby’s “Taxi driver,” which was released in 1956, was the archetypal highlife song, a simple but brilliant pioneer recording that had remained the best ever released.
“It marked a great beginning indeed for this new internationally-recognized Yoruba popular music of ours. But it was actually sung in ‘pidgin’ English.”
On that afternoon when we heard him talk of his music at the Abalabi Hotel, Roy Chicago stood at the pinnacle of the “highlife” movement which he had helped to develop, and which had swept Yorubaland off its feet over the previous decade. But our friend was destined for bad luck and a precipitous decline.
Just a few months after our meeting with him, he was going home very late after a show at the Abalabi. The story was that he was going to drop a girl-friend off at home on Lagos Island before he went back to his own flat in Surulere. He was either tired or slightly tipsy, we were not sure. But he hit a pedestrian with his brand-new American car, a Chevrolet. Unfortunately, the victim died. Roy Chicago was arrested. He stayed in a cell at the Broad Street Prison awaiting trial for nearly a year before he was released. It was his benefactor, Olatunde Vincent, who used his influence in Lagos social and political circles to get the judge to release him. But his career was not the same after that. Looking back now, people would say that even at the height of his fame, Roy Chicago never forgot his humble beginnings in a small town in Akoko far from the bright lights of Lagos. He knew very well the vagaries of fame and fortune. And he talked about it in his music.
K’ale san wa d’oruwo o, oba rere
Ye, an be o, oba rere.
Let our evening be better than our morning,
We beg you, our good Lord.
But in the ed, Roy Chicago was done in by the vagaries of fortune and the decline of highlife music that followed its brief ascendancy. After his release from jail, his life and career took a downward spiral. He had lost all his money paying lawyers and bribing policemen and prison warders during his detention. He was flat broke. Most of his sponsors deserted him. His old friend, Vincent, tried to help. But by this time, he too had his own financial difficulties. It was his mentor, Bobby Benson, who paid for his rented room in Surulere and tried to raise money for him to purchase new musical instruments to reorganize his band.
But his music had fallen out of favor with the fashionable youth and well-to-do elite of Lagos. Members of his band drifted away. He could not pay them the wages they got from “juju” and soul bands that were now the rage in Lagos
Abalabi Hotel also fell on bad times. It was bought by a businessman who cared little for big-band music as a source of revenue. Its rooms were taken over by young women of easy virtue, on rent by the hour for the transient pleasure of “area boys” who had come into money and well-heeled, middle-aged men in fancy cars who came in surreptitiously at night to the seedy suburb of Mushin from their homes in Palmgrove and Surulere. The big hall, that once reverberated to the blasts of trumpets and sophisticated drums of a highlife band, was taken over by a woman selling amala, tuwo and gbegiri. The name of the establishment was changed to Mayflower Hotel, and its old aura was lost forever.
The fate of Abalabi and its brilliant band-leader was a metaphor for the decline and demise of “highlife” music in that era. Not just Roy Chicago, but Bobby Benson and other highlife “giants” faded from the music scene in Lagos as highlife was swept aside in 1967 by a deluge of soul music from the U.S. The local imitators of this American sound were the soul and afro-rock bands in Lagos, Benin City and Ibadan. New groups like the Hykkers were formed by boys barely out of high school. And a James Brown copycat named Geraldo Pino from Sierra Leone had the attention of the youth. They were the ones, not Roy Chicago and other highlife musicians, who now dominated the bookings and filled the assembly halls of colleges and popular performance venues in Lagos and Ibadan. It was difficult for a highlife musician to make a living. Olaiya saved himself by belting out soul tunes at his shows. His band was now led by an exciting young singer named Joni Haastrup.
But Bobby Benson had inspired a young musician who had sharpened his skills under Victor Olaiya before going abroad to study music at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He came back to Lagos to become the most famous trumpeter and saxophonist Nigeria would ever know, climbing even higher than Bobby, Olaiya or Roy Chicago. This was Fela Ransome-Kuti – the man destined to save highlife by taking it into a different genre which he would call ‘Afro-beat.’
(The story of the origin of highlife and the other genres of modern Yoruba music such as Afro-beat, juju music and apala, is continued in a later posting).
Excerpt from forthcoming book, A NEW AGE, Book 2 of ‘Itan – legends of the golden age’ by Oladele Olusanya
Illustration: “750×50: Lagos women in the sixties at the Abalabi night club.”Ink and pen on paper by Oladele Olusanya, 16×20, 2019