Reviews ROY CHICAGO AND THE ROOTS OF HIGHLIFE

ROY CHICAGO AND THE ROOTS OF HIGHLIFE

It was to meet members of Roy Chicago’s band at their base at the Abalabi Hotel, Mushin, that Oyoyo, our mother’s driver, took me and my brother Tope on a trip one evening in 1963 to further our musical education.

Oyoyo told us that Roy Chicago, whose given name was John Akintola, was the musician who introduced traditional Yoruba gangan, the 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.

Abalabi Hotel was within walking distance from our house on Cash Street. School was out. 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 doorman 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. He tapped the drums, strummed the guitars, and shook the shekeres as his friend Oyoyo engaged him in small talk. We followed them, but we stood back, too awed to touch anything. We already knew the names of the different instruments from our trip to Ajagbe’s compound. There was a gangan, a set of akuba drums, and two shekeres of different sizes.

But we saw many modern instruments of a different purveyance. These were shiny appliances in brass and steel, 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. This was a highlife band, a modern musical ensemble that was very different from Ajagbe’s somewhat crude and ancient traditional group, where every instrument had remained the way it had been for a century.

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 backup singer, Tunde Osofisan, who Oyoyo did not know. Tunde was a much younger man and a recent addition to the group. 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. Besides 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 Rex Jim Lawson, non-Yorubas who, at one time or the other, had been members of Roy Chicago’s Abalabi Rhythm Dandies. We prostrated for each man as we greeted them.
“E pele, sir,” we said to each in turn.

They were our heroes. Besides, they were our elders. Some were as old as our father, 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 thirty-two years old—at the height of his fame, and in the prime of life. He was smooth skinned and smooth faced. And his suave voice put the two of us at ease—young teenagers who should be at our “lesson” instead of sneaking into a hotel with 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.

“To me, the song that started the modern commercial trend in music in Lagos that led to ‘highlife’ was Fatai Rolling Dollar’s Easy motion tourist.”

Roy Chicago spoke in a well-toned mellifluous voice that, to us, was no different from the way he sounded on his records.

“Of course, we must admit that Fatai learned from others who came before him. These were the unsung heroes who no one paid attention to. Those musicians in the 1930s and 1940s were not popular, and they made very little money. There were no paying clients or sponsors in those days. They did not have the adoring, record-buying fans that musicians like me have today. But I have come to realize that ‘Easy Motion Tourist’ released about ten years ago, was the grandfather, baba nla, of all our current Yoruba popular music. It was the last important stop on a route that took two different directions. One road led to highlife, the other to juju music.”

And indeed, we also recognized that 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 who were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones from England. The subject of the song was contemporary, as Roy Chicago explained to us. It concerned one of the band members who had been locked out of the house where he had a rented 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 lo laiye
Nitori nwon tilekun mo omo onile
On kigbe, “Ma wo le.
Ma wo le o, Omo asa.”

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 enter,
Don’t come in, you son of a gun.”

Roy Chicago continued, “My friends and I have often argued about the different versions of ‘Easy Motion Tourist.’ There is a debate about who composed the song. I think it was Seni Tejuoso, who, with Fatai Rolling Dollar, was part of a group that sang it with Araba. I know that it was Seni who was locked out of his house because he told me the story himself. The earliest version of the song was recorded by the trio before they all did it separately, although Araba’s version has become the most popular.”

According to Roy Chicago, Fatai Rolling Dollar cut his musical teeth playing with the brilliant composer, singer, and guitarist. Julius Araba, who he considered the doyen of modern Yoruba musicians. One of Araba’s classics was his denunciation of gossiping women in Lagos in the early 1950s. We had heard this song on 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—
This is my story,
my long and interesting story.

“But before Araba became famous, there was Kokoro, the blind street singer with his tambourine and haunting voice. His actual name is Benjamin Aderounmu. Now, instead of playing for pennies in the street, he has his records being sold in the shops. And he performs on radio and TV stations in Lagos and Ibadan.

“I must also mention Babatunde King, Irewole Denge, and Ojoge Daniel, whose pioneering efforts led off to what we call juju music today.

“But we have come a long way from those early days. This is no longer 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 jollof rice, moin-moin, and all the palm wine they could drink.

“What we have now is a modern sophisticated music that we call highlife. Unlike in the old days, we are paid well for our music. We have many rich sponsors like my friend, Tunde Vincent.

“In my opinion, highlife is the best music on the scene today. It is beloved by our sophisticated Yoruba elite who have been educated in England and have good, paying jobs. And it is not just here in Lagos but in the whole of Nigeria that highlife has become king. After Yoruba popular music branched into its two main stems, highlife became the elder of the two. Juju music is the junior. I call it our less sophisticated younger brother.”

To Roy Chicago, highlife, with its big-band sound and dance-hall milieu, which could be called upon to entertain a queen of the British Commonwealth, was a music that could not be compared to juju, which, to him, was glorified praise singing amplified by guitars and native drums.

“No one can say for sure when highlife began in Nigeria. Some people who have an opinion on the matter say it came from the Gold Coast, which, as you know, 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 do not think Yoruba highlife came from the Gold Coast. This music is part of our culture. It has been sung before kings and at the investiture of chiefs for more than a century all over Yorubaland. The only thing that changed was that after the Second World War, sailors came in from Europe and America and brought 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 Akan 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 Akan people of the former Gold Coast are an ancient affiliate of us Yorubas. We share many similarities in language and culture.

“When this new highlife music arrived on the scene, young musicians like me adorned it, like an expensive agbada, with a rich Yoruba embroidery. Once I got the hang of it. I, for one, downplayed all those flashy horns from Cuba and Ghana. Instead, I gave pride of place to our traditional akuba drums from Oyo.
“Instead of singing in English, I sang in our native tongue. And I added Yoruba proverbs and lyrics from fables and folk tales I remembered from back home. I was the first person to bring in a drummer with the talking drum into a highlife band. I did this because I wanted to pay respect to our elders and to promote the culture of our people, which many young people in our time are beginning to neglect.

“But I also wanted to be modern. I learned 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 want to be not just a musician but a social commentator. I want to chronicle 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 see myself as a Lagosian.

“What I see or hear around me on the streets of Mushin, Idi-Oro, and Yaba is what I want to talk about. I talk about the war between the sexes and the high cost of living for the common man in this heartless town 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 the ‘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 and heartache of being a young man in Lagos, and the machinations of the modern Lagos woman.”

He crooned for us his latest release.

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 sometimes. Most of the time, it is not of my doing. It is a gift given to me by Allah.” Roy Chicago was born a Moslem and made frequent reference to the deity of the imale.
“Sometimes, when I close my eyes or when I go to sleep, the words are in my head. They come out of my mouth when I wake up in the morning.”

ILLUSTRATION: “Lagos women at Abalabi, circa 1963” Acrylic on canvas, Oladele Olusanya

Excerpt from A NEW AGE, Itan – Legends of the golden age, Book 3 by Oladele Olusanya. A New Age, along with the other books of the Itan trilogy, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers worldwide.

Credit: Oladele Olusanya

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