Idonije: Nigerian artistes must know the rudiments of music
• My Encounter With Fela • Me, My Wife And All That Jazz • At 80, I’m fulfilled
On a breezy afternoon, Benson Idonije is seated comfortably in his living room, with sunlight streaming through the window and the door. The atmosphere is calm, and the only noise is the buzz from whirring generator nearby.
There’s a gentle knock at the gate. “Come in,” he answers.
Standing up, he ushers in his guests. He goes inside and brings out two bottles of mineral water.
“You care for these?” His tone is very warm.
“Yes, we won’t mind,” one of his guests replies.
As they sip the mineral water, he snaps them out of their reverie of the FESTAC atmosphere.
“That’s Fela, a white producer and me in 1972,” he retorts, as Pa Idonije casts a blank look at the photograph on the wall. He smiles. He brings out some pictures from the frame on the wall. “That’s my daughter and her children. Huuh!…That’s Burna Boy, all big up now,” he quips. His excitement comes out loosely and quite innocently, as he explains some pictures to his guests.
The man, in a few weeks time, will be entering the octogenarian league. And to kick-start the celebrations, Inspiro Productions, organisers of the Lagos International Jazz Festival (LIJF) will celebrate the jazz aficionado at this year’s event holding from April 29 to May 1. The festival, which is themed, Jazz In The Megacity, coincides with the end of the April Jazz Appreciation Month and the April 30 UN recognised International Jazz Day.
How does Pa Idonije feel at 80?
He muses, “well, I feel great, I feel fulfilled, I feel happy that I have grown to see this time.”
He looks at some other pictures, and his eyes reveal an eagerness to say something. “I didn’t think of going into broadcasting at all. I just found myself in it. I grew up in the village, in fact, I thought life began and ended in my village until I finished secondary school in 1957, and like every other young man, had to leave the village in search of work. And I went to Ibadan. In those days, almost everybody in Western State was moving to Ibadan or Lagos to look for work, some came to Lagos, but I went to Ibadan, because it was nearer to my village,” he says.
Idonije says in a calm voice, “in those days, I enjoyed listening to broadcasters such as, Michael Olumide, Nelson Ipaye and others. I also used to listen to BBC and all of that. I loved music, and in fact, I did some music while in school. I played piano and saxophone. So, it was music and my love for the broadcasters I used to listen to that pushed me into broadcasting.”
BORN on June 13, 1936, in Otuo, he attended schools in Otuo and Sabongida Ora and later Yaba College of Technology. The Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) employed him in 1957, as engineering assistant. He, however, did not move into the mainstream broadcasting until the 60s, when he became a producer and presenter of such famous programmes, as The Big Beat and Stereo Jazz Club.
The programme, The Big Beats, became a resounding success and he anchored it until 1976, when Radio Nigeria 2 started and he became one of the foundation staff.
He was a presenter and producer in Radio Nigeria 2 until 1985, when was posted to FRCN Training School to teach presenting and producing. From there, he retired as the head of production department at the training school, in 1992; though he continued to teach in the school on contract.
After retirement from the FRCN in 1992, he began contributing critiques, opinions and commentaries to many major Arts-related journals in Nigeria and abroad. In 1996, he was formally invited by The Guardian (Nigeria) to write for the newspaper; and he maintained three columns — Evergreen (Wednesdays), Sound and Screen (Fridays) and All that Jazz (Sundays) — until recently. He was honoured with a fellowship of the Adam Fiberesima School of Music and Conservatory (AFSM) of the University of Port Harcourt in 2014.
Idonije And All That Jazz
IDONIJE admits his first time behind the microphone was not smooth. “One was nervous, but it eventually got better,” he says.
By then, he had been covering sporting events and writing reports that were read in programmes. The late Wole Eyitayo, who was in charge of the sporting desk, got him to cover sporting activities for his programme. However, when he moved to Lagos, music came up and he began to present jazz programmes.
He started writing for newspapers in 1953, with the Morning Post Newspaper. “I was writing about jazz. Then, I was using it to promote Fela. I would zero in on what he was doing. I wrote for Spear Magazine with Tony Momoh as editor. The most regular one was with The Guardian. My writing has been that of recalling past experiences and falling back on residual knowledge. Some people have interpreted it to mean that I am a researcher. The truth is that about 10 per cent may be on research; while the remaining 90 are always on something I took part in. They were something I saw, did and listened to; I still buy magazines. Though, my son now sends me Downbeat and Jazz Town, to update my knowledge. I feel happy that some people are reading me and recognise the little I have done in music.”
His encounter with jazz was spiritual. He used to listen to radio a lot, and Congolese music on Radio Brazzaville was his staple in those days. He whispers, in a pitch that seems to rival the earlier, “the station used to play music throughout the night. I also listened to somebody called Willis Conover; he was presenting a jazz programme called, Voice of America Jazz Hour and Music USA almost every night. Conover played music for two hours every night. He would play popular music for an hour and then start with jazz for another; thereafter, he had questions he sent out to his listeners all over the world at that time and I was one of those that used to answer them. He had a way of sending albums and Downbeat Magazine to the United States Information Service (USIS) for me to listen to, as well as read. That helped me to be the president of a charter of Music USIS, Ibadan. I had a group of people who used to come together to listen to jazz and talk about it. I bought my first jazz album in 1958, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers and that opened my eyes to the movement of jazz.”
He continues, “though, I could play a little piano and saxophone, music was a passion for me. What I had done over the years was appreciation of music. I have been falling back to the residual knowledge acquired over the years, because there was this passion of going to the nightclub almost every night, especially, when Fela came into my life. We used to travel from Nigeria to Ghana, almost every weekend, to see what entertainment looked like.”
Encounter With Fela
BEFORE and after his encounter with the ‘weird one’, Idonije’s music revolved around highlife and jazz music genres. Spending ample lengths to explain his time with Fela, Idonije confesses, “I first knew him through his highlife music he recorded in London, and in 1963, when he came back home, he was already a jazz musician, though, he started as a highlife musician.”
He met Fela in 1963, though, before then, he had heard about him through his mother, the late chief Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti. She had brought her son’s highlife album that was jazz oriented and wanted the radio station to promote it. She went through the director of programmes, who directed her to him.
While in Nigeria, Fela listened to radio and heard Idonije’s programme, NBC Jazz Club, which aired every Thursday night. “One night, he came to the Broadcasting House, Ikoyi, with an album of jazz music recorded in London. The album had no record company name on it and I played it and also interviewed him. He respected me for my knowledge and I respected his for his musicianship. He was happy for the interview and that was how we became friends. We started seeing each other every day. We floated the idea of forming a jazz group, the Fela Ransome Kuti Quintet, in 1963. The group lasted for two years and later transformed to Koola Lobitos, in1965,” Idonije explains.
While in London, Fela played highlife, because before he travelled in 1958, he used to sit-in with Victor Olaiya All Stars and even sing. Olaiya influenced him a lot and when he got to London, he formed a highlife group. He recorded some singles, which people loved, before he changed to jazz.
“We all know that jazz was an elevated and creative music, but it was of the minority; it will never bring in money. We enjoyed ourselves playing jazz, one day, his mother sent for us to see her in her Abeokuta home. Fela and I went and she told us that jazz music was not part of Nigerian culture and that Fela should return to highlife. Fela did not argue with his mother, but all the same, he did not completely accept it. He took it in good fate and began to play highlife. You will discover that most of the highlife songs he played at that time such as, Ololufe, Aya wa ni, Oloruka and some others, their vocalisation were all in Yoruba and were even jazz oriented. He was playing highlife from the jazz viewpoint; some people even called it jazz highlife; so that was why the music was not popular. He played beautiful music, but he did not smile to the bank until 1969, when he travelled to the United States America, where a new era opened in his life.”
He says, “I have a book on him titled, Dis Fela Sef. The preview was done some years ago at the Freedom Park and would be launched at my 80th birthday celebration. It is different from what others have written about him; in fact, it is his Memoir. It covers his life and times.”
You wonder at what point their relationship soured and eventually led to a divorce?
“We did not really face out, only that around 1973/74, he became popular internationally and his managers became more relevant abroad than in the country. My job was much less. Besides, my relationship with him was not that of a paid manager; my role was just to organise and direct his career path. What I did was to show or tell him what to do, assemble the band and talk to the musicians for him. I was not paid for what I was doing, we were friends and even when I stopped working with him in the 70s, we were still seeing each other. And anytime he recorded any new album, he would call me and we would listen together and would ask for my opinion until the time he died.”
Idonije points out that though Fela loved women, “our main preoccupation was music. The womanizing is a trait you find in artists. His love for women did not in anyway, take away his musicianship. He was a good man to deal with, he respected me a lot and he knew that I was guiding him on the right path. At times, he would dissolve the band, and for two weeks, I would go and talk to the musicians and they will come together again. He respected my views and he knew I meant well for him.”
Apart from Fela, Idonije never managed any other musician, but he promoted the music of Peter King. “As a broadcaster, I played King’s music very well. However, what is happening now is different from what happened then. Now, an artiste has to give presenters some gratification to play his or her music. In my days, there was nothing like that. And I must say, this is the reason our music is not quite relevant these days. I must tell you that there are a lot of musician that are yet to be heard, because they do not have money to give to any presenter.”
The Great Highlife Party
And Elders’ Forum
“It was the Great Highlife Party that held in Goethe Institut in 1999 and 2000, which actually gave us the idea of the ‘Highlife Night’ and Elders’ Forum. The Director of Goethe Institut then, the late Renate Albertsen-Marton, loved highlife music. In her house, there were a lot of highlife music albums; in fact, on her own she travelled to the Southeast to bring highlife players to perform in Lagos. The first outing of the show was not successful, so, she had to bring in CORA and we had to help coordinate other series, as well as to enlarge the highlife base,” he says.
Why Nigerian Artistes Must Know The Rudiments Of Music
IDEALLY, if you want to play music, you must learn the rudiments, and know how to apply it. That takes you further and makes you perfect. You will discover that most of these musicians are merely entertainers; they cannot arrange music and most of the beats are computerised. All they do is write songs and sing. If you know how to arrange, know the nuances of music, you will go far, which is what most of them do not have or know,” he says.
When you first heard your grandson, Burna boy’s songs, what came to your mind?
“At first, we had a lot of disagreements. I wanted him to go to music school and qualify, because he has a lot of talent and knows the theories of music. But he came up with some beautiful stuff, but I said it is not enough that he has to do more. I wanted him to go to school of music. He has his stuff and passion for what he is doing. I am happy that he has his own approach, which is different from what others are doing.”
My Wife And I
I MET her in Surulere, Lagos, in 1965. We were living close to each other, but when I spoke to her, she turned me down, because she did not want to associate with a musician. And this was true, because each time she visited, it was either I was playing the saxophone or any other instrument and that put her off. Even neigbhours began to tell her parents that their daughter was seeing a musician. Besides; then, musicians were seen as a never-do-well, drunks and womanisers. At the end, she discovered, I was never like that and she accepted , and the rest is now history.”
He adds, “my wife and I used to quarrel initially, but at some point, she understood me. In the beginning, she even thought we were playing around with women, at some point; she would come into the studio without our knowledge. But later, she knew we were working and she relaxed her mind. The children were in boarding school before they left for the university. My children knew and interacted with Fela’s children.”
He has a word for the youths, especially, the musicians among them. “Perfect your act before going professional, because when you rush to do things, what people hear would be their value and judgment of you.”
What he wants the society to know him for?
“Good name, I want to make sure, I leave a good name for my children,” he quips.