Evangelist Ebenezer Obey marks 75th birthday with music foundation and training institute
Starting from juju music to highlife and finally settling in gospel music as his ministerial mandate, Evangelist Ebenezer Obey has seen it all. Tomorrow, Monday, April 3, 2017, he will mark his 75th birthday in Abeokuta, in a gathering that will attract many personalities, including a performance from King Sunny Ade. But the man, who was popularly known for decades as Chief Commander, is keen on giving back to society. To this end, his music foundation and training institute would endow chairs in universities to evangelise music skills to as many young people as possible. He spoke with ANOTE AJELUOROU at his Ikeja, Lagos residence
I wonder which name you are most comfortable with, Chief Commander or Evangelist Ebenezer Obey?
They are both valid.
Congratulations on your 75th birthday that comes up tomorrow, sir!
What shape is the celebration going to take?
To clock 75 on earth is a thing of joy. It is by the mercy of God to attain this stage and it calls for thanking God and appreciating His goodness in one’s life. So, it calls for celebration and we kick-started the birthday activities with a police post that I built in Idogo, in Yewa South Local Government, Ogun State, where I grew up, where everything about me started. We started it last Thursday, March 23 and the main event comes up tomorrow, Monday, April 3, which happens to be my birthday, in Abeokuta. The church service will be starting by 10am to 12noon. King Sunny Ade will perform among many other artistes. Immediately after that, we are going to have the reception and launching of the Ebenezer Obey Music Foundation and Training Institute. It will be affiliated to Olabisi Onabanjo University in Ogun State. It is a youth empowerment and training institute. That is how we are going to celebrate.
The foundation will be endowing a chair in the university?
Will it involve all kinds of music since you are mostly gospel?
It is not going to be restricted to gospel music, but music generally because if it is limited to gospel music it will be limited to a few people. I want people to benefit from the institute. Whatever they gain or after the training, people who want to specialise in gospel music can adapt to that. We don’t want it to be limited to gospel music so that others can benefit.
Because it is an endowment, does it mean that anybody who gets in will study for free?
No, the board of trustees is working out the best way for the training institute. It is something that I want to be sustained even after I might have gone. I am looking for something that will last long.
Like leaving a legacy?
Yes; so, that is why the board of trustees is putting everything together. The one that is going to be in Abeokuta will not stop us from having endowments in other universities as well. That may be specific scholarships. It is to spread my good gesture and my intention to such lives.
Just now you mentioned building a police post in Idogo. One would have expected you would say something like a hospital or school. Why a police post?
Well, it depends on circumstances. I do other things in the community there but I host the police post in my house in the town. I gave them an apartment that they were using for the police post free of charge. But the police asked for a place of their own not attached to a house. Idogo happens to be very close to the border. Left to the people of Idogo, they are not troublesome people; they are peaceful people. But notwithstanding, the security of our property and people is important. So, they don’t want the police post to continue in my house and if there is no police post, they want to move the police from Idogo back to Ilaro. Then the police would be coming from Ilaro to see to the security of that place. I know that that also is not good. It would have been okay if a police post had never been there before. For that reason, I saw it as a need and because there was a need, I provided that.
What is the true story of your birth? Where were you born and where did you grow up?
The true story of my life is this: I am a Nigerian (laughter). Number one. And as a Nigerian, God has given me the whole territory of performances where my message has been accepted. I operate from Nigeria, then go international. I have been to almost of every part of the world, and even in Nigeria. My music is all over the four corners of Nigeria. But I am more frequent in the South West. I go on tour in the north, and South East. Like I said, the entire world is my territory. Still on my origin, both my parents, my mother and my father, are from Abeokuta. My father is an Egba man and my mother is an Owu woman, but they left Abeokuta to Idogo. My father was a carpenter and my mother was a cloth seller, very industrious. So, it took my mother several years, almost 20 years in her first husband’s house and she was never pregnant.
So, the family of the man called my mother’s family and spoke to them. ‘Well, they have both tried for 20 years, no issue. While we love Iyawo, we want both of them to go their separate ways and try their luck’. They want their son to marry another woman and they want my mother to go. So for a woman who loves her husband, it was a shock, and that was too much for my mother to bear. And when my mother’s relations saw her situation, she was crying, all the time, they told her to go to Idogo and hide her head. Her two elders brothers were living in Idogo then. That was what took my mother to Idogo.
On getting to Idogo, my father proposed to marry my mother and God answered their prayers. The woman, who never got pregnant before became pregnant with my late sister, then myself. My father later left Idogo. He wanted my mother to go with him but my mother said, ‘no, Idogo is a place where God covered my nakedness, when they said I couldn’t have an issue.’ So, she stayed there. But the fact is that my mother was coming to Lagos for maternity care (while pregnant with me) because at the time, there was no hospital in Idogo. And that was why I was born in Lagos at Mercy Street Hospital. By birth I am a Lagosian and immediately, my mother took me back to Idogo. I grew up in Idogo, schooled in Idogo; my everything, music everything, career, started there. That is why I say that I am a Nigerian. God has given me the whole world as my territory. My parents are from Ogun State, both of them from Abeokuta. I was born in Lagos, taken back to Idogo and grew up in Idogo. That is my story.
You tend to mention your mum more; you want to tell us why?
Let me say this, I love my father and I love my mother. But I love my mother more. The reason is this. When my father was leaving Idogo, he left my sister and I with my mother as babies. He had two other wives; so, he came to Lagos to meet his other two wives. He never came back a day to say, let me go and see my two children and my wife. I didn’t know my father until I was seven years old. But yet, I love my father, I did everything for my father. I built a house for him. I made him happy. And I equally made my mother happy. But I cannot forget the women who paid my school fees, the caring and all that she did was something that I can never forget.
The woman came to this world just to live for her children. I don’t think I have ever seen any woman like that. Her everything was for her children. I saw that, I knew that, I cherish that, I appreciate that. I gave my father every good thing of life, took good care of him and we joked about it: ‘Daddy, why did you do that?’ And he said he knew my mother was very industrious, that anything she laid her hand upon succeeded. He knew that my mother would take care of us because he knew my mother’s interest was about her children. But we joked about it that that was not enough...
So, I saw the woman struggling, trying everything. I knew all she went through and I appreciate that. Before she died, she told me things. You know, mothers call their children my husband. I built a house for my mother in Abeokuta. I built a house for my father in Abeokuta. I have my own buildings there also. My mother called me and told me ‘Aremu, ma fi Idogo le’. That is, ‘don’t leave Idogo. She said, ‘Idogo, ilu ti olorun bo asiri mi’. That is, ‘that is where God covered my nakedness when they said I couldn’t have an issue and I came here, I had both male and female.’ There is no third one, it is either male or female. And when my father didn’t come for four years, when my mother didn’t see my father, she became pregnant and gave birth to my junior brother. That was how she was able to have three children. But like I said, I love my father; I loved him, but the way he saw it was that my mother was industrious. But I appreciate the woman. If she didn’t do all she did, I wouldn’t be what I am today. The care was so much. We never had any lack. Because she was a cloth seller our uniform in those days, the khaki was velvet; that was the colour of the khaki - that was what my mother sewed for us in school. We were different, and we looked different and well-taken care of and everybody could see and attest to that. That is enough for anyone to continue to love one’s dear mother.
You said you grew up in Idogo and also schooled there. So, did your music career also start in Idogo?
Yes, it did. Immediately I was born, my mother started taking me to church. My mother loved God so much and I grew up to see myself in the church. So, I was introduced to music from the church. I became a member of the choir, a member of the school band and later the school’s band leader. And when we had Idogo Boys and Girls Club, I became one of them. When they formed an orchestra, I was one of them and actually, I was holding a very prominent position in the choir, the school band and the boys and girls youth club, and in the band that was formed from the boys and girls youth club. I was the vocal lead, though I was the youngest and I was the star of the band.
I formed my first band in the year 1957, called Royal Mambo Orchestra. That was how it all started. I moved to Lagos and continued my music with two elderly men Akinyomi Savage and Bamgbose Jumoda, alias Abengo Mayana. It was through them that I met Fatai Rolling Dollar, who was my band leader for about six years. I was his second in command before I started my own band.
Did you leave Fatai Rolling Dollars to form The International Brothers or what was the sequence of your progression?
Yes, Inter-Reformers Band.
How did that movement go, how did that transition take place?
International Brothers Band became known in the world and I just decided to change the name of the band to International Reformers Band, which became Inter-Reformers Band from International Reformed Band.
What was the need for the change?
I lost one of my members, Oke Aminu, with whom I actually grew up in Idogo and went to school together. He was my junior in school. When I even formed my band, Royal Mambo Orchestra, he was my second-in-command. I was the one who initiated his coming to Lagos. Because I was progressing and I wanted to do a reformation that is why International Reformed Band was abbreviated to Inter-Reformers Band.